Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Malcolm Browne

The journalist Malcolm Browne died yesterday, at age 81. He was famous as a correspondent during the Vietnam War, where he took one of the war's most famous photographs, of a Buddist monk setting himself on fire in Saigon. Later he did science journalism (his education was in chemistry), and maybe ten years ago (or more) I read an article by him that impressed me greatly and that I still remember. It was in the Science Times, and only about 500 words, and while I don't remember all the details it was about a paper that found some flocking-like behavior in certain types of cells that might be a basis for the phenomenon in birds, fish, etc. After reading his article I went and read the scientific paper -- I think it was in Physical Review Letters, if I recall correctly -- and it was your typically dry paper with only a hint of the thrust of Browne's article. I was deeply impressed at how he had found the essence of that work and brought it out into a very readable account by, I guess, talking a lot with the researchers and others. He really made that paper come alive, and I saw how a really great journalist embeds the paper in a larger context, how they move from the paper's often narrow technical result to its larger significance, something I sometimes struggle with. I was somewhere in New Hampshire, and I can still picture the story on the page -- it was only 5 short columns, spread wide across the top of the second page of the Science section -- and probably one of the most important articles I've ever read.

The Times obituary quotes from an essay he wrote:
“After a time, a news writer may begin to sense a kind of sameness in most of the events that pass as news,” he wrote. “When that happens a lucky few of us discover that in science, almost alone among human endeavors, there is always something new under the sun.”

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