Life as a Knight

As many of you know, I’ve been spending the current academic year doing a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship down here at MIT. It’s no exaggeration to call the fellowship a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and there’s no way I could talk about all the things I’ve seen and done and learned since settling down in Cambridge, MA, in late summer – but I’ll do my best to pluck out a few items that I think are worth a special mention…

First, the people: I’m thrilled to be one of 12 science journalists from around the world to have been chosen for this year’s batch of “Knights.” (You can read our bios on the Knight website.) Here are our smiling faces on this year’s Knight brochure:

Of the other 11 Knights, five are from the United States, with one each from the U.K., Norway, Poland, Nigeria, China, and Cambodia. The director, Phil Hilts, is a veteran investigative journalist and author who’s been on staff at the New York Times and Washington Post. (And he’s not a bad bowler, too.)

One of the great things about the fellowship is the privilege of taking courses at both MIT and Harvard. Here’s a picture of the MIT campus, or at least the “elegant” part of it:

The Knight offices are also at MIT, so in a sense this has been “home base,” though I ended up living in an apartment closer to Harvard. Of course, Harvard has an even more dignified-looking campus than MIT – but what do you expect, they had quite a head-start. (It’s staggering to think about just how long Harvard has been around. It dates back to 1636, a mere 16 years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, and a solid 140 years before the United States became a country. At least, it’s impressive to anyone who didn’t attend Oxford or Cambridge…)

Choosing courses at the two universities, I felt like a kid in a candy store: Genetics or robotics? Relativity or quantum mechanics? Copernicus or Kuhn? For my first semester, I chose two courses at Harvard and one at MIT (though I dropped in on a few others). At Harvard, I took “Re-thinking the Scientific Revolution” and “Science and Literature.” While the former focused on the period from Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus to Newton’s Principia, the latter covered virtually the entire scope of Western literature, from Lucretius to cyberpunk – focusing, of course, on works that were inspired by, or offer a commentary on, developments in science. In that course, I was introduced to many texts that I ought to have read before, but never quite got around to: Fontenelle’s Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds, Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Stoppard’s Arcadia, to name just a few.

In choosing both of those classes, I was motivated by my passion for the “big picture”: Sure, I could have focused in on some particular branch of contemporary physics, or another branch of science – but instead I chose to step back and look at the larger issues raised by the scientific adventure. As different as these two courses were, there was a significant degree of overlap. Lucretius, for example, came up in both; so did Robert Hooke and his remarkable Micrographia

Just for fun, I also took an Shakespeare class at MIT – well, more or less for fun; Shakespeare was born in the same year as Galileo, and lived just at the same time that our view of the universe was being transformed. It’s interesting to see how Shakespeare and his contemporaries were influenced by the scientific discoveries unfolding around them.

In the Knight Fellowship program, the classes are just the beginning. We’ve had a number of field trips; the big one for our firsts semester being a visit to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, probably the world’s leading lab for marine biology.

On top of our tour of WHOI and affiliated labs, we had a “scientific cruise” on Nantucket Sound, south of Cape Cod, collecting samples and seeing just what goes on beneath he waves. (The man in the red hat was our friendly biologist / first mate.)

And we’ve had other chances to explore New England, or at least this corner of it. One of the Knight staffers had a party at her home in Rockport, MA; here we are out on the rocks by the ocean. (The scenery reminds me of Nova Scotia, where I grew up – sometimes stark, but always beautiful.)

Back at MIT, there was an incredible lineup of seminar speakers – talks held every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, just for us Knights. For me, highlights included talks by primatologist Richard Wrangham, psychologist Rebecca Saxe, and physicist David Kaiser. On the journalism side, we heard from top-tier professionals such as Carl Zimmer (Discover, The New York Times, and more), Sarah Kramer (The NYT’s multimedia guru), and Robert Krulwich (from NPR’s amazing RadioLab).

We also have a pair of first-rate multimedia instructors here, and we’re been diving head-first into the world of video and audio editing and production. (I learned many of the basics back in journalism school – but the technology keeps changing, so it’s good to keep up!)

There’s a lot to love about Cambridge, but for science enthusiasts like me, much of the appeal comes from the city’s sheer brain power: There are endless opportunities to give the ol’ gray matter a workout around here. Every week at either MIT or Harvard, there’s something amazing going on (and almost always for free). For example, a riveting panel discussion neutrinos, and why they (allegedly) were measured to be travelling faster than light…

…and Adam Riess’s mesmerizing talk on “the accelerating universe,” just two weeks after he was informed that he’d won the Nobel Prize for that very discovery:

And then there was the panel discussion on “Life in the Universe” that I caught at the MIT Museum. And the symposium on “art and science” that I popped across the river to see at Boston University. And I can hardly describe what a privilege it was to take a class in which we’d been reading Lucretius – and then to walk across campus to hear a talk by Stephen Greenblatt, who’s just written a book on, yup, Lucretius. Not to mention getting an expert guided tour of the recent exhibition, Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe at Harvard’s Sackler Museum. Twice.

It’s hard to believe the Fellowship is already half over… it’s all happened much too fast!

(And just a reminder: You can follow me on Twitter and “like” my Facebook Page.)

Happy Holidays!