Richard Stone

2001 Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism–Features Winner

Richard Stone received the Walter Sullivan Award at the 2001 Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony on 12 December in San Francisco, California. The award is given for a single article or radio/television report that makes geophysical material accessible and interesting to the general public.

Citation

“Richard Stone has won the 2001 Walter Sullivan Award for a story on a lake no one has ever seen and its implications for finding life elsewhere in the solar system. Richard’s winning the award this year completes the hat trick for us at Smithsonian: Michael Parfit won in 1996 for a story on how Lake Missoula scoured Washington State, and Jon Krakauer won the next year for a piece on the little-appreciated dangers of Mount Rainier. The story that won this year was Richard’s first appearance in Smithsonian.

“He is the European editor for Science. A self-described ‘extremophile,’ he saw his book on mammoths come out this year, representing time he spent in Siberia. The story for which he has won this award represents time in Antarctica as the first Western journalist to visit Vostok, a Russian station there.

“The scientific outpost is a model for doing science the hard way. Some buildings, buried in snowdrifts, have been abandoned. Triple doors at the entrances, meant to conserve heat, do not fit their frames. The labs double as sleeping quarters, heated by what Richard called ‘hazardous-looking electric radiators.’ The station sits, however, on a scientific gold mine, a lake about half the area of Lake Ontario.

“Lake Vostok was not discovered until the 1960s, and it was no mean trick. The freshwater lake lies under 2 miles of glacial ice. A Russian pilot noticed unusually flat stretches of terrain, which he called lakes. A decade later, British radio surveys of the ice sheet’s thickness proved him right. There was water between the ice sheet and the bedrock. At least 76 subglacial lakes have now been found in Antarctica, but Vostok is by far the largest. Its area is anywhere from 3900 to 5400 square miles, and it sinks to a depth of 1600 feet. A cover of clear lake ice separates it from the glacier.

“Richard actually combined two of the leading science stories of our time. Scientists are excited at the prospect of finding life under 2 miles of ice. The Russians drilled to within 400 feet of the lake. At 2.2 miles down, the drill had left the glacier and was in the large, clear crystals of lake water ice that had frozen to the bottom of the glacier. In those last feet of the core, scientists found bacteria and evidence of microbial mats.

“At the same time that Earth scientists were discovering the largest geographical feature to be found on Earth in the twentieth century, astronomers started making comparisons between it and the Jovian moon Europa. That satellite’s icy surface is crisscrossed by fractures, presumably caused by an ocean below. Thus, to explore both Lake Vostok and the oceans of Europa, scientists must find ways to drill through miles of ice and into the liquid water zone without introducing any organisms themselves. One plan is to have the drill head frequently spritzed with hydrogen peroxide.

“Lake Vostok is apparently another example of life thriving without the energy provided by sunlight. (First we discovered hydrothermal vents in the oceans.) Vostok does not freeze to the bottom because of heat rising from the Earth’s interior. Europa is heated by the flexing of the entire moon as its orbit takes it closer to and then farther from Jupiter, a planet with 1300 times the mass of Earth and an equally strong gravitational field.

“Walter Sullivan would have seen the possibilities immediately. So did Richard Stone. We at Smithsonian feel especially honored, because Richard won the Walter Sullivan Award for his very first appearance in our magazine. Needless to say, we hope to use him early and often in the future.”

—JOHN WILEY, Smithsonian Magazine, Washington, D.C.

Response

“I am honored to be here today to accept this award from the American Geophysical Union.

“I would like to express my deep gratitude to Jack Wiley and his colleagues at Smithsonian Magazine for commissioning the Lake Vostok story. Jack retired from Smithsonian earlier this fall. It was a pleasure writing for Jack, which makes it all the more sad that I had the opportunity to work with him on only one story. But this honor testifies to what a fantastic science editor he was for Smithsonian over the years. I would also like to thank my editor at Science, Colin Norman, for sending me to Antarctica in 1997 and my wife, Mutsumi, for delaying our honeymoon until after I returned from my Vostok adventure.

“My presence before you is largely thanks to the influence of Richard Kerr. Most of you know Dick as a talented science journalist and a genuinely good guy, not to mention the first winner in 1993 of the AGU Award for Sustained Achievement in Science Journalism. Week after week, Dick demonstrates to the rest of us at Science how to write about geophysics with supreme accuracy and flair. He’s the best in the business.

“It’s hard to imagine that Dick would ever need affirmation of his storytelling skills, but I’ll share a little secret. As a cub reporter at Science in 1991, one day I noticed a single-line letter that was tacked to the bulletin board in Dick’s office. The letter was on New York Times stationery, and it had been typed on one of those old electric typewriters. It was from Walter Sullivan, predicting that Dick would be the next AGU science writing award winner. Having had Walter hold you in high esteem was truly special indeed: that 12-year-old letter is still up there on Dick’s wall.

“Many thanks to the American Geophysical Union and its scientists for giving myself and other science writers a chance to follow in Dick’s, and Walter’s footsteps.”

—RICHARD STONE, Science, Cambridge, U.K.