About science; About communication between scientists and laymen
This is about science produced by the California Institute of Technology and originally broadcast by station KPCC in Pasadena California. The programs are made available to the station by national educational radio. This program is about communication between scientists and laymen with host Dr. Albert Hibbs and his guest Dr. Irving Bengal's dark. Here now is Dr. hims a few years ago a British scientist C.P. Snow coined a phrase it was the two cultures. And by this he meant the breakdown which he had felt he found between those who were trained in science and engineering on the one hand and all the rest of humanity on the other. Evil was a significant part of modern society and one which was the source of many of our current problems. Since that time there's been quite a bit of debate about this first of all as to how big this gap is between the two groups how impermeable the wall and.
What can be done about it if anything. And while a debate has been going on there's been an unusual breed of individuals that's grown up to fill this gap between the two cultures and we have one of that breed a captive here today Doctor being Bangles Dar who is a science writer for The Los Angeles Times. And before giving any further introduction I think I'll simply start talking and ask you Irving. How did you get into the business of being a science writer. And is this your only profession or what qualifies you to be on the other side that is the scientist. Many questions at once take off where I want to. Well Ali it's a very interesting story. At the present moment my position is science editor for The Los Angeles Times. However this is only been for the last four years. And before I joined the paper.
Concomitantly with writing for the paper I also was a senior scientist for the US borax Research Corporation in Anaheim and that's when I was wearing two hats at the same time. So this implies that even before the issue had been more of a scientific bent in writing then yes as a matter of fact I have had no training whatsoever in writing and I even find writing a rather painful and. The main challenge why I took the position with the Los Angeles Times was because I felt it was a wonderful opportunity to teach. If I wrote a good good column on a particular subject I could have as many as two million people in my classroom that day. Not only that but with a permanent record that is the children of the adults could actually cut out this particular column and take it to class to work discuss it.
What was going on that particular day. They could have a record of it and it was this. Plus the feeling that the newspaper is really one of the last avenues open in mass media. Which could really serve as a. An adult education service I needn't tell you now that just because one has even a Ph.D. That one's education doesn't stop with the granting of a degree or a diploma. As if there is anything that we can say about the modern world right now it's one of continuing education according to good educational philosophy anybody who goes as far as a Ph.D. should be so involved with education that they continue forever because for the rest of their life this is. That is through a process of education trains a man has to want to learn from then on. And of course this works the other way for me because I try to cover
a great many subjects ranging from astronomy through to zoology. I also have to keep on my toes and keep up with things and in a sense I am being continuously educated as I try to perhaps educate other people who are forced to be the renaissance man. Well in a way one takes the sun by such an assignment and it's quite difficult at times to try and keep up with things. I may be at a conference which is dealing with the latest findings in molecular biology in genetics one day. And then. The electronic digital computer is the next maybe high energy nuclear physics the next day. And sometimes it's quite difficult to unscramble yourself and get into the mood of things into that particular discipline that shape shift gears right a day where you pointed out you hadn't had any training as a writer. What was your education in him. Well I obtained my B.S. in chemistry from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. And then I left to
start my graduate training in chemistry at Cornell University in Ithaca New York. However this was during the days of World War 2 and I shortly thereafter joined the U.S. Navy served in the Pacific theater when I came back I felt I had traveled enough and being a native Chicago and I rolled at the University of Chicago where I obtain my M.S. and my Ph.D. in chemistry. And after obtaining my doctorate in chemistry chip cargo I left and came out here to Pasadena where I did post doctoral work at Cal Tech with doctors Pauling and Dan Campbell in Jurong then a grad. There was a program then a blood volume expanders better known as blood substitute. I see so at this point you were well on your way down the traditional road of the chemistry in the biochemist. That's right a research and keeping up with a particular
field but even then I was one of course was expanding and changing. Actually the subject that I received my doctorate in the study was in phosphorus chemistry and in free radical reactions and then I felt that I just had to. While I felt that the field of biology biological chemistry was very fascinating and this was one of the reasons why I wanted to make that transition. Abbott is a change from the free radical Where do you want to guess. Well of course there are. They do find that there are certain aspects of biochemistry that do involve free radicals but this was just one of the connecting links I put it in perspective. After being at Cal Tech for about a year and a half. I then accepted a position to teach at the University of California at Los Angeles where I was for two years and then in 1054 I
