AGU recognizes Maya Wei-Haas, a science writer at National Geographic, with the 2020 David Perlman Award for Excellence in Science Journalism – News for her story about the discovery of the birth of a submarine volcano. Freelance science writer Joshua Sokol receives the 2020 Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism – Features for a story revealing the pivotal role two women computer programmers played in the birth of chaos theory. 


David Perlman Award for Excellence in Science Writing – News 


Perlman award winner Maya Wei-Haas is recognized for “Strange waves rippled around Earth. Now we may know why.” published by National Geographic, 21 May 2019. The David Perlman Award, named for the late San Francisco Chronicle science editor, recognizes excellence in science news writing published with deadline pressure of one week or less. The award comes with a $5,000 prize and a plaque.


The winning article captured the real-time excitement of a research expedition’s discovery of the birth of a submarine volcano between Madagascar and the African continent near a tiny island named Mayotte. The story explained the previously discovered and unexplained seismic activity in the region that inspired the expedition to go look for its source, including slow-rolling seismic waves of unknown origin. 


Information and contacts Wei-Hass developed in earlier reporting about those mystery waves allowed her to pull together a deeply sourced and comprehensive article on the volcano birth and its scientific implications while on an unrelated remote field trip with no computer access, using her phone to reach scientists via email, Twitter direct message and other means. Wei-Haas turned in a first draft within a day and her article was published a few days later; it was among the very first news articles in English on the expedition’s findings. The article ends by discussing how the links between the volcano and the induced seismicity remain a mystery, leaving the reader eager to hear more as the scientific story continues to evolve.


The Perlman award selection committee noted the story was a “very clear and interesting read despite delving deep into seismic science” while also emphasizing the important implications of the discovery for residents of the area and others living in seismic zones. Committee members also noted how “the article illustrates how scientists seek to explain and understand unusual phenomena and how citizen scientists can contribute to new discoveries.”


“Maya’s piece was a well-written, cutting-edge, breaking-news story with terrific reporting,” noted one committee member. “I loved that she got so many differen
t sources to comment and that she covered so many different perspectives, from the cultural/societal tie-ins to the geophysics. It was even more impressive once you knew the backstory of how she had to report it so quickly from the field.”


Finalists for this year’s Perlman Award include: Michael Greshko, science writer for National Geographic, for “Colossal volcano behind ‘mystery’ global cooling finally found” published in National Geographic on 23 August 2019; and Richard Stone, senior science editor at HHMI Tangled Bank Studios, for “U.S tests ways to sweep space clean of radiation after nuclear attack” published in Science on 26 December 2019.


Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism – Features


Joshua Sokol receives the 2020 Walter Sullivan award for “The Hidden Heroines of Chaos,” published in Quanta Magazine on May 20, 2019. The Water Sullivan Award, named for the late New York Times science writer, honors excellence in science feature writing for work prepared with a deadline of more than one week. The award comes with a $5,000 prize and a plaque. 


The winning story reveals the pivotal role that two women computer programmers played in the birth of chaos theory more than a half-century ago. The article draws on archival material mined by an MIT geophysicist, who wanted to know why a foundational 1963 paper about chaos theory credited a woman named Ellen Fetter for handling the numerical computations. 


Sokol weaves together the stories of Fetter and her mentor, Margaret Hamilton, demonstrating their contributions to the work of Edward Norton Lorenz, the meteorologist whose name has become synonymous with the development of chaos theory. This compelling piece not only provides long-overdue credit to pioneering women programmers, but it also explains chaos theory, which is fundamental to the understanding of weather, climate, and other unpredictable natural systems. The article includes well-chosen illustrations and photos from the early days of chaos theory.


The committee was unanimous in praising the explanatory nature and thoroughness of Sokol’s work, with one member noting, “this story is actually three stories in one: an explanation of chaos theory, the story of early climate change models, and the mostly uncredited women who made this work possible.” Members cited Sokol’s unusual feat in making the development of chaos theory come alive, with one writing, “this one hooked me immediately.” Another committee member characterized the article as “accomplished storytelling … with some excellent detective work on the side.” 


The committee lauded Sokol for writing about such an important topic. “Not only is it paramount that we look at the past as well for science to become more i
nclusive,” one member wrote, “but the article also described the development of a science that is the basis of so much we do everyday today: climate modeling.” 


Finalists for this year’s Sullivan Award include: Craig Welch, senior staff writer at National Geographic, for “Arctic permafrost is thawing fast. That affects us all.” published in National Geographic in September 2019; and Jonathan Webb, science editor at ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) News for “The Shadow Chasers,” published by ABC News (Australia) on 31 January 2019.


The two AGU journalism awards will be formally presented during AGU’s 2020 Fall Meeting being held 1-17 December. Nominations for the 2021 AGU journalism awards will open 15 January 2021. 




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