Andrew Grant, physics reporter for Science News, received the 2014 David Perlman Award for Excellence in Science Journalism—News at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 17 December 2014 in San Francisco, Calif. Grant was honored for the article “At Last, Voyager 1 Slips into Interstellar Space,” published 12 September 2013 by Science News. Grant’s compelling story reports evidence that the spacecraft Voyager 1 entered interstellar space. The article also explores the scientific debate about the whether the interstellar threshold was truly crossed, without lessening the significance of the new findings. The Perlman Award is for work published under deadline pressure of 1 week or less.
When scientists announced that Voyager 1 had exited the solar system, Andrew Grant didn’t just report that news. He asked a basic question: What do we mean by “solar system”?
It is a great day when an editor’s most difficult challenge is containing a writer’s enthusiasm for his topic. That was the task at hand last September when Andrew Grant reported and wrote “At Last, Voyager 1 Slips into Interstellar Space.”
Starting in the fall of 2012 and continuing into the following summer, there were tantalizing hints that Voyager 1 was on the cusp of exiting the solar system. But Andrew thought there was a flaw in how reporters—and scientists—were spinning the story: Scientists don’t agree on the definition of the solar system, so how can we say that Voyager is leaving it? “There is no highway sign that says ‘Now Leaving the Solar System,’ and if even if there were, it’s unclear where it would be,” Grant wrote in a proposal for an infographic outlining the Sun’s influence on the planets, the Kuiper belt, and objects well beyond the solar system but still within the Sun’s clutch.
Shortly after Andrew submitted that proposal, Voyager 1 scientists announced that the probe had traveled beyond the mist of solar particles and into the dense fog of interstellar space. At the time, Andrew had been at Science News for about 8 months. I had the pleasure of editing several of his stories, and among our running conversations was how much background and context to include in news stories and where. When Andrew turned in the Voyager article, he had basically disregarded every bit of restraint I had encouraged in previous stories. And that was a great instinct. The resulting story captured the magnitude of the discovery, couched within a full discussion of what Voyager observed when and what those observations may mean, all wrapped up in the enthusiasm of space exploration.
We published the story online in its entirety, and the news peg of it got folded into the introductory text of the solar system map Andrew had earlier proposed—an illustration that served as the centerpiece of the issue that launched Science News’s redesign last October.
Debate continues on whether Voyager 1 has entered the space between stars, a conversation that’s not surprising to those of us who have closely followed Andrew’s careful interpretation of Voyager’s journey. Andrew puts the same amount of consideration into everything he reports, so I am confident that, like Voyager, Andrew will continue to amaze and inspire.
—Kate Travis, Science News, Washington, D. C.
Thank you to AGU and the judging panel for this award. As thrilled as I was upon learning I had won, I think I was giddier when I received an email from David Perlman, whose work I’ve admired since before my career began. It’s an honor to receive an award named after him.
It’s hard for a physics writer not to be captivated by the story of Voyager 1 entering interstellar space. Here’s a 37-year-old spacecraft, with less computing power than the IBM 286 I played on as a kid, still kicking 34 years after the end of its primary mission. At first I wondered what the equivalent of a single ocean buoy 18 billion kilometers away could inform about the vast uncharted waters of interstellar space. It turns out the answer is quite a lot, especially when you add in a well-timed solar storm and some brilliant scientific detective work.
I had a blast covering this story, and I appreciate the guidance from my editors Kate Travis and Lila Guterman in striking the right balance between news and background. (Kate informs me that this article makes up for all the backstory I didn’t get to tell “in every other story ever.”) Most excitingly, the story of Voyager 1 isn’t over yet. At the time I’m writing this, scientists still can’t explain the magnetic field surrounding the probe, and one dissenting member of the team fully expects to give me a call one day with evidence that Voyager actually never left.
That’s the way science works, and that’s the kind of story I love covering.
—Andrew Grant, Science News, Washington, D. C.