Journalist in Residence
Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics
Jacob Berkowitz is a Canadian author, journalist and playwright whose work combines a love of science and story. www.jacobberkowitz.com
For the past two decades he’s popularized science and nature in a wide variety of roles: as a wilderness canoe guide, a high school science teacher, a natural history museum public affairs officer, and as a writer.
Berkowitz' freelance journalism credits during the past 15 years include stories in newspapers and magazines across Canada. His writing ranges from a first-person feature on social trends in vasectomy, to how our view of the universe is shaped by the way NASA colors images from the Hubble Space Telescope.
Through Quantum Writing, the science writing boutique he founded in 2000, Berkowitz popularizes the work of leading scientists at major research-based organizations in Canada and the United States.
His first book, Jurassic Poop: What Dinosaurs (and Others) Left Behind received the 2008 American Institute of Physics children’s book prize. His book Alien Earth: The Amazing Search for Life in the Universe will be published in spring 2009.
His series of four lectures while at KITP reflect on the 50th anniversary, in 2009, of C.P. Snow's classic book on science and society The Two Cultures http://online.itp.ucsb.edu/online/resident/. These lectures explore how we can move from thinking of the relationship between journalists and scientists as a problem, to that of one filled with possibility for reshaping our view of the Universe and ourselves.
I applied to the KITP Journalist-in-Residence program because I was looking for a way to boost my writing game. My experience at KITP—a journey, really— did this. And to my pleasant surprise, in ways that I couldn’t have imagined beforehand.
There’s a saying that a writer’s life is a long journey in a small room, and in the fall of 2008 I was about to head out on a solo round the world trip. This after already more than a decade of mostly solo work. In other words, I was starting a big book project and wanted a stimulating social/intellectual environment in which to begin. I also wanted to dig deeper into an area of science than I had before, both in understanding the content, and even more so in getting a handle on how science happens. And at 44, with two children (Max 10 and Francesca 9) and a supportive spouse, I felt I was at a point in my family life when I could undertake this professional adventure away from home for an extended period. In a nutshell, I was looking for a venue that would stimulate both professional and personal growth.
KITP looked ideal: my book is about our chemical origins in the cosmos (yes, we’re stardust, but how do we get from elements to us?) and one of the KITP science sessions during my residency period brought together leading astrophysicists; and as a resident of a Canadian town of 3000, the idea of living in southern California (a state I’d not visited before), and being part of a dynamic, international community of scientists on a major university campus had an added Hollywood-esque allure.
I was pumped. Which made the first couple of weeks all the more bewildering. After my initial euphoria on arrival — a fantastic apartment with a view of the ocean and mountains, a hike in said mountains (ask to stay at Priscilla’s), and a first whirlwind day at KITP — I hit a lull just out of port. I was lonely and feeling not a little bit guilty (How could I have thought to leave my family for three months!), uncertain of what to do (What does a j-in-residence actually do?) and to my surprise overwhelmed by the breadth and depth of physics around me. I went from one seminar to the next, always groping just at the edge of comprehension, and eventually—inevitably—completely lost, able only to free-form think about the relationship of spoken words and symbols on the screen. A kind of physics meditation. It was akin to a language immersion program. And just like those, for the first couple of weeks I had a mild headache at the end of most days.
But gradually, imperceptibly, things changed. If there was a single point, it was the first seminar I gave. It was my chance to stand and speak my truth to those I’d listened to for the past month. My four presentations were based around seeing the interaction between journalists and scientists in a cross-cultural context. The feedback was enthusiastic, interesting, and very helpful. I appreciated the diverse cultural, national and scientific perspectives that the KITP participants provided—input that enriched and sharpened my understanding of popularizing science.
I also relaxed into my role as journalist-in-residence. Used to writing and filing stories on a near daily basis, I initially thought I wasn’t getting any work done. There was no story on my desk at the end of the day. In fact, to my surprise, I wrote less during my three months at KITP than during any other similar time period in the past decade! At first I was concerned about this, but then through conversations and reflection, I realized that my time at KITP wasn’t about writing. It was about absorbing, listening, taking notes – both in ink and memories. And in this way I filled notebooks.
But my greatest surprise was how much, after a self-perceived bumpy start, I took home from my journey at KITP. Yes, I did bring home about 40 pounds of research papers, interview notes and book chapter outlines I’d amassed. But what feels most valuable and rewarding are the intangibles. When friends and colleagues ask, So how was it? I look at them, smile and say “Great! It got better and better.” I keep it to this most of the time because there’s just not time to say:
Do you know, that for the first time in my life mathematics came alive for me? I gave-up on senior high-school math, thinking I was no good. But after three months of seeing equations dance across black boards, I began to get a sense of the language. It all came home to me one night while reading a physics textbook about astrochemistry, looking at the Boltzman equation, and seeing it, really seeing it. Dude! Immersed in physics culture, I absorbed a little of how physicists think and see the world, as motion and energy. My time with the visiting astrophysicists gave me a visceral sense (that invaluable intuitive sense, apart from numbers) of the vast scale and age of the Universe. It’s a sense that grew from hearing countless astrophysicists say, “Well, give or take a kilo parsec”, about 3200 light years, as if this were a drop in the cosmic sea—which amazingly it is. And after writing about science for 15 years, I had the amazing privilege to see it anew. I saw it not as a billion dollar particle accelerator, but as an intimately human endeavor; science at its most fundamental – curiosity, the determination to understand the world, mental play with others, and the pure, joy of individual and group pursuit. But most of all, I saw that science at it’s essence holds a deep human value: we’re all able to interpret nature, to seek truth, first hand. The truth is out there and we don’t need anyone else to find it.
I couldn’t have predicted any of this. I think this is the beauty and visionary value of the KITP journalist-in-residence program: It’s only out of this open-ended nature that great, unexpected things can come.
I’ve returned to my home office this New Year, January 2009, with a renewed sense of purpose for which I’m deeply grateful. Two days into it I already miss the daily camaraderie and brain-feeding opportunities; the sense of expansive possibility I felt at KITP. But I carry the experience with me and if I ever need a jolt of memory I can look to the large blackboard I’ve added to my office wall.