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Science tales that take the prize

Watch the first part of "No Fish Left Uncounted," one of the episodes in WPBT's "Changing Seas" TV series. The series is one of this year's award-winners in science communication.

Are you looking for a million-dollar story? How about a dozen tales produced by folks who have been awarded more than a million dollars in the past week? Here's a roundup of award-winning tales with a scientific twist from the MacArthur Foundation's "genius" fellowships ($500,000 each), the National Academies' Communication Awards ($20,000 each), the National Association of Science Writers' Science in Society Journalism Awards ($2,500 each) and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writers' Victor Cohn Medical Science Reporting Prize ($3,000).


MacArthur Fellows:

Among this year's 22 fellows are two journalists who have been known to delve into scientific subjects:

MacArthur Foundation

Radio host Jad Abumrad at work.

Jad Abumrad is co-host and producer of Radiolab, a nationally syndicated public radio program that focuses on the intersection of science and society. His co-host is another well-known science journalist, Robert Krulwich. "The structure of Radiolab episodes often mimics the scientific process itself, complete with moments of ambiguity, digressions, reversals, and surprising conclusions that evoke in audiences a sense of adventure and re-create the thrill of discovery," the MacArthur Foundation said. It cited two examples of RadioLab goodness: "A Very Lucky Wind," which analyzed the seemingly improbable circumstances surrounding a balloon's journey across England; and "Cities," which took an up-close and personal look at urban demographics.

Peter Hessler is a writer for The New Yorker and National Geographic, as well as an author with several books about China under his belt. He has a special ability to weave "multiple narrative threads into richly illuminating depictions of people and places confronted with a staggering pace of change," the foundation said. One of his books, "Oracle Bones," takes its name from an article he wrote for The New Yorker about the tragedy of a modern-day Chinese scholar and the history of Chinese writing. Check out "Oracle Bones" to see how Hessler works his magic.

Check out today's story about the MacArthur awards, and don't miss this spotlight on University of Washington computer scientist Shwetak Patel.

National Academies Communication Awards:

Annual prizes are awarded in four categories — books, film/radio/TV, magazines/newspapers and online — by the National Academy of Science, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine, with support by the W.M. Keck Foundation. I won the online award in 2008 and served as a judge this year. Here are the 2011 winners, with quotes from the academies' news release:

Book: "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot, telling the story of the family behind the most famous cancer cells in medical history. "A compelling and graceful use of narrative that illuminates the human and ethical issues of scientific research and medical advances."

Film/radio/TV: "Changing Seas: Sentinels of the Seas," submitted by producer Alexa Elliott and WPBT2 Production Team. This series from South Florida Public Television focuses on the biological riches in the sea, and how human activities are harming (and saving) those treasures. "What Florida's bottlenose dolphins tell us about the health of coastal waters and our own exposure to chemical contaminants."

Magazine/Newspaper: "Target: Cancer," a series by the New York Times' Amy Harmon that looks at how cancer therapies are being tested. "The promises and realities of clinical drug trials as seen through the eyes of passionate researchers and worried, sometimes desperate patients."

Online: Dot Earth Blog by Andrew Revkin, a New York Times weblog examining the efforts to balance human affairs with the planet's limits. "Pioneering social media abut the issues of climate and sustainability with worldwide readership and impact." Revkin is the first person to win the Communication Award twice: He was a winner in the magazine/newspaper category in 2003.

For still more science you can read, watch or listen to, check out the list of finalists on the National Academies website.

Science in Society Journalism Awards:

NASAW awards prizes in four categories, for books, science reporting, science reporting for a local or regional audience, and commentary or opinion. Here are this year's winners, with quotes from the judges:

Book: "Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA," by Maryn McKenna. "This is really original reporting; it had wide impact, particularly in the medical community and the infectious disease community in a way that popular science writing often doesn't."

Science reporting: "My Father's Broken Heart: How Putting in a Pacemaker Wrecked My Family's Life," by Katy Butler for New York Times Magazine. "It's a memoir with broad societal impact, and that's rare."

Local/regional reporting: "Power Politics," by Barbara Moran for Boston Globe Magazine, chronicling the science and politics surrounding the decision to close Vermont Yankee, the state's only nuclear power plant. "In the midst of talk of nuclear renaissance, here's this thoughtful, fresh assessment of the nuclear power plant issue."

Commentary/Opinion: "Hot Air," by Charles Homans for Columbia Journalism Review. Homans examines the curious fact that a large number of TV weather anchors don't believe in the scientific evidence for climate change. "I felt this piece just dragged the dirty secret of the whole climate change debate kicking and screaming out into the public."

Victor Cohn Medical Science Reporting Prize:

CASW awards an annual prize for a body of work in medical reporting, and this year's winner is Ron Winslow, The Wall Street Journal's New York-based deputy bureau chief for health and science. Winslow joined the Journal in 1983 as a reporter covering electric utilities and nuclear power, and he's been covering health and medicine for more than three decades. "When I read a Ron Winslow story, I know I'm in completely trustworthy hands," one of the judges said. Among the stories submitted on Winslow's behalf were "Major Shift in War on Cancer," "A New Rx for Medicine" and "The Case Against Stents." Check out the Journal's Winslow file for the latest from Ron. (Disclosure: I'm on CASW's board, but was not a judge for this competition.)

The CLUB Club prize:

I'm awarding a less pricey prize of my own today, to Cosmic Log correspondent Rebecca Roberts for suggesting "1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created" by Charles C. Mann as a selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club. The CLUB Club recognizes books with cosmic themes that have been out long enough to show up at your local library or used-book shop. "1493" is unusual in this regard because it was published just last month, but online booksellers are already starting to offer used copies, so it counts.

The book follows up on Mann's earlier book, "1491," which was a CLUB Club selection back in 2006. This sequel focuses on the "Columbian exchange" that followed Christopher Columbus' landing in the New World. Mann makes the case that this marked the start of a grand round of globalization that has continued to this day.

Roberts mentioned the book after I served up 10 suggestions for science-minded summer reading.

"I heard an interview with the author, Charles Mann, on NPR ('Fresh Air With Terry Gross')," Roberts told me in an email. "It was one of those stories where I sat in the car listening until it was over. The part about the earthworms coming over in European ship ballast — that there weren't any earthworms here before, and then they swept through the country like a plague changing everything — I was fascinated. I could almost see computer-generated imagery of that happening as some sort of educational sequence on 'NOVA.' I have a couple of degrees and consider myself well-educated, but I think my mouth was hanging open a bit."

Roberts' suggestion earns her a book from the Cosmic Log shelf, and she's selected "Physics of the Future" by Michio Kaku as her prize. Congratulations to our latest CLUB Club laureate!


Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding me to your Google+ circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.