J. Madeleine Nash received the David Perlman Award for Excellence in Science Writing at the AGU Joint Assembly Honors Ceremony, which was held on 19 May 2004, in Montreal, Canada. Nash was honored for “Fireproofing the Forests,” an article that appeared in the 18 August 2003 edition of Time Magazine.
“It is an honor to present AGU’s 2004 David Perlman Award to Madeleine Nash, a senior contributor to Time Magazine and, if I may say so, one of the great science writers of her generation.
“It’s long been a tradition at the newsmagazine where Madeleine made her career to separate the reporting of a story from the writing. Correspondents in the field generally did the footwork and then wired long reams of “files” to writers in New York, who shaped the facts and quotes and anecdotes they were handed into elegant paragraphs written, in newsmagazine jargon, ‘to space.’
“Madeleine was one of the first Time staffers to break that mold. Armed with growing expertise in a wide range of scientific disciplines, she became a writer-correspondent who insisted on speaking directly to scientists doing the research and, whenever possible, traveling to the remote locations where they were doing their fieldwork.
“For a Time story about El Niño, for example, it wasn’t enough to debrief scientists who had measured the changes in ocean temperatures that characterize the weather phenomenon. Madeleine had to board a research vessel in the middle of the tropical Pacific to watch them do it—a reporting trip that led to her 2002 book El Niño: Unlocking the Secrets of the Master Weather-Maker (Warner Books).
“Madeleine’s reporting has taken her all over the globe. To the top of Peru’s Quelccaya ice cap to search for evidence of ancient climate change. To Borneo to report on the aftermath of fires raging across Indonesia. To Antarctica for a story about the effect of global warming on the polar ice shelves. To the interior of Brazil for a story about reconnecting isolated patches of the Atlantic rainforest. To Panama for a story about bleaching coral reefs.
“So it was no surprise that when she began reporting a story about forest management for last summer’s big fire season she dashed off to Flagstaff, Arizona. She wanted to witness firsthand the effects of a 10-year experiment to return a Ponderosa pine forest to its presettlement condition. Plenty of other journalists covered the fires. A number also dealt with the debate over the Bush Administration’s so-called ‘healthy forest’ initiative. But nobody else explained so well how the pieces of this complex puzzle fit into the history of an ecology that has been shaped by fire over the course of thousands of years.
“Madeleine began her career at Time nearly 35 years ago as a ‘clip girl,’ identifying newspaper articles that could be used as research for writers and editors. She advanced through the ranks, to secretary, researcher, correspondent, and after suggesting that the magazine needed to establish a national science beat, she was given the job in 1987. Since then, she has reported or written hundreds of stories and well over two dozen covers. (We’ve lost count, and so has she.)
“Madeleine’s pieces are an editor’s delight—smart, elegant, nuanced, and filled with the kind of vivid metaphor that makes abstract scientific concepts immediately accessible to the lay reader. When she announced in 2001 that she was thinking about taking early retirement, we felt we were losing not just a first-rate science writer, but also a national treasure. To our great pleasure, we managed to work out an arrangement by which Madeleine is nearly as productive as a contributor as she was when she worked for us on staff. In the past 2 years, she has turned in several major pieces and three more cover stories: one on autism, another on fetal development, and yet another on what makes us—but miraculously not Madeleine—fat.
“I applaud the committee for honoring Madeleine with this prize, and Madeleine for so richly deserving it.”
—PHILIP ELMER-DEWITT, Time Magazine, New York, N.Y.
“I am delighted to accept this award from the American Geophysical Union, an organization that has long been a touchstone for those of us who cover the Earth sciences.
“I am especially pleased that the award is named after David Perlman, the unofficial dean of American science writers.
“And I am overwhelmed by the kind comments made by Time editor Philip Elmer-DeWitt, who for so many years, has encouraged my ideas for stories and suggested ways of making them even better.
“I am likewise grateful to all my other colleagues at Time, including reporter David Bjerklie and photo editor Cristina Scalet, who helped put together this story, and Gavin Scott, my former bureau chief in Chicago, who escorted me to the awards ceremony.
“I came to science writing in mid-career and have never regretted it. Most journalists, after all, cover some restricted field of human endeavor—politics, business, law, sports, medicine—whereas my beat, I like to tell people, is the universe.
“Nothing thrills me more than writing about the extreme side of the universe, from the primordial cauldron of the Big Bang to the whirling vortex of a tornado. And very early on, I widened my lens to include human beings in the roster of the natural forces I cover.
“For this I am partly beholden to the stickup man I encountered when I was a young general assignment reporter in Chicago. He was doing time in Cook County jail, and I was working on a story about crime. At one point I asked him, ‘Why do you do what you do?’ I have never forgotten his reply. ‘Honey,’ he said, ‘I don’t know why I do what I do. I guess I’m like thunder, lightning, earthquakes, and rain.’
“Now I’m not sure that a single stickup man qualifies as a force of nature. But in their collective footprint, 6 billion people assuredly do. So it is gratifying to me that the story the American Geophysical Union has chosen to honor is one that weighs the impact humans are having on the fundamental geophysical and ecological process of fire.”
—J. MADELEINE NASH, Time Magazine, New York, N.Y.