Charles Petit

2011 Robert C. Cowen Award for Sustained Achievement in Science Journalism Winner

Charles W. Petit, a veteran science writer, received the 2011 Robert C. Cowen Award for Sustained Achievement in Science Journalism at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 7 December 2011 in San Francisco, Calif. Petit covered earthquakes for the San Francisco Chronicle during the 1980s and 1990s and has recently served as “head tracker” for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology–based daily blog that compiles and critiques science reporting worldwide. Petit was previously honored by AGU in 2003 when he received the David Perlman Award for an article about a new finding in oceanography. The Cowan Award, named for a former science editor of the Christian Science Monitor, is given no more than every 2 years and recognizes a journalist who has made “significant, lasting, and consistent contributions to accurate reporting or writing” on the Earth and space sciences for the general public.


I have known Charlie Petit for almost 30 years, and during that time I have always marveled at his illustrious journalistic career. That certainly gives me the perspective, and the pleasure, to be the citationist upon his being honored with a lifetime achievement award.

Charlie and I first met in 1984, when we were both fellows in the second class of the Knight Fellowship at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This program is designed to expose established journalists in the midst of their careers to a year in academia. And what a career Charlie already had by then: He had been selected as a possible journalist-­astronaut by NASA. He had been to Antarctica, reporting on U.S. research activities, much of them in Earth science. He was working here in this city with one of the lighthouses of science writing in the United States. Dave Perlman was Charlie’s mentor while he worked as a science correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle. Later he moved to US News and World Report and, in addition, wrote many freelance articles for magazines and newspapers. With the decline of newspapers and magazines he landed a job as a blogger working from his home in Berkeley. And again, what a blog it is. He gets up at 5:00 A.M. every morning and sifts through the Web sites of dozens of newspapers and magazines, looking for unique, bizarre, and outrageous examples of science writing. If you ever want to be informed about the most recent advances in science writing and how you, the scientists, are treated in them, visit Charlie’s blog as the Knight Tracker for Science Writing.

What I mentioned so far are only stations in a professional career. They don’t say much about Charlie Petit the person. First and foremost, Charlie is one of the most curious people I have ever known, which of course is one of the most important prerequisites for being a good science writer. Here is an example: When the news broke in 1986 that high-­temperature superconductors had been discovered, we both wrote about it. We went to press conferences, read the scientific literature, interviewed the major players. But that was not enough for Charlie. One day he called me and said, “If it is so easy to make these superconductors, then let’s go and make one.” We contacted Alex Zettl at University of California, Berkeley, and in his lab—and with his help—Charlie and I produced several dime-sized examples of these levitating ceramics.

Over the years, we often covered the same stories. We were awed by space shuttle launches at Cape Canaveral, and we both wrote about the Parkfield earthquake prediction experiment. I remember vividly how we chased U.S. Geological Survey seismologists as they desperately tried to find the surface traces of the fault after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.

Many of you may know the old saying about how you can distinguish scientists from science writers: Over their careers, scientists study more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing. By contrast, science writers learn less and less about more and more until they know nothing about everything.

Well, Charlie certainly does not belong into this group of science writers. His curiosity and his phenomenal memory let him put things into perspective, not only for himself but also, most important, for his readers. Today is, by the way, not the first time that Charlie is being honored by AGU. In 2003 he received the Dave Perlman Award for Excellence in Science Journalism. Charlie, you didn’t rest on your laurels after receiving that award. In the same way in which you deserved the Perlman Award, you deserve this latest honor acknowledging your broad experience and your commitment to bringing science to the public. Please help me in congratulating Charlie Petit as the recipient of the 2011 Robert C. Cowen Award for Sustained Achievement in Science Journalism.

—Horst Rademacher, Science Correspondent, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung


Thank you, Horst, for the wonderful, overly flattering citation. Thank you also to my mentors and colleagues who have been with me during important parts of my career. Most important is David Perlman, science editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. I worked with him for 26 years at the paper, which is less than half as long as he has been there. I continue to rely on his inspiration. I must also thank my most recent editor, Tom Siegfried, of Science News, for accepting my occasional stories.

It is a privilege to write the stories of our Earth from its core, to a long pause on its surface, and on out to the planetary system that is its home. While researchers may sneer among themselves at the press, I have been treated almost universally with courtesy and patience—and this by people who often don’t know me at all.

Earth scientists are a particularly convivial bunch. I cannot thank all who have given me their time. But I can thank some of them. For the sake of brevity, I shall do so by given name and an initial. Those who are still around will know who they are. Many others who study Earth may easily guess.

I thank Wally B. for thermohaline, Gary G. for canyon seeps and the S. P. Lee, Allan C. for exotic terranes and generosity, Roger R. for geochemical experiments, Brent D. for magnetic reversals, Gerald W. for the Ellsworth Mountains, Bill E. for asperities and the unforeseeable, Raymond J. for Mg Si perovskite all the way down, Kevin B. for Archaean tales, Steve S. for Martian wheels, Don A. for mantle sashay, Walter A. for the Gubbio clay, Dave K. for CO2’s march, Ralph C. for ozone made simple, Louise H. for the snottites of Cueva de Villa Luz, Curtis E. for duckies in eddies, Ted S. for all that is icy, Ken E. for Joe aloft on Mars, Jim B. for beautiful aqua gliders, Ken S. for the viruses from Bumpass Hell, Ram R. for the Great Brown Cloud, Walter A. for the crater of doom, Bob and Barbara D. for Kaiwaihae, Celâl S. for Kober’s word and errors, a second Gary G. but for crumbling cliffs, Marty R. for landfalling jets, Ants L. for El Niño–Southern Oscillation yo-yos, Gary E. for blue schist knockers and a dog’s breakfast, Davey J. for Marin’s pillow lavas, Ray R. for dreams of Europa algae, Sherry R. for ozone trails, Allan L. for all things seismic, Gene W. for red sprites and blue jets, Barbara R. for waves on crystal highways, Eldridge M. for the Great Unflood, Dick F. for Hawaii’s slump, Kerry S. for Mojave’s new fault, Margaret T. for the humin truth, Ken H. for the skylights of Kilauea, Tim B. for doubting and finding a thermal pulse, Tom J. for craton roots, David S. for the Hayward fault in my own backyard, and, of course, Fred S. in the front office and a long line of AGU press officers who worked for him, most fondly, Harvey L., ensuring a press room stocked with coffee and a spread at lunch.

—Charles W. Petit, MIT Knight Science Journalism Tracker, Berkeley, Calif.