There’s a dimension to news reporting that I think not all journalists have the talent, frankly, to achieve, and that’s to digest information, interpret it, and deliver it in such a way that people have a deeper understanding of what’s going on. You’re not just handing them knowledge as a reporter, you’re conveying understanding as a guide. This is where you have the chance to shape the public’s view of important issues. The ’60s make a remarkable point of reference. There was huge media coverage of our journey into space, and you could argue that it was the coverage that shaped everyone’s dream state about what the future could bring. You had Life magazine—with its sort of pictorial journalism—that helped people to imagine the future, and this is going on in a decade in which there is a Cold War with Russia, a hot war in Southeast Asia, a civil-rights movement in full swing in the US. Yet people paused and reflected on what the future might be. I claim that the reason for that was the fact that the entire nation committed to going to the moon, and the reporting on that was so thorough and so persistent, and it also brought a human dimension to it—we all knew about the folks who had the right stuff, and we knew it took enlightened lawmakers and visionary leaders to accomplish our goals.
With end of the shuttle program and the burgeoning private space industry, the US is probably at the biggest crossroads since the 1960s in terms of trying to figure out what to do next. How are the news media covering the decision-making process?
If you look at recent news, you saw a lot of coverage of stories like Fearless Felix Baumgartner [who set a world record for the highest skydive in October]. It was a huge stunt. It had all the danger and excitement that they said, so I’m not faulting anyone for the amount of attention that it got. I would just claim that if we had astronauts ready to step onto Mars, no one would be paying attention to people jumping out of balloons. If you’re looking for evidence that we’re getting nowhere in space, consider that we were told by marketing folks that Felix was at the edge of space when he jumped. I tweeted one simple observation about this: If you take a schoolroom globe, this fellow’s jump from a balloon to Earth corresponds to a jump of about a millimeter above the globe. I don’t know anyone who would call that space. I don’t blame the media for that. More power to Red Bull [the drink company that sponsored the jump] for getting all the attention it did; this is a free market. But then you had people saying it’s bad when a drink company has a better space program than our government. To contrast this jump with what NASA does is, of course a bit unfair, but it carries the sentiment of how people are feeling because we don’t have spacecraft taking anybody anywhere.
How did the media do on what was arguably the biggest space story of the year: NASA dropping the Curiosity rover into a Martian crater back in August?
I would say it was the second-biggest story after the discovery of the Higgs boson, which I count as frontier science. What was remarkable about the rover was all the people cheering the engineering. There was no science to report at that time. NASA landed the thing safely and it’s the size of an SUV, so it was a huge engineering feat, but we’ve had rovers on Mars before, so why should this receive any special attention compared to the rest? It’s up to the press to explain where the rover fits in the spectrum of space activities, and in the budget we’re allocating for whatever goals NASA has. This would be the full analysis that I think was missing.
But juxtapose that with the Higgs boson. Most people have no clue what it is, but they embraced the fact that there was this huge search to find it by the international community of physicists. What I liked about the coverage of its discovery, and the public reaction, was that it wasn’t a prerequisite that people understood what the particle was. If you look back to 1919 and the first experimental verification of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, it was a short column on page six in The New York Times—you would not count it as a major headline. I think the media have figured out how to be as excited as scientists are when scientists make an exciting discovery, and I would offer that as a compliment to the community.