David Sington

1999 Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism–Features Winner

David Sington was awarded the 1999 Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism at the AGU Spring Meeting Honors Ceremony, which was held on June 2, 1999, in Boston, Massachusetts. The award recognizes a single article or a radio/television report that makes geophysical material accessible and interesting to the general public.

Citation

“The Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Scientific Journalism has in the past been given to distinguished American journalists for written articles. Our 1999 awardee, David Sington, is not a journalist in the usual sense of the word, since he works in television rather than with the printed word. He is being honored for the programs he made while working for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which have brought the excitement of modern Earth sciences to millions of people all over the world.

“David started his career in a conventional way, as an undergraduate at Cambridge, England, taking a broad-based science degree. However, there are many sides to undergraduate life at Cambridge, and David became interested in making films. When he graduated in 1983 he went to work for the BBC World Service, a radio service with a long and distinguished history of independent reporting. David’s real interest was in films and scientific ideas, rather than opposing tyranny, so he moved to television and started to make films about scientific discoveries with the Horizon team. It was here that I first met him, when Simon Lamb, a friend of David’s from his Cambridge days, suggested to David that he should make a program about melt generation inside the Earth. When David first came to see me I was doubtful about the whole idea. I was having difficulty getting professional scientists to understand the new ideas and could not see how a television program could be made to work. Furthermore, the processes involved take place deep within the Earth and cannot possibly be filmed. So the whole idea seemed nonsense. David came anyway and spent several days with me just talking. The end result was ‘The Day the Earth Melted,’ which is still a marvelous introduction to the new field: scientifically accurate, intellectually interesting, and fun to watch. David tells me that this film was really his introduction to the Earth sciences and gave him the idea of the much larger project, ‘Earth Story,’ for which he is now being honored. I watched all except one of the eight episodes of this major series, which took 2 ½ years to film, and was delighted by it. David succeeded in capturing on film what modern research in the Earth sciences is like, how the people involved think and work, and why the issues are exciting. He has only been able to do this because he has worked so hard to understand the subject and because he is so obviously interested in capturing the enthusiasm of the scientists themselves.

“To a practicing scientist like myself, the success of the series is staggering. It was first shown on the BBC on Sunday at 8 p.m. This is one of the most competitive time slots for any program, because the other channels are showing long-running and popular dramas. However, it attracted higher ratings–the best in its slot for some years–with a steady audience of over 3 million for the eight programs. Its success has made the television management in the United Kingdom aware of the huge potential audiences for good science programs. The problem is that David’s success makes the process look easy, and it is not. David’s combination of scientific curiosity and visual sense is unique. Fortunately, it is not going to be wasted by promotion to an administrative position in the BBC, where he would be unable to make programs, because David has now left to set up his own production company, DOX Productions, Ltd. I am sure we all wish him every success with this new enterprise. I have great expectations!”

—DAVID P. MCKENZIE, Bullard Laboratory, Cambridge, United Kingdom

Response

“I am greatly honored to be receiving this prestigious award from the American Geophysical Union. ‘Earth Story’ is the fruit of the efforts of a large team. Producers, directors, researchers, cinematographers, sound recordists, film editors, colorists, dubbing mixers, designers, animators, musicians, and helicopter pilots–nearly 200 people in all–worked long and hard to create a television series as good as we could make it. I am delighted to accept this award on their behalf.

“Whatever the skills and dedication of the production team, the real authors of the series were the scientists who appeared in it and the many others whose discoveries we were exploring. “Wherever we went, to the North Greenland Ice Core Project in Greenland, aboard the Atlantis II to the Mid-Ocean Ridge, to the gold mines of the Rand, we were met by unfailing kindness and by patience with the sometimes peculiar demands of filming.

“Our aim, as Dan McKenzie says in his very flattering citation, was not only to communicate to the audience an understanding of the basic processes that shape our planet, but also to explain how it is that scientists have come to know what they do. At our most ambitious, we wanted to use the medium of film to give the viewers a sense of what it is like to study the Earth, and to entertain them with the vicarious thrill of discovery. Wherever we succeeded, it was only through the enthusiastic help of the scientists who took part in the project. Most of them will be members of AGU. It is especially gratifying that the finished product has met with their approval.

“To be allowed to make ‘Earth Story’ was an enormous privilege. I got to go to some of the most beautiful places on Earth in the company of the some of the most interesting people I have ever met. For me, the extraordinary discoveries of the Earth sciences have made the world a more interesting place. If ‘Earth Story’ succeeded in making its viewers more interested in the world around them, then that is our real reward.”

—DAVID SINGTON, DOX Productions, Ltd., London, United Kingdom