left this area and went to the east. I didn't return to the east because being a native Chicago and I really had never been east before. But I accepted a position with the General Electric research laboratory in Schenectady New York. Not too far from Cornell. No not too far from Cornell. Beautiful country. Again as a chemist again as a chemist I was a research chemist in the. A Research Laboratory at the now olds in Schenectady. How did you happen to get into the writing or science writing business with this almost traditional and very heavy involvement in science. Well there was an advent of the kurta actually 10 years ago. We will celebrate the 10th anniversary this year which of course had a profound influence on yourself and myself and many scientists in this country and that was the fact that the Soviet Union launched the first put first artificial Earth satellite suddenly made science
legitimate right or at least two to many people this made it legitimate. It was brought some of it OUT IN THE OPEN. Well the connection there is that it just so happened that app while I was at the University of Chicago getting my degree in chemistry and doing work in organic phosphorous compound it turned out that. There was a group of scientists at the University of Kazakhstan in cars on the Soviet Union that were sort of ahead of us at the time and chemical abstract as being about two years behind post-war. It was a question of if you want to stay in this field to do something very drastic for example learn the Russian language which I did as I I was very fortunate in having a very good instructor at Chicago and I picked up a very good reading knowledge of Russian. And so therefore when Sputnik was launched in 1957 and I was at General
Electric. Many of the men from the laboratory approached me. You know there was a tremendous interest in the Russian language sort of they've been doing all this time. That's right they could do this terrible thing without ever knowing. Yes yes it was a question of. At all those how did all those peasants ever manage to put a rocket together. Yes it swung from one extreme to the other right a bit of fellows carrying bombs. Total ignorance to 9 feet tall supercenters are cited. But in asking me to teach the course it turned out that Schenectady is actually located in a tri city area that is there's Albany New York and try New York all close to one another. And there were the colleges in the area and libraries and even the adult education groups in the area in the area suddenly asked me to teach Russian and it was quite obvious I would not have enough evenings to comply with all of them
with all the adult education classes. That's right. And to the rescue came the local American Chemical Society chapter who pointed out that if I would go on TV then I could reach the whole group. And so this was done there was a Mohawk Valley Educational Television Group which was organized in form but they had no outlet no station at the time. And so we had to work through a commercial outlet the w r g b TV in Schenectady. In those days there was no video tape and so I had to appear live on the program and they offered me the two fine hours of 6:30 in the morning or 1:30 in the morning. My goodness who would stay up till 1:30 in the morning to learn Russian. Well that's what I found some getting up at 6:30 if you're dedicated maybe but staying up to 130 Isn't it seems incredible. We had some precedence in that there was a program on in New York City called Sunrise semester or something like that I can't recall the exact name but that also went on at
6:30. Yes. And it had to do I think have been a number of shows yet another classroom and all right I just followed right that. And so I chose the 613 this was a series of 24 lessons a half hour a lesson. This went over a period of 12 weeks. And the response to the program was just incredible it originally was planned for 200 or so scientists in the area and they asked me whether I wanted to teach from a textbook but I indicated that no I'd rather teach from notes but I'd be glad to provide a course outline and the American Chemical Society chapter agreed to underwrite the cost of mailing this alkaline fried to those who requested it. Well what happened was that the first week they had something like over 5000 requests and it broke the bank of the ATF chapter
more and they bargained more than they bargained for and as it turned out eventually over. The entire program there were something they estimated somewhere about 15000 people listening and I must have been a godsend to the Niagara-Mohawk power company to have all the lights go on in the houses and TV sets and 6:30 in the morning to listen to Russian. One gratifying experience from that was the chance to see how eager youngsters are to learn something new. The five year olds in the six year olds in the area first graders kindergartners they'd just they thought the Cyrillic alphabet was just a tremendous puzzle and they worked with it they copied it down took it to their classroom and showed it to their classmates. Five and six year five and six year old and they would even copy words down you know every day I
start off with a proverb and some new words or so. And these young children obviously felt very challenge and I went along with. It from this program there was. I don't know if it's a proper word but I gain some sort of notoriety in the community. And was asked to write a science news column then for one of the Schenectady newspapers. And that's how I began my column of atoms in ma'am. And that's how I got into the writings it was the beginning right. But that apparently wasn't the the wholehearted switch on your part from the scientist to the science writer because as I understand it you've only been in your present position of the L.A. Times for about four years and this was about 10 years ago that all this was going on what happened in the interim. Well what happened was that after shortly after writing some of these columns for the Schenectady paper.
