S&T Writers Win Two Science Journalism Awards

In a pleasant shock to our editorial workers, Sky & Telescope’s authors have swept up two of the three science communication awards conferred this year by the Solar Physics Division (SPD) of the American Astronomical Society.

The award for a science author goes to News Editor Monica Young, for her November 2020 characteristic “To Touch the Sun.” The award for a scientist goes to Contributing Editor Monica Bobra (Stanford University) for the September 2020 infographic “Crossing the Edge of Our Solar System,” which she created with illustrator Nicolle R. Fuller (Sayo Studio).

Each year, the SPD Popular Media Awards Committee considers a variety of science journalism items, searching for the perfect tales concerning the Sun or its results on Earth’s setting. You can find a list of past winners here. (Although S&T is a part of the AAS, we preserve a strict coverage of editorial independence, and our science journalism is judged accordingly.)

But as a substitute of merely touting our personal horn, we thought our readers would possibly get pleasure from a peek into how these tales got here into being. So right here, we’ll take you backstage for a glimpse of how we create S&T.

What the Voyager Spacecraft Encountered

The story of the infographic “Crossing the Edge of Our Solar System” begins with the Voyager spacecraft. Both craft have now passed the edge of the solar system — or, extra exactly, the heliosphere, the magnetic bubble surrounding the Sun and its planetary household. But what precisely did the spacecraft encounter? What does it imply to depart the solar system?

Illustration showing position of Voyager 1 and Voyager 2
This illustration reveals the place of NASA’s Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes, outdoors of the heliosphere, a protecting bubble created by the Sun that extends nicely previous the orbit of Pluto.
NASA / JPL-Caltech

In January 2020, Bobra began speaking with S&T Science Editor Camille Carlisle about find out how to clarify the Voyagers’ journey to readers.

“We use so many terms to describe magnetic fields throughout the heliosphere — like ropes, pipes, islands, barriers, and clouds,” Bobra says. “It’s difficult to visualize what these actually look like. That’s why I wanted to go for a data visualization instead of a traditional feature article. I wanted readers to see how two satellites could leave the bubble of our solar system and still experience totally different magnetic conditions.”

Over two months, Bobra (a solar physicist) dove into the analysis papers, immersing herself in what scientists had anticipated to see versus what they really noticed, and the way these information modified scientists’ understanding of the heliosphere. “In reading all these papers, I ended up with a lot of questions about the magnetic barrier observed by Voyager 2,” she says — so many questions, actually, that she reached out to colleagues to assist her examine. They ended up discovering one thing new: The barrier on this a part of the heliopause enabled energetic, charged particles to cross the heliopause, as a substitute of blocking them. “We ended up writing a paper on that!

Bobra drew a sketch synthesizing her analysis and offered it to Carlisle and S&T Art Director Terri Dubé, together with a caveat: We shouldn’t illustrate this in a way that means each element is totally true. “Extremely graphic illustrations can lead readers to believe all the little details — like subtle variations in color and dimension — represent real scientific knowledge,” Bobra explains. “But in reality, we don’t know this level of detail.”

Based on that steering, Dubé advised a “chalkboard” look, to convey visually that this scientific area is a piece in progress. “We even added eraser marks to suggest the idea of iteration and working through a process,” she says.

Dubé reached out to illustrator Nicolle Fuller to recreate Bobra’s sketch. “In addition to her beautiful illustration skills, Nicolle also includes technical research in her process, and that is invaluable,” Dubé explains. “This allows us to further brainstorm any technical details that may arise during the design process.”

Fuller created the primary illustration in May, and after a number of weeks of forwards and backwards, the 4 finalized the infographic in June and despatched it to press in the September issue.

“Crossing the Edge of Our Solar System” infographic (click to enlarge).
Monica Bobra and Nicolle R. Fuller

To Touch the Sun

Young’s feature “To Touch the Sun” started in Hawai‘i — not on a beach, but in a conference room. She and Carlisle were looking to commission a feature on NASA’s not too long ago launched Parker Solar Probe, and for ideas Young attended presentations by the science team at the 235th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Honolulu. “The preliminary results they were presenting were so exciting — and there was still so much more to come,” she says. “I knew then that I wanted to be the one to write this story.”

Young soon followed up back in the Boston area and was hooked by the captivating (and hilarious) stories told by Justin Kasper (University of Michigan) during a talk at the Center for Astrophysics, just down the street from S&T’s office. She also arranged a tour of the Solar Probe Cup lab with Kelly Korreck (Center for Astrophysics, Harvard & Smithsonian) in early March 2020 — “just in the nick of time,” Young says.

“COVID-19 was creeping up on us,” she explains. “I remember foregoing handshakes, and Korreck offered me hand sanitizer.” It was here that Young saw the warped and corroded pieces of discarded refractory metals researchers had tested while trying to find something that would survive near the Sun.

The very next week, COVID lockdowns commenced in the Boston area. Young conducted the rest of her interviews by Zoom and wrote the article from home with her husband and three kids. “My daughter’s daycare was closed, and my two young sons were in virtual school, so there were many late nights,” she admits. “But also moments of peace and laughter during the day!”

Parker Solar Probe
An artist’s concept of the Parker Solar Probe, nearing the Sun. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben

Carlisle helped Young do some sprucing of the wording, and then Young worked with S&T Illustration Director Gregg Dinderman to create the article’s diagrams. She and Dubé picked an opening illustration that conveyed “Parker’s temerity” in approaching our fascinating but hostile Sun, Young says. Dubé then built a visual story around Young’s words.

“The inspiration for this design was to make the reader feel immersed in the opening image,” Dubé explains. She then grouped the photos and illustrations to visually highlight key elements of the story — first, what Parker looks like and where it was going; second, the probe’s components and hardware; and third, graphics to illustrate the harsh conditions that the hardware would have to survive. “This organization of visuals helps the reader make connections between different pieces of information and more easily visualize the complex concepts in play.”

The completed article went to press in August 2020 and appeared in the November 2020 issue.

And there’s your peek at how we create Sky & Telescope’s award-winning content. Congrats to the two Monicas! You can explore Bobra’s infographic right here and Young’s characteristic here.

And when you’d wish to help our science journalism, please contemplate subscribing to Sky & Telescope. More subscribers imply extra assets to create nice tales like these.


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