David Perlman

1997 Robert C. Cowen Award for Sustained Achievement in Science Journalism Winner

“David Perlman was awarded the Sustained Achievement Award at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, which was held on December 10, 1997, in San Francisco, California. The award recognizes a journalist who has made significant, lasting, and consistent contributions to accurate reporting or writing on the geophysical sciences for the general public.


“David Perlman has been covering science for most of the 47 years the San Francisco Chronicle has employed him. First and foremost, however, Dave Perlman is a newspaperman. His science writing sense and style all flow from that.

“As a 12-year-old New York City boy, he saw the play, The Front Page. That did it. In his teens, he went about with a press card stuck in his hatband. At Columbia University, he edited the college daily newspaper. He served as a foreign correspondent in Europe after World War II. Also, he still recites from memory the play’s opening description of the residents of a Depression-era cop shop, a downtown pressroom where reporters hung out, awaiting word of murder, robbery, and scandal: ‘Seedy, catatonic Paul Reveres, full of strange oaths and a touch of childhood.’

“That is who he is: a reporter. A guy who covers the news, who has seen it all, who cares about truth and justice no matter how rotten things seem, and who stays up late, if necessary, to see some more.

“As a science writer, and for the most recent 30 years as the Chronicle’s science editor, he has shared with readers the latest research on restless plates in the Earth’s crust that give California the shakes, volcanic rumblings and eruptions, submarine geysers atop mid-ocean ridges, and probes to distant planets that enlighten us not only about other worlds but about our own blue orb too.

“He spreads the word on meteorites, radioisotope dating, and the Chicxulub planet crasher. He explains in plain English the difference between strike-slip and normal faulting, the elusive meaning of ‘magnitude’, and the common sense precautions that residents and officials should take to minimize damage and injury during natural disasters. When a large earthquake does occur, he not only reports what happened to what fault, but also keeps paramount that such things frighten, injure, and all too often kill people.

“But, Those are just the Earth sciences.

“‘Science’ at a newspaper can mean any story with words ending in -ology or -itis, or simply having more syllables than editors like to see. Dave does them all deftly, against deadlines imposed by breaking news, and with delight and wonder over the splendors of nature.

“He has been a mentor to scores of science writers, president of the National Association of Science Writers, and remains a model of the business. Notable moments and achievements during his newswriting career so far include: First Earthquake: Tehachapi, 1952; First Paleontology story: ‘Conflicts at Dinosaur National Monument,’ 1952; The Galapagos series, for which Dave spent 2 months with a California Academy of Sciences expedition in 1964 filing dozens of stories by radio on topics including volcanism, paleomagnetism, basalt sampling with Allan Cox, and interactions between geology and biological evolution; First planetary mission story: ‘Mariner IV to Mars,’ 1965, with subsequent reports on missions to Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune, continuing today with Cassini to Saturn and its moon, Titan; and ‘Discovery of Life in a Hydrothermal Vent,’ 1977, a scoop: he reported by radio with a Xerox telecopier from aboard the RV Knorr from the Galapagos Rift Zone.

“The 1997 Sustained Achievement Award in Science Journalism recognizes David Perlman’s daily devotion to his craft, his sturdy sense of responsibility, his devotion to accuracy, his warm regard for human diversity, and his appreciation that science is an uncertain work in progress.

—CHARLES PETIT, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco, CA


“My thanks to you, Dr. Solomon, and to the members of AGU for creating your awards for science journalism and, of course, for honoring me with one: for longevity in the newspaper business if for nothing else, I assume!

“Seriously, though, I take it that by making this award you are recognizing the usefulness of many of us in the mass media who interpret the processes and the discoveries of the scientific community in our articles and documentaries aimed at the broad lay public, and particularly, for those of us who describe the work your many branches of science do. It’s easy to see how badly the public needs to understand the kind of science you people do: from plate tectonics to yesterday’s earthquake on a strike-slip fault, from basic meteorology to El Niño, from planetary science to the taxpayer’s role in Pathfinder and Sojourner on Mars, from solar physics to garbles on the Web and static on the radio. All of these research efforts impact the public powerfully and often. Aside from the policy issues these efforts raise, and in many cases their ultimate practical aspects, the fields within the AGU’s territory provide an opportunity for us science writers to impart some sense of the wonder, the elegance, and the beauty that pervades all science inquiry.

“On a more personal note, I want to take this moment to thank all of you for serving as my own teachers. If I have been able to report and write sensibly on the work of Earth and solar system scientists, it’s because I (like many other journalists) have benefited from the patient help of you scientists. There isn’t a university researcher or a government scientist at the USGS, NOAA, or NASA who hasn’t found time to give me and my colleagues the kind of help we always need to interpret new findings, to provide background, and to steer us away from inaccuracy or hype. I’m probably as prone to inaccuracy and purple prose as any other reporter, but you are the ones who help me minimize those sins so I can keep our readers well informed about the important work that all of you do. I thank you for this award, and for making my job so fascinating and often so easy.

—DAVID PERLMAN, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco, CA