I left General Electric to join a a former laboratory mate from the University of Chicago in and he knew a company in New Jersey. And then for family health reasons we left New Jersey came back to this area where I was a senior scientist a US borax Research Corporation in Anaheim. It's a long story then what happened but is it all involve writing or what. What is finally involved was writing a letter to Otis Chandler the publisher of The Los Angeles Times and I imagine a good deal of it was a question of the usual situation being in the right place at the right time. And the newspaper agreed to have me follow the same format as in Schenectady as write two columns a week. Now you must remember that I was still senior scientists in US Bar X Research
Corporation and I did this for about a year. And there was no. No feedback whatsoever between myself and the Los Angeles Times I would send in the two columns a week and they print them and that's all I would hear. And after a year went by I walked in. I made an appointment to see Nick Williams the editor as to whether the format of the column was satisfactory or whatever they have in mind or so and he offered me the position of science editor. Needless to say it took me about three months to make up my mind because this was a switch tremendous transition that's right. For the background and as considerable number of years in which you have been double timing in both the professional sciences and the professional writing. That's right. And now of course since 900 since March 1963 when I joined the Los Angeles Times as full time science editor I devoted myself
completely to this except for I do a great deal of public speaking to groups in the area and also write additional articles for for example student outlook which is a newspaper that the Los Angeles Times publishes for the high school student in the area in a science column for the US also. Every once in a while yes I feel that. Interpretation is very very important. And if I can add something to some specific subject that this will be our value to say from high school teacher or whoever is in charge of a particular program. Have you had any ability to any any possibility I should say to get any feeling of. How scientists respond to the work you are doing as a science writer for non-scientists.
Is this looked upon with did. Is this accepted. Are you looked upon as just another one of those newspaper guys and the old fashioned tradition of the brash journalist or are you accepted as a responsible interpreter of science or the public. Well this is a real interesting point. I would say that the scientists in this unfortunately my column is not syndicated so I cannot speak of areas outside of this area which runs let's say from Santa Barbara. Down to the Mexican border. But in this area of course. I think that that the type of writing I do is quite well accepted by the scientific community and very well accepted by the nonscientific community. The problem I have is for example if I will go cover a meeting in the east where I may meet somebody who doesn't know me. And then
I will be with some of my colleagues my scientific colleagues had let's say a cocktail party or some of event prior to the meeting and everybody is being introduced to one another. And one of my friends will take me over to another scientist and say I'd like you to meet Irving Bangles are he is the science editor of The Los Angeles Times. And at that moment this man may have an outstretched arm and a smile on his face with the usual type of greeting and suddenly his hand will and you get a sort of a sickly grin. It's not a pleasant experience to go through. But this is something I feel that the science writer should be aware of. I think that. They do have some problems with with the scientists as far as interpretation of news. How do you think the problem can be solved. Well this also was a very interesting problem and let me tell you in order
to really answer this correctly I'd like to point out two problems that a person has two main problems that a person has in writing for a newspaper and the first is available space. Newspapers of course are business enterprises and as such have a legitimate right to make profit and in order to make profit to remain viable a newspaper must print somewhere between 65 and 85 percent of its space as a as advertisement. With this lease somewhere it from 35 percent to 15 percent as text and by text I really mean everything that isn't is very advertisement. Obituaries the comic strips the racetrack. Autographs are everything every right everything that is not advertisement and under Ho. The L.A. Times. I do this on occasion I take a newspaper at random and actually go through the whole paper and I measure with a ruler every every once in a while.
And I have found the L.A. Times errors on the liberal side that is it's quite close to the 65 percent of advertisement so for many years now we have carried more or more tax than almost any other newspaper in the country so we do a very fine job at time. Yes we do a very good job of carrying text but even so you have this problem of available space and I'd like for example to tell you the first week that I joined the times. The first assignment I had was I was. Well it wasn't really an assignment I chose as I came out there happen to be an astronomy meeting here at Cal Tech and I came out I spoke to a world famous astronomer. You have to remember this was 63 and the discovery of quasi stellar radio sources was sort of brand new at that time. These objects which are the astronomers hate the they they don't they don't like them being called qualifiers or quasars whatever you want to call it.
