This award is for a news story, written on deadline and pegged to a talk. But it’s also an example of how habits honed in 2 decades of outstanding journalism can help a reporter seize an opportunity in a moment. Those habits helped Ann Gibbons crystallize a casual conversation into a sparkling gem of a story.
Ann, a contributing correspondent for Science, is a master at tracking research findings, such as an unexpectedly light isotope or the shape of a bump on an ancient bone. Crucially, she then also recognizes the moment when those details coalesce into a story the world needs to know.
Ann’s a writer first, with English and journalism degrees from the University of California, Berkeley. She also studied science at Berkeley and with fellowships at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at Harvard. At Science she covers human evolution, and her award-winning stories include those on human sacrifice and ancient migrations. Her tales of how people actually lived in prehistory turn out to have huge relevance for today because we are not the first humans to struggle with climate change, mass migrations, and encounters with foreigners. One story, about the upright apes that gave rise to us all, was the jumping-off point for her book The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors.
Her story “Why 536 Was the Worst Year to Be Alive” arose as she sat over dinner and beer with sources at a conference. Talk turned to how terrible life was at certain times in the past, and both scholars named 536 CE as the very worst year. That was a year without a summer, when crops failed from Ireland to China. One researcher was part of a team tracing the year’s cold climate to a volcano in Iceland.
Immediately recognizing the power of this result, Ann attended a symposium at Harvard where the scientists announced their findings. She was the only reporter there. Her story reveals how a new method allowed geoscientists to analyze elements in an ice core with astonishing precision, tracking storms and volcanoes to within a month or less. As Ann wrote, the ice core illuminates “a dark hour in what used to be called the Dark Ages.” Her reporting does that too: She shines a light on the murky chapters of our history to help us understand the challenges of today.
—Elizabeth Culotta, Science Magazine, Washington, D.C.
I am greatly honored to receive the David Perlman Award, which was named for the renowned science writer and editor at the San Francisco Chronicle who inspired so many of us to be science writers. I was an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, when I heard David give an inspiring talk about what it was like to be a science writer. I was always torn between studying science and writing, and Perlman was one of the first people who showed me a path to do both—and to make a living at it.
I also want to thank my long-time editors at Science, Elizabeth Culotta and Tim Appenzeller, who have given me the encouragement and resources to follow leads and to travel around the world to report on some of the most exciting topics in evolution. This story came out of a dinner conversation at a meeting in Germany where I had the time to muse over a beer with scientists about the worst time to have been alive. I thank all the researchers involved with the Initiative for the Science of the Human Past at Harvard and the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine for inviting me to their closed workshop and accommodating my many inquiries for this story.
I think one of the most intriguing parts of being a science writer is to try to bring alive key events in the past—to show how humans evolved in response to natural disasters and changes in the climate or their habitats. The most important story of our time may well be to show how climate change has shaped us, for better or for worse—and how interconnected we are with the planet’s cycles. Our ancestors had to adapt to changes in the atmosphere, weather, climate, and their habitats over millions of years. But now, in addition to having to adapt to the planet’s natural cycles and sudden disasters, humans have to grapple with the rapid-fire effects of our own pollution and climate forcing. In my opinion, it is increasingly urgent for writers to show what scientists are learning from the past about how paleoclimate and pollution can affect life on the ground for real people and other creatures who inhabit the Earth. Plus, these are great human stories to tell, full of drama, heroism, and tragedy.
I also want to thank my husband, Bill Scherlis, and my children, Lily, Sophia, and Tom, for their support, ongoing interest in my work, and tolerating my long absences to distant places when I was traveling with researchers, often off the grid. Finally, I want to thank AGU for this award. It is the best type of encouragement.
—Ann Gibbons, Science Magazine, Washington, D.C.