From NYT: “How Dennis Overbye Makes Space-Time Relatable”

New York Times

The New York Times

OCT. 17, 2017

Dennis Overbye, a Times science reporter, inside the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. No image credit.

Dennis Overbye, The New York Times’s cosmic affairs correspondent, has never owned a telescope. They were of little use in the cloudy environs of Mercer Island, Wash., where he grew up.

Instead, his interest in science began, as it did for many who came of age immersed in the starward ambitions of the space age, with science fiction. There were the paperbacks by Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein — “that whole crew who had imagined the future of the human race as I saw it now being played out by Sputnik and Apollo,” Mr. Overbye said.

In the nearly 20 years he has worked for The Times, Mr. Overbye has similarly tried to nourish the imaginations of others. “My job as I see it is to relate people to the universe they live in,” he said. “It’s kind of everybody’s business what the universe is and what it means to be here.”

He has covered the discovery of planets beyond our sun; the detection of fundamental particles and the gravitational waves created by colliding black holes; and dark energy, the mysterious and inscrutable substance that makes up 70 percent of the universe and may very well determine its destiny. Earlier this week, Mr. Overbye wrote about the first collision of neutron stars ever observed. “I don’t look at page views,” he said. “Very little of what I write about moves the markets.”

Still, Mr. Overbye’s stories often live where the earthly meets the cosmic. His first book, “Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos,” recounts the birth of cosmology through the personal dramas of its founders and was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1991. And in 2014, he was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his reporting on the race to discover the Higgs boson, which focused on the lives of just a handful of the thousands of scientists swept up in the search for “the God particle.”

Once Mr. Overbye identifies a story, he said, the work is in putting it in terms people can understand. “Metaphors are very important to the way I write,” he said. The results are vivid descriptions that surpass mere translation. Einstein’s epiphany that space-time is distorted by gravity, for instance, renders the universe as “the ultimate sagging mattress,” and elementary particles derive mass from the Higgs boson “the way politicians draw succor from cheers and handshakes at the rope line.”

“I once compared the Milky Way galaxy to a piñata that the Kepler spacecraft had whacked and hundreds or thousands of new planets had fallen out,” Mr. Overbye said.

Sometimes the effect can be rhapsodic. Astronomers on Monday announced the first detection of a kilonova, the collision of hyperdense dead stars thought to be responsible for creating many of the heavier elements in the universe, including gold, silver, platinum and uranium. As Mr. Overbye describes it: “All the atoms in your wedding band, in the pharaoh’s treasures and the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and still threaten us all, so the story goes, have been formed in cosmic gong shows that reverberated across the heavens.”

Yet although it may seem that scientists are observing novel celestial events all the time, the pace of paradigm-shifting discoveries in cosmology has begun to slow; these days experimental results rarely shake theory off its foundations. (In June, Mr. Overbye reported on the existential crisis facing scientists at the Large Hadron Collider, where the Higgs boson was detected five years ago, now that one of particle physics’s biggest mysteries has essentially been licked.)

“Huge discoveries are not moving the field,” said Jim Glanz, an investigative reporter at The Times who started on the Science desk under Mr. Overbye. As a result, Mr. Glanz described this moment in science journalism as a doldrums, which might tempt many to overstate the incremental or obscure. But not Mr. Overbye. “Dennis doesn’t like to pull a rabbit out of a hat,” Mr. Glanz said. “He’s writing ‘War and Peace.’ The disappointments have to be as dramatized as breakthroughs.”

It is a reality in which Mr. Overbye feels perfectly comfortable. In fact, he prefers to think of himself as “an evangelist of Cosmic Ignorance” — that we haven’t even learned the right questions to ask yet. As he put it in the preface to “Lonely Hearts”: “Science, inching along by trial-and-error and by doubt, is a graveyard of final answers.”

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