Richard Monastersky

2002 David Perlman Award for Excellence in Science Journalism – News Winner

Richard Monastersky was awarded the David Perlman Award for Excellence in Science Journalism – News at the AGU Spring Meeting Honors Ceremony, which was held on 29 May 2002, in Washington, D.C. The award recognizes excellence in science news reporting, prepared with a deadline of one week or less.


“It is a great honor to present AGU’s 2002 David Perlman Award to Richard Monastersky, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“For those of you who don’t know, The Chronicle is an independent weekly newspaper read by about half a million university and college administrators, professors, and graduate students. Most of our readers are not scientists; they’re the folks down the hall or in the building next door who wonder what their colleagues are doing and want to be able to talk intelligently about it at the next faculty party.

“Our mission in covering research is two-fold: to report scientific findings and the implications of those findings, and also to put them into a larger context. We want to give our readers a sense of the motivations and conflicts that drive the research and a glimpse into how it is conducted from day to day.

“The article that garnered Rich his prize, ‘A Plucky Spacecraft Explores a Distant Asteroid’ (March 2, 2001)-about the NEAR Shoemaker mission-is typical of his work: it brings a complex subject alive through vivid writing, explains the science, and goes beyond that to explore what is at stake both scientifically and politically.

“I recently found out why Rich is so good at his job. He told me that as a favor to his wife, Cheri, who works at the National Institutes of Health, he once subjected himself to a brain scan. It turns out that the left hemisphere of his brain is crowding the right hemisphere. An internationally-renowned neuroradiologist who saw the film joked, ‘So your husband thinks he chose to be a writer.’

“Rich’s interest in art, history, and other subjects outside of science informs his journalism and lifts his reporting above the plane of mere explanation to the level of storytelling. Whether he’s writing about the ambition and limitations of Stephen Jay Gould (‘Revising the Book of Life,’ March 15, 2002), describing the links between geology and nineteenth-century landscape painting (‘The Marriage of Art and Science,’ June 1, 2001), or explaining how babies acquire language (‘Look Who’s Listening,’ July 6, 2001), Rich’s broad knowledge and intellectual curiosity enrich his stories and make even the very left-brained among our readers see why science matters so much.

“His work is also marked by a keen sense of skepticism. His article ‘Land Mines in the World of Mental Maps’ (November 2, 2001) punched holes in the claims made about what brain scans can show us. Another example is one of my favorites, a profile of the controversial climate scientist James Hansen (‘The Storm at the Center of Climate Science,’ November 10, 2000). Rich demonstrated that researchers, politicians, and lobbyists on both sides of the global warming debate had misinterpreted Hansen’s work, and also revealed how the scientist’s own political naivete had gotten him into trouble.

“Rich truly does a service to the scientific community by reporting his stories so responsibly and writing them so beautifully. I applaud the committee for selecting him for this prize and Rich for being so deserving of it. All of us at The Chronicle look forward to his future stories.”

—JENNIFER K. RUARK, Senior Editor, The Research Section, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Washington, D.C.


“I am honored to accept this award, named for David Perlman, such a revered science journalist. He continues to write rings around the rest of us and serves as an inspiration to younger generations of reporters. I thank the award committee for recognizing my story among the many fine submissions this year.

“The path to this award-as for most events in life, whether good or bad-goes back to the fourth grade. I had a teacher, Miss Vick, who earned our respect and awe because she had traveled to all 50 states. When we behaved particularly well, she would entertain the class with slides of some of her trips. We were particularly impressed with her pictures from Alaska and Hawaii, which gave me my first exposure to the geologic forces of volcanoes and glaciers that have captivated me ever since. Those slides sparked a yearning to travel and learn about the world.

“Over the years since, I’ve reported stories on every continent, from the high frozen desert of the South Pole to the tropics of Africa. And in almost all of those places, you geoscientists have been my guides. You’ve allowed me to tag along on field trips to study ice cores in Greenland, stromatolites in Australia, Cambrian fossils in China, fault scarps in California, lava tubes in Hawaii, and numerous other geologic features. I must thank you for your hospitality and patience in showing me the sites, and teaching me along the way.

“But the travel hasn’t stopped at the edge of this planet. Through your research, you have led me to other worlds, opening up vistas on Mars, Europa, distant galaxies, and even back through time to the beginning of the universe. The story being honored here is a perfect example. When the NEAR spacecraft dropped onto the dusty surface of the asteroid Eros last year, 196 million miles from Earth, there was a palpable sense of electricity in the audience at the Applied Physics Lab-a feeling that we humans were venturing someplace new and we didn’t know what we would find.

“Thank you all, for being such gracious and exciting guides, for opening up your laboratories and your field vehicles, and for sharing-above all else-your wonder at the world that surrounds us. I hope to join you, physically or metaphorically, in your travels for many years to come.

“I must also thank Jennifer Ruark, a wonderful editor and friend, who brings out the best in my stories and has helped my section of the newspaper get through some difficult times. Thanks also go to the top editors, copy editors, art department, and other writers at The Chronicle, who all lend their invaluable support and guidance. Each story truly is a team effort.”

—RICHARD MONASTERSKY, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Washington, D.C