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From The Writer’s Desk: Untold Stories in Science Writing

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In the series, “From The Writer’s Desk,” I’ll describe what I do for a living as a writer and ideas I have for advancing my craft.

By devising inflation theory, considered by many in physics to be the best explanation of why the universe currently looks the way it does, cosmologist Alan Guth at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology probably ranks among one of the most important physicists alive today. He suggested the cosmos expanded staggeringly in size a sliver of a second after it was born — a growth spurt that would help explain, among other things, why the universe is as extraordinarily uniform as it is today, with only very tiny fluctuations in how matter and energy are distributed.

For this achievement, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner decided to award Guth one of his new Fundamental Physics Prize this year, instantly making the physicist a multimillionaire. In writing a story on the Milner prize for NOVA, I came across an article in The New York Times the $3 million appeared in a bank account of Guth’s that only had $200. “Suddenly, it said, $3,000,200,” Guth said.

Why did Guth’s bank account only have $200?

A journalistic dictum is to “kill your babies” — to ruthlessly cut out anything that doesn’t serve the main thrust of your story, no matter how lovely. It’s a good rule to follow, helping to prevent florid digressions. But just because a detail doesn’t serve the main point of your story doesn’t mean it’s pointless — there are thousands of stories that end up on my figurative cutting room floor, answers to mysteries, glimpses of a larger world, items that regretfully often get tucked away in the electronic recesses of my computer to fade into digital obscurity.

Unless, say, I had a blog.

It turns out Guth wasn’t languishing in poverty before this jackpot. That $200 bank account wasn’t his main one. It was just one he happened to have. Since Guth didn’t know whether the guy who called him over the phone claiming to be a Russian billionaire who wanted to give him $3 million was for real or not, Guth cautiously gave him details to a relatively expendable account and waited to see what happened. I’d wager he was rather happy with the result.

The bad thing about writing for others for a living is there are stories no one else would really care to pay to run. The good thing about writing for yourself is that you only have to really answer to yourself.

You can email me regarding From The Writer’s Desk at toohardforscience@gmail.com.

Charles Q. Choi About the Author: Charles Q. Choi is a frequent contributor to Scientific American. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Science, Nature, Wired, and LiveScience, among others. In his spare time, he has traveled to all seven continents. Follow on Twitter @cqchoi.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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