Many of the best science stories start as hidden gems, overlooked by the crowd and encrusted in layers of equations, jargon, and other obfuscating material. It takes determination, imagination, and a very high level of craft to unearth them and polish them to a sparkle.
Shannon Hall knows where to look and what to do. For as long as I’ve known her (she was my student in 2014–2015), she’s always had the ability to transform dense science into shiny narratives that audiences treasure as both entertainment and information.
Shannon is a trained astronomer, with undergraduate and master’s degrees in the discipline (and a master’s in science journalism too). But I like to think that it’s her other undergraduate major, in philosophy, that says the most about what propels her work today. Shannon is mission driven, and her mission is to help lay audiences understand and even cherish the centrality of science and scientific thinking in their daily lives. She finds ignorance intolerable, so she pushes herself to find creative ways to make her stories fresh and appealing—and accurate, always scrupulously accurate.
It’s why you can pick up the New York Times on a steamy midsummer day and find a story by Shannon enthusiastically explaining the weirdness of Earth’s orbit and why the distance to the Sun has nothing to do with seasonality. It’s also why you can find her patiently sparring online with readers who just can’t quite understand why the discovery of a “supervolcano” beneath Yellowstone National Park does not mean the apocalypse is nigh.
Shannon’s prizewinning story for Scientific American about plate tectonics on exoplanets beautifully illustrates her process. She came up with the idea one morning while scanning primary source material, in this case the arXiv preprint server of about-to-be-published papers. The study she found was both opaque and highly speculative, because our ability to assess the composition of distant worlds is still severely constrained. Most reporters, even astrophysics specialists like Shannon, gave it a pass. But the vision of volcanoes, earthquakes, oceans, and continents churning on planets trillions of miles away fired Shannon’s always-smoldering imagination.
She quickly pitched her idea to Scientific American, got the approval she needed, and plunged into the work, reading and reporting intensely through the weekend and turning around a very complicated feature story in just 5 days. The result was a timely story that not only got readers excited about the nascent field of exogeology, but also, and probably more important, gave them a fresh appreciation for the unusually lively tectonics of our home world and for the life that almost certainly could not have evolved without it.
—Dan Fagin, New York University, New York
It is a dream come true to receive the David Perlman Award, both because David carved a legendary career and because so many other inspiring journalists won this award before me.
I’d like to share credit for this story with Clara Moskowitz, my editor at Scientific American, who accepted my pitch, provided guidance, and edited the story in a smart and thoughtful manner. She even said yes when I begged her for a slightly longer word count.
Needless to say, the story would not have been possible without Clara or the generous help of the scientists I interviewed. I am so appreciative of the geologists who talked to me—even providing background that was not ultimately quoted in the story. And there was a lot of background!
I have never taken a formal class in the Earth sciences. But geologists have welcomed me into their labs and invited me to join their fieldwork. They have gone out of their way to talk to me, often calling me during their holidays and emailing me from the field. Although many past award winners have spoken of this incredible generosity, I think it is worth reiterating, in part because I would like to ask scientists to keep this chain of communication open. Today it is more crucial than ever.
More broadly, I’m grateful to Dan Fagin, the director of NYU’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program, for his kind words here—and in the past. He has long supported me (and so many others) by providing feedback, a push when necessary, and constant advice. It was Dan who first encouraged me to write about topics beyond astronomy, a nudge that ultimately helped me widen my lens to include our pale blue dot and the awe-inspiring processes that shape it.
And finally, I’d like to thank my husband. With this news story, I found myself facing a fast approaching deadline, but my husband immediately carved time out of our busy lives so that I could work. This is something he has done time and time again, allowing me to hit so many deadlines that seemed insurmountable—and without him, they probably would have been.
So it is with deep gratitude that I accept this award. Thank you.
—Shannon Hall, Freelance Science Journalist, Boulder, Colo.