An ode to Dennis Overbye

Like many people, I’ve gotten in the habit of using Instapaper and its wonderful iPad/iPhone app to read a lot of my news. Unfortunately, the amount of material that I want to read in a day far outweighs the amount I can reasonably find time to read in said day. The articles have been piling up for months now—I’m creeping up on the 500 article limit on my queue in the iPad app. This means I end up reading a lot of old news.

For example, just now, I was reading this article in the New York Times from November of last year, written by one of my favorite science journalists, Dennis Overbye. In it, he previews the year 2011 in planetary science and cosmology. Overbye singles out what is one of the most anticipated results in the astronomical field in many years—next month’s announcement of the latest findings of NASA’s powerful Kepler satellite, which has been searching for the last year and a half for exoplanets the size of earth—and goes on to succinctly summarize the upcoming activity of many other astrophysical projects, including the search for dark matter at the Large Hadron Collider.

One of the reasons I like him as a journalist is that he writes in a breezy style that avoids the tersely anonymous factoid-regurgitation of a wire report without succumbing to the excessive rhetorical flourishes about the beauty and wonder of the cosmos that Carl Sagan could pull off, but few others can. His descriptions of complex scientific concepts are vivid, often anthropomorphized, and economical. He’s also capable of dropping an achingly beautiful fragment of prose onto the pages of the Times‘ Science and Technology section, as he does here:

Meanwhile, the Hubble Space Telescope, rejuvenated by on-orbit surgery a year and a half ago, will keep scrutinizing the heavens with its matchless clarity, sifting eternity pixel by pixel.

“…sifting eternity pixel by pixel.” When I read that phrase, I nearly choked on my food and said out loud in admiration, “Are you kidding me?!” I can only hope sometime in my life to write a sentence about a lifeless piece of metal and mirrors that’s half as lovely as that one. But it’s not just pretty for its sibilance and dactyl meter; its aesthetic beauty belies a technical knowledge of the workings of Hubble.

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Hanging on to childish things

Astronomy blogger, podcaster, professor, skeptic, and all-around science communicator–extraordinaire Pamela Gay has written a melancholy and rather lovely farewell to free time from AAS’ quadrennial Seattle meeting (which is in full swing this week).

In case you haven’t heard of her, Pamela is one of the most energetic and prolific advocates of astronomy outreach, particularly in the realm of new media. She’s hosted the popular Slacker Astronomy and Astronomy Cast podcasts, was the new media czar for the 2009 International Year of Astronomy, is active in the skeptic community, and—of course—writes on her blog and Twitter account. I have been a big fan in particular of Astronomy Cast, and spent many, many bus rides and long walks across campus during my undergraduate years listening to it.

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