A New York Times science writer at MIT last week gave insights into how she does her job, stressing the importance of scientists who can explain their work in non-technical terms.
Though Gina Kolata focused her talk, which was sponsored by the Department of Mathematics, on the reporting of mathematics, many of her comments were applicable to other fields as well. For example, when asked how she would describe a particularly complex mathematical subject, she said, "I wouldn't. I would ask you to do it. [Reporters] just don't know enough--you [scientists] have a much deeper, subtler understanding. I think reporters get into trouble when they try to define things themselves."
She went on to stress that scientists can explain complex topics in language that the general public can understand. "If you come up with something that's too technical, I'll stop you and tell you so," she said. In the end, "we may come up with something that you may not feel is exactly precise, but it gives people a flavor of what the work is about."
Ms. Kolata, whose specialties include mathematics and who has studied in Professor Harvey Lodish's laboratory in the Department of Biology, also addressed the dearth of mathematics stories in the news and why that is so. For one thing, the field doesn't promote itself the way other fields do, she said. Researchers in biology and physics, for example, write for journals like Science, Nature and Cell that produce weekly tip sheets for reporters "telling us what is interesting each week." None of the math journals does this.
She also noted that mathematicians "really do have to leap a higher hurdle before someone will write about your stories." That's due in part to the public's (and sometimes editors') resistance to the discipline. "When people hear math, they say things like, `I don't know anything about math. I was never good at math.'"
Nevertheless, she emphasized that she's always interested in hearing from mathematicians with potential story ideas. To that end, she gave the audience her e-mail address. "I'm very willing to listen, as long as you can get it across without any numbers or equations."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 9, 1996.