J. Kelly Beatty

2009 Robert C. Cowen Award for Sustained Achievement in Science Journalism Winner

J. Kelly Beatty received the 2009 Robert C. Cowen Award for Sustained Achievement in Science Journalism at the Joint Assembly, held 26 May 2009 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The award honors “lifetime achievement in scientific journalism.”


For the past 35 years, J. Kelly Beatty has kept his readers on the edge of their front-row seats to much of the exploration of our solar system.

Kelly is currently senior contributing editor to Sky & Telescope, the magazine with which he has been affiliated for his entire career. A skilled communicator, Kelly has a deep understanding of the science that fills his writings, and he acquired early the scientist’s appreciation for the interplay between observations and ideas. Equally important, Kelly has a special knack for conveying the excitement that scientists experience in the act of discovery.

No doubt these traits are in part the result of rigorous training as an undergraduate geology major at California Institute of Technology. In at least equal measure, however, these underpinnings of Kelly’s writings build on the enthusiasm with which he has followed the meetings and the literature in planetary science since he began his career as a journalist.

Many media are relying more on the Web than the printed word, and Kelly now writes mostly for Sky & Telescope’s Web site. As a principal investigator for a NASA planetary mission, I’ve seen Kelly’s skill as an online reporter at capturing the importance of new scientific observations and conveying the sense of standing by the sides of the participants as new information unfolds. (During our spacecraft’s first flyby of Mercury last year, Kelly was standing by my side, so it’s no exaggeration to say that his narratives are often eyewitness accounts.) But whether he is covering Cassini’s discoveries at the Saturn system, new findings from the Moon, or what to call Pluto, Kelly’s stories are instructive, lucid, and compelling.

Kelly has also written for other media, and he’s made effective use of many other methods to communicate science. He was a writer and editor for Night Sky for 4 years, he’s written articles for newspapers (e.g., New York Times, Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor) and magazines (e.g., Omni, The Planetary Report, Air & Space/Smithsonian), and he’s contributed to more than a dozen books. Kelly has written a book (Exploring the Solar System: Other Worlds) for the National Geographic Society, and he coedited another book (The New Solar System) that is widely used in undergraduate classes on the planets, has been translated into several languages since it was first published nearly 4 decades ago, and is now in its fourth edition.

Kelly communicates as well through broadcasting and public speaking. He’s written planetarium scripts for Hayden Planetarium, in Boston. His interviews on a range of planetary topics have aired on National Public Radio. And he’s given many public talks on the solar system, space exploration, and other astronomical topics.

Less well publicized among Kelly’s contributions to scientific communication has been his mentoring of other science journalists. He ran an internship program at Sky & Telescope for more than 2 decades, and the training and mentoring he provided have been influential to many.

Kelly was earlier honored by the American Astronomical Society with its Harold Masursky Award, given for outstanding service to planetary science and exploration. It is equally fitting that AGU acknowledge all that Kelly has contributed to science journalism over the past three and a half decades, surely the sort of “sustained achievement” for which the Robert C. Cowen Award was established.

Not only are Kelly’s cumulative journalistic contributions more than sufficient to warrant the 2009 Cowen Award, but also the name Kelly Beatty now adds an extraterrestrial luster to the ranks of those with whom this honor is forever tied in Union annals.

—SEAN C. SOLOMON, Carnegie Institution of Washington, Washington, D. C.


Bob Cowen and I came to science writing along similar paths, although about a quarter century apart. He got the reporting itch while at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and I got it while an undergrad at California Institute of Technology. We both appreciated the exciting advances that geoscientists were making in understanding how Earth and its sibling worlds worked, and the stories of these triumphs needed to be told. They brimmed with detail—not just the headlines of who, what, and where but also the more demanding why and how.

Readers of Sky & Telescope have always relished getting those whys and hows, so for me S&T has been a particularly good fit. It’s been challenging, too, knowing that whatever I write will be read by both amateurs and professionals in the field. Fortunately, I’ve benefited from discussions and interviews with hundreds of researchers who’ve always freely and generously helped me to understand. Every time I attend a scientific conference, I’m thankful for the opportunity not just to report the news but also to learn.

I’ve also benefited from coming of age during what’s been termed the “golden age” of planetary exploration. My first feature story, in 1974, involved one of Mariner 10’s first-ever flybys of Mercury. Now, 35 years later, I’m writing about Mercury again, as seen anew through the robotic eyes of MESSENGER. In between I’ve had front-row seats to the exploration of all the Sun’s planets and more than a few asteroids and comets—heady stuff for someone who as a boy glimpsed them hazily through a backyard telescope and wondered how they might look truly close up.

I’m both thrilled and humbled to receive this year’s Robert C. Cowen Award, and I’m grateful to both the nominating committee and Sean Solomon, my citationist, for their affirmation of my work. I’d also like to thank AGU and its members for recognizing the roles that we journalists play in connecting your work to the public at large. In this time of renewed hope for elevating the standing of science in American society, the need for good science—and good science writing—has never been more important.

—J. KELLY BEATTY, Sky and Telescope, Cambridge, Mass.