Journalist Fellowship Program
Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics
Tom Siegfried is a science journalist who divides his time between Arlington, Texas, and Santa Monica, Calif. He served as science editor of The Dallas Morning News from 1985 to 2004, where he trained some of the nation's top science and medical writers. He is currently on the board of directors of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.
Tom was born in Lakewood, Ohio, and grew up in nearby Avon. He earned an undergraduate degree from Texas Christian University with majors in journalism, chemistry and history, and has a master of arts with a major in journalism and a minor in physics from the University of Texas at Austin. He began his journalism career as a business and science writer for the Fort Worth Press and later served time on the journalism faculty at Texas Christian University before joining the Morning News. He is the author of two science books, The Bit and the Pendulum, from John Wiley & Sons (2000), and Strange Matters, from the Joseph Henry Press of the National Academy of Sciences (2002). He is a contributor to the National Association of Science Writers' Field Guide for Science Writers.
Tom's work has earned various awards, most recently the 2004 Science-in Society award from the National Association of Science Writers. Other awards include the American Association for the Advancement of Science-Westinghouse Award for large daily newspapers and the American Chemical Society's James T. Grady-James H. Stack Award for Interpreting Chemistry for the Public. He has also received awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the Texas Headliners club. He is among the writers whose work was included in The Best American Science Writing 2004.
My two months as science journalist in residence at KITP was immensely enjoyable and intellectually profitable. The setting, the atmosphere and the institute's support services are all superb. The mix of people and diversity of programs guarantee that something interesting is always going on.
Four major programs were in progress during my time at KITP: granular physics, quantum phase transitions, astrophysical jets and disks, and ultra-high energy cosmic rays. These programs provided an abundance of entrancing science to soak up.
Among the most valuable of institute activities were the Monday lunchtime blackboard talks. They provided just the right level of overview for grasping the key issues in a field and a framework for understanding the issues raised in more specific talks.
Often other talks on more specific aspects of a topic exceeded the limits of my understanding. Still, I sometimes found it useful to attend the first 15 minutes or so of many of the technical talks, in order to gain a general awareness of an issue even if I couldn't follow it to its depths.
Although the major programs alone provided more than enough to keep any one brain busy, there was of course much more of interest available at KITP, the UCSB physics department, and UCSB more generally. I was able to attend to only a fraction of all that was worthwhile. I'd recommend to future fellows that they not let the major programs consume all of their attention.
While I could not find time to pursue all of the intriguing scientific avenues open to me, I did manage to extract lots of new scientific information and insight during my stay. Probably the most valuable of all to me was the opportunity to talk at length personally with some of the institute's physicists and visitors. A discussion with Joe Polchinski was especially rewarding. Others with whom I had worthwhile interviews included Victor Yakovenko, Eli Waxman, and of course KITP director David Gross.
Several presentations by visitors to KITP or at the UCSB physics department provided additional stimulation and insight, particularly those by James Hartle, Gary Horowitz, Henry Tye, Jonathan Halliwell, and Sara Diamond.
In short, KITP provides everything a visiting science journalist could ask for: the highest quality science, access to the scientists, the opportunity to listen in and observe on the process of science-in-the-making. The bonus of the setting at a world-class university on the seashore made the experience pleasant and worthwhile in every sense.
As for my own participation in Institute activities, I found great interest in the problems of science journalism among some of the members and visitors. My own blackboard talk was a good forum for presenting some of my thought about those problems, and it was valuable for me to receive the diverse feedback from those attending. I also enjoyed the weekly informal discussions immensely; not only did they allow me to convey some of the things that I believe scientists should know about journalism, they helped me see more clearly some of the concerns that scientists have about the journalistic process.
I think, however, that the discussions might have been better had more people been able to attend. Perhaps there is a better time or day for such discussions Friday afternoons seem to have often been inconvenient. And I think more effort needs to be made to engage the scientists in the issues surrounding science journalism. My efforts to catalyze some scientist participation did not fare very well. I tried, for example, to solicit specific topic ideas for the discussions, but very few responded. A more ambitious effort was to engage scientists in helping journalists by writing user-friendly definitions of some common technical terms. That effort drew no response, either, although that may have been because some of the physicists who were interested in this idea from the quantum phase transition program were finishing up their program at about that time.
Finally, I would like to add that my stay was enhanced by several fruitful interactions with others inside and outside UCSB. I had interesting discussions with UCSB faculty involved in the writing program and spoke in some of their classes, and enjoyed the opportunity to interact with the director's advisory board. Many of these additional activities were facilitated by Sarah Vaughn, who was an excellent source of help and guidance during my stay. She is a superb ambassador for KITP to the outside community, with astute insight into the complex interactions between science and the rest of the world.
All in all, my journalist-in-residence experience was, from my view, a great success, and I intend to build on it in future science-journalistic endeavors.