Charles W. Petit

2003 David Perlman Award for Excellence in Science Journalism – News Winner

Charles W. Petit received the Perlman Award at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, which was held on 10 December 2003, in San Francisco, California. The award honors “a single article or radio/television report that makes geophysical material accessible and interesting to the general public.”


“It is not only an honor but also a highly personal pleasure to present the journalism award that carries my name to Charles Petit, who for 25 years was my closest colleague at the San Francisco Chronicle, and who escaped the peculiarities of daily reporting only 5 years ago to become a senior science writer at U.S. News & World Report.

“Charlie may have thought he was also escaping the rigors of news deadlines when he moved to a weekly magazine, but the article that won him this year’s Perlman Award conveyed real news to his audience. It was an ‘exclusive’ and was produced after a major scramble more typical of ace newshounds than sedate magazine writers. He should be known as Scoop Petit from now on.

“It seems that the intrepid Petit spotted a hot item in the online program of last year’s Ocean Sciences Meeting, made some calls to expert sources, headed for Honolulu but passed out from a stomach virus at the airport in Oakland, made more phone calls after recovering, rushed his story to his editors, and thereby beat Nature and the rest of the science media into print.

“His article described the unexpected recent freshening of the North Atlantic’s waters, an extremely puzzling phenomenon. Explaining the intricacies of the ocean currents involved and their potential for serious continent-wide climate changes would be a challenge for any science writer, and more so because the causes of the problem are complex and remain poorly understood. Charlie’s article, however, was remarkable for its clarity, its marshaling of expert opinions, and its bring-it-all-home-to-the-reader style.

“Those who have been fortunate enough to read Charlie’s articles will agree that his depth of insight into the scientific method, and not only the technical material he interprets, is what makes his work unique and so outstanding.

“Petit has done it many times, though.

“When the deadly Loma Prieta earthquake hit the San Francisco Bay area in 1989, for example, it knocked out the Chronicle’s power and presses; but when the power went back, Charlie was ready with a complete and exceptionally clear page 1 explanation of everything that the seismologists and geophysicists had been learning hour by hour about the fault itself, the quake’s hypocenter, and its relationship to the web of fault strands that mark the San Andreas zone.

“Again, when the 1994 Northridge earthquake devastated Los Angeles, Charlie was there to give our readers the detailed background that emerged as scientists began unraveling the complexities of the fault systems that underlie the Los Angeles Basin. Within 2 days, he had filed three long stories, and followed them with many more for months afterward, all of them on deadline.

“Charlie reports on paleoanthropology, on NASA’s shuttle and planetary missions, on oceanography and plate tectonics, on sprites and elves and whistlers, on controversies over global climate change, and moreover, he does it all with the accuracy, a zesty style, and interpretive acumen. He’s a reporter’s reporter in the finest sense of the word.”

—DAVID PERLMAN, San Francisco Chronicle, Calif.


“Thank you, Dave. Thank you, AGU. For the last 30 years I have joined like-minded reporters trooping to a holiday-season candy store. It was first in the old Jack Tar Hotel, then the Civic Auditorium, and now it’s in business here at Moscone. The AGU and its community of scientists provide to the international press every fall a feast of sweet discovery about our world and the solar system. We on the science beat often hear researchers lament that they and their professional associations are not telling the public enough about what they do and why it matters. Maybe so. Through my career, though, I have been struck by the willingness, and often eagerness, with which most scientists not just here but in general take the time to answer at length any reporter who asks what they are doing. Earth scientists, I must add, are among the most convivial and trusting.

“We reporters here do most of our work far from these meeting rooms, but this is a vital, annual seminar. While we strive for stories nobody else has, AGU’s artfully run press room is a superb aid. What fun. Thunderhead sprites, asteroid impacts, volcanic blasts, tectonic hijinks, seisms in the outer core, minerals on Mars. I have helped myself to more than 80 stories here. Much is serious news. In 1973, my first AGU piece, fittingly, was about smog and more broadly about whether human society is changing the environment and what we can or should do to protect it. This meeting heralds future stories. Long before global change was a news staple it was debated roundly and fairly right here. It was at an AGU press briefing in 1987 that many of us first heard how the worldwide thermohaline circulation moves heat and salinity through the oceans, and where Wally Broecker told me how to spell it. That’s one reason why, early last year when I saw an online abstract about freshening of the North Atlantic, I was long-primed to wonder if the world is doing something newsy to put meat on the models of climate change.

“I thank the researchers, who provided me with fast responses to my many questions. I thank U.S. News science editor Tim Appenzeller for supporting and shaping the story, and for urging its completion after a brief illness waylaid me enroute to the presentation in Honolulu.

“Most important, I am moved to the soul by receipt of a prize named for David Perlman. I am privileged to have had him as a mentor, particularly during the 25 years I worked alongside him. I thank AGU for establishing this prize to recognize the meat and potatoes of our business news written against deadline and for putting his name on it.”

—CHARLES W. PETIT, U.S. News & World Report, Calif.