Tom Siegfried received the 2006 Robert C. Cowen Award for Sustained Achievement in Science Journalism at the Joint Assembly Honors Ceremony, which was held on 25 May 2006 in Baltimore, Md. The award honors lifetime achievement in science journalism.
Tom Siegfried’s career should be recognized not only for what he has done, but also for what he has done for other science journalists.
On their own, Siegfried’s accomplishments would more than suffice for any lifetime achievement award. For the past several decades he has been one of the country’s preeminent science reporters. At the Dallas Morning News beginning in 1985, he fostered a fledgling newspaper section about science into a weekly powerhouse that was read by science enthusiasts and policymakers across the country.
He covered the leading science stories of the day, from Voyager’s encounter with Neptune to the beginnings-and ultimate end-of the Superconducting Super Collider particle accelerator outside Dallas, Tex. His areas of expertise ranged from Bayesian statistics to the neurobiology of Alzheimer’s disease. Indeed, his detailed reporting on such topics as addiction and depression brought to bear the sophisticated science so often lacking in popular journalistic accounts.
Nearly single-handedly, Siegfried also perfected a rare form of reporting: the weekly science column. Through these essays, he explored a range of topics, from the nuclear reactor that some say lies within Earth’s core, to the latest dispatches from the frontiers of cosmology. Often challenging, always enlightening, these columns became his signature outlet for articulate insights into the nature of science.
In recent years, Siegfried has also branched out into authoring books, bringing to the wider public his particular breed of clarity on the most complicated topics. In The Bit and the Pendulum, he tackled quantum information theory. In Strange Matters, he took readers on a wild and wondrous tour through scientific discoveries that have yet to be made. A forthcoming book from Joseph Henry Press will explain the mathematics of game theory.
In addition to the American Geophysical Union, many other organizations have recognized Siegfried for his reporting. The National Association of Science Writers awarded him its 2004 Science-in-Society prize, one of the profession’s most prestigious awards. The American Chemical Society gave him its own lifetime award for interpreting chemistry for the public. His work has been included in the book-length anthology, The Best American Science Writing 2004, edited by Dava Sobel.
Along with his own work, Siegfried has consistently championed developing the careers of others. Several of the nation’s prominent science writers-now working at such outlets as the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, and Nature-trace their success back to his tutelage. Working with interns at the newspaper, and mentoring their talent, is the accomplishment Siegfried is most proud of.
Siegfried continues to serve the journalism community as a board member of the prestigious Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, and he lectures on science journalism to audiences across the country. The American Geophysical Union can be confident that in giving this award, it rewards not only a single person’s achievement, but also the importance of accurate, insightful science journalism.
—ALEXANDRA WITZE, Nature Magazine, Washington, D.C
It is a wonderful surprise and great honor to have been awarded the Robert C. Cowen Award for Sustained Achievement in Science Journalism. I am more appreciative than I can express to be now included on the short list of illustrious previous recipients.
It has been my great good fortune to be a part of the community of science journalists, and to be allowed to wander through the halls of science, where countless men and women have generously shared with me their expertise and insights into all the diverse arenas of scientific knowledge.
Throughout my career, I have tried to break down the barriers between science and the public, to make accessible the findings at the frontiers of discovery, from the realm of atoms and molecules to Earth, sky, and space. Most of all, I have tried to show that science is not a static set of facts entombed in textbooks, but a vibrant enterprise, an exploration that uncovers an evolving understanding of an evolving world.
I have reported from many of these frontiers myself, but my own work is vastly exceeded by those I have trained and edited over the years. Certainly I consider my most useful contribution to be helping young science journalists find their way into the field and instilling in them a drive to keep excellent science journalism alive.
At a time when science writing in American journalism is under assault from the pressures of economics and anti-science prejudice, it is more important than ever that organizations such as AGU celebrate the value of communicating science to the public. Science journalism is no longer-and really never was-a pastime for promoting fascination with gee-whiz gadgetry and rose-colored prophecy. Given what the rest of journalism has become, science journalism is society’s best hope for discerning sense from nonsense in the complexities of today’s contentious world. I am deeply grateful to AGU for recognizing that science journalism in this spirit is worthy of such a prestigious award.
—TOM SIEGFRIED, freelance science writer, Los Angeles, CA