But anyway it was a very fascinating story that was the discovery of these quasi stellar sources and also the implications it had for cosmology and I wrote the story was of silence and yet it had a lot of time. And I wrote this story on Friday on Friday and phoned it in and it turned out that of course this would appear in the center of a newspaper now being naive at the time and I didn't realize maybe you don't either the Saturday newspaper is very thin. Yes there's a reason for this they're printing to fund a newspaper right. And so as a result the story that did get in. Neither right nor the astronomer could recognize it. And I was very upset about this. Of course as you realize anybody with scientific training just doesn't like to have their material cut apart at least if it has to because they want to do it themselves. Right this is this is the point that scientists ought to appreciate when you write for a
technical journal you submit an article they may not like it as the referees they send it back six times seven times whatever it is if you're unlucky. But what finally does get in is what you want. That is if if you desire you can just call the whole thing off and not have it published at all. However in the newspaper as I say I have this unfortunate experience of it was rewritten and cut and therefore borne little resemblance to what I had written or what the astronomer had told me. And as a result I called the sister on her and apologized. He was very angry. He told me he would never talk to another newspaper man again let alone myself. Yes yes. And I don't blame him but it's rather interesting how over the years how he has appreciated my work. And just a year ago he even asked me to co-author of a book with him. So I certainly have regained his confidence now. With respect to this particular happening but I suppose that the process of regaining his confidence was
because of your own personal involvement with science and your responsible reporting is there anything can be done from the point of view of the newspaper anything special that can be done about the treatment of a Science article when it has to be cut. And is there any way of making sure that the cuts are made in such a way that it doesn't completely change the scientific meaning of this. Well this is I think the very top or a rewrite man or an error on a paper. Yes that's right because you have to realize that if when when people tell me that let's say they say you're doing a good job of writing science for the for the layman they ought to realize of course that my editors are laymen and I first have to justify your story to them. There are two ways of course to to mutilate a story. One of course is just a question of it consists of so many inches of typing it can fit in the space allotted so you just lop off the the end. This could be disastrous too particularly if you write in the sort of a style that I
do it whether it's good or bad scientists have developed this style where the conclusion comes at the end. Whereas a new typical traditional newspaper writing of course they like to have everything right at the beginning. In this legal knowledge of British law and right right of the slopping office however and of course one can try to minimise and the damage by let's say following this particular form. But if they are if they decide that they want to rewrite it then you have a real problem because they may not know what to rewrite or what particular just completely misunderstand. Right anyway because of this because of this first traumatic experience in a few others I very seldom write for the daily paper because of this I feel that. I personally rather than get a wrong story in there I'd rather not printed at all. And so I tend to put
most of my material into my column which is a standard length is inviolate and I write what I want in the style that I want and it usually goes through. This gives you this way control. So in a sense I really haven't answered your question. It's a very special case of the way I attack something. I'd like to point out one other thing and that is the headline Some people get very angry over the headline. I'd like to point out that we have no control over that as the person who writes the story does not write the headlines. It was usually done by somebody else. And. Regardless to what one thinks of them these people have a tough job to get us to try and get a story into let's say two lines and into a certain space. Be that as it may. Headlines are not written by the man who wrote the story so when you run across a story where the headline bears no
relationship whatsoever to what's in the story. I think one should be aware of this. They way you have this different writing as compared to scientific journals because of the space. Is there anything that the writer can do and the science writer can do about the headline problems. Can he suggest heads or have any control at all. I guess I guess one could. This takes a about your own column to somebody write a headline for this I do not write the headline for my column even that is done by people who are in charge of the mechanics of the composition of the page news but the newspaper business is a very very fascinating. And ever and as a matter of fact it's a sort of a minor miracle that a newspaper comes out every day every day. Please remember this flywheel effect a tremendous number of steps that go in from let's say from the from the point where the
idea of a story is suggested to a writer until it's actually delivered on your doorstep in the morning. So many things could go wrong if I say get it. It's truly amazing that the newspaper comes out. That's encouraging that so many science writers have become over the last few years seriously concerned with this problem of the communication the communication job they have to do and it seems to me you have. Try to follow in the footsteps and you sort of began automatically that is a lot of men who have been writers originally have cried now to learn science so they can do it more effectively you have of course a tremendous advantage in having started as a scientists and then go into the writing at the same time this means you have the drawbacks of as you say writing is painful and you have had the problem. The other the other thing which has given me a great deal of discipline and I for just that for all scientists in my column for example I began my column with 550 words now it's gone up to seven hundred twenty
- About science
- Producing Organization
- California Institute of Technology
- KPCC-FM (Radio station : Pasadena, Calif.)
- Contributing Organization
- University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
- AAPB ID
- Episode Description
- This program focuses on the gap of understanding between scientists and non-scientists. The guest for this program is science writer Irving Bengelsdorf.
- Series Description
- Interview series on variety of science-related subjects, produced by the California Institute of Technology. Features three Cal Tech faculty members: Dr. Peter Lissaman, Dr. Albert R. Hibbs, and Dr. Robert Meghreblian.
- Broadcast Date
- Media type
Guest: Bengelsdorf, Irving
Host: Hibbs, Albert R.
Producing Organization: California Institute of Technology
Producing Organization: KPCC-FM (Radio station : Pasadena, Calif.)
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 66-40-44 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
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- Chicago: “About science; About communication between scientists and laymen,” 1967-07-11, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed November 28, 2022, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-f47gvn62.
- MLA: “About science; About communication between scientists and laymen.” 1967-07-11. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. November 28, 2022. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-f47gvn62>.
- APA: About science; About communication between scientists and laymen. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-f47gvn62