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American Institute of Physics announces awards for best science writing

College Park, MD, February 24, 2009 -- The American Institute of Physics (AIP) announced the winners of its 2008 Science Writing Awards today. The winners -- two scientists, a journalist, a children's book author, and a public television producer -- will receive four prizes of $3,000, engraved Windsor chairs, and certificates of recognition.

"These outstanding science communicators have each improved the general public's appreciation of physics, astronomy, and related sciences through their wonderfully creative endeavors," says Catherine O'Riordan, AIP Vice President, Physics Resources. "We are pleased to be able to recognize such excellent work."

The winners and their award-winning pieces are:

  • ANN FINKBEINER, a freelance journalist and writing professor at Johns Hopkins University, has won the 2008 AIP Science Writing Award in the JOURNALIST CATEGORY for her book, "The Jasons" (Viking/Penguin, 2006). It profiles a secretive group of some of the country's smartest scientists who have met every summer for the last 45 years to work on mostly classified problems for the U.S. government.

  • GINO SEGRE, an author and emeritus physics professor at the University of Pennsylvania has won the 2008 AIP Science Writing Award in the SCIENTIST CATEGORY for his book "Faust in Copenhagen" (Viking/Penguin, 2007). This book is about a meeting in April 1932 where some thirty of the world's leading theorists discussed all the great physics problems of the day then concluded the gathering with parody of Goethe's "Faust."

  • JULIA CORT, an Emmy-award winning senior producer for "NOVA" and "NOVA scienceNOW" (produced out of WGBH, Boston), is the winner of the 2008 AIP Science Writing Award in the BROADCAST CATEGORY for her production "NOVA scienceNOW: Asteroid," which poses the question: will a doomsday rock the size of the Rose Bowl hit Earth in 2036? It aired on PBS stations across the country in 2006-2007.

  • ALEXANDRA SIY and DENNIS KUNKEL have won the 2008 AIP Science Writing Award in the CHILDREN'S CATEGORY for their book "SNEEZE!" (Charlesbridge, 2007). Siy is a photographer and children's book author in upstate New York and Kunkel is a scientist in Hawaii who specializes in imaging the invisible microscopic world. Combining Siy's photographs and prose with Kunkel's electron micrographs of pollen, mold, dander, mites, and other invisible irritants, "SNEEZE!" is about nine kids discovering nine different reasons for sneezing.

More information about these award-winning books and television segment is pasted below and posted online at:

Brief bios of the authors are posted at:


Finkbeiner got the idea for her latest book, "The Jasons," after she heard famed physicist Freeman Dyson talking about crawling around on the Mexican border at midnight looking for the infrared signatures of drug runners. "I asked him why," she recalls, "and he said because he was doing a Jason study."

Dyson wouldn't explain what "Jason" meant, so Finkbeiner asked around and discovered that it was a name borrowed from the mythical Greek hero who led the Argonauts on the seeming impossible quest to find the golden fleece. The real Jasons are an elite and secretive organization of mostly hotshot physicists who tackle problems that are at times no less arduous. They have met for six weeks each summer for the last 45 years to address complicated problems posed by high officials in the Department of Energy, the intelligence community, the Department of Defense, and other branches of the federal government.

"The Jasons" looks at some of these specific problems, many of them having to do with military issues, such as ballistic missiles, tactical nuclear weapons, or submarine detection. Other problems have focused on how to surmount the large technical issues of dealing with climate change. Some of the Jason scientists have been attending these meetings for thirty years -- despite the fact that some of them belong to academic cultures that often frowns on engaging in applied military research. The tradeoffs, as the book makes clear, include the intellectual challenges of solving tough problems, the civic pride of performing government service, and the satisfying pleasure the scientists feel from being in the stimulating company of their Jason peers.

"In the end," Finkbeiner says, "this book is a profile of the inheritors of the Manhattan Project, these scientists with their faith in the clarity -- or at least the precise uncertainty -- of pure science, their feelings of responsibility for its occasionally lethal consequences, and their willingness to navigate the accompanying political realities and moral messes."

Finkbeiner's award will be presented on March 19, 2009 at the American Physical Society's March Meeting in Pittsburgh. Her book is also showcased at:


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was Germany's all-time greatest literary talent, and his lifetime masterpiece was "Faust," the dramatic retelling of an old cautionary tale: selling one's soul to the devil in exchange for worldly knowledge can come at an ultimate price.

Gino Segre's book, "Faust in Copenhagen," takes its name from an amusing parody of "Faust" that was dreamed up by physicist Max Delbruck in 1932, a century after Goethe died. Delbruck and other members of the nuclear physics institute in Copenhagen performed the skit as a diversion -- a way for the young physicists to make fun of their elders at the end of a conference that was organized and run by the brilliant and profoundly influential theorist Niels Bohr.

Though the skit was lighthearted, the times chronicled in Segre's book were anything but. Reflected in its subtitle, "A Struggle for the Soul of Physics," the book's chief theme is an examination of a discipline at a major crossroads. The world of physics was undergoing a great transition. By the time of the 1932 meeting, Bohr and others had pieced together the revolutionary ideas of quantum mechanics into a single interpretation that was displacing old certainties and ways of thinking. And the clouds of further revolutions in physics were already gathering. Just two months before the Copenhagen meeting, the neutron was discovered. This would lead directly to the discovery of nuclear fission a few years later and the construction of the first atom bomb a few years after that.

All this would take place against a backdrop of horrors that would surpass even the worst torments of Goethe's tragic figure Faust. Segre's book evocatively captures the mood of 1932, those last days before the world would change forever. Less than a year later, Adolf Hitler would take over of the German government -- an event that would alter the lives of all those present at the Copenhagen meeting.

Segre's award will be presented on March 19, 2009 at the American Physical Society's March Meeting in Pittsburgh. Segre's description of the book can be found on the Web site EDGE:


Produced as a segment of NOVA scienceNOW and originally aired in October 2006, "Asteroid" poses the question will a doomsday rock the size of the Rose Bowl hit Earth in 2036? The rock in question is called Apophis, an asteroid which astronomers discovered in 2004 was headed dangerously close to Earth -- but how close?

The initial estimates by NASA put the chances of a direct hit on the planet Earth by Apophis at one in thirty-seven. "Asteroid" examines what could happen if an asteroid that size were to strike the Earth and profiles NASA's asteroid hunters. They continually track Apophis and other objects while searching for new, threatening monster chunks of space debris. They routinely estimate the odds of these objects colliding with the Earth, and they figure out ways to avoid such impending disasters -- an asteroid strike is perhaps the only natural disaster we might be able to prevent.

As Cort was producing "Asteroid," NASA was continually adjusting the odds of a collision with Apophis, downgrading the risk of its impact. "I'm embarrassed to admit I was sort of hoping the odds wouldn't be reduced too far," confesses Cort. "At least not before the airdate!"

The latest estimates, computed in May 2008, would seem to afford humanity a collective sigh of relief. NASA now figures the odds Apophis will strike Earth to be a scant 0.0023 percent. But the scary truth, says Cort, is that even if Apophis is not a real threat, astronomers still estimate that there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of large near-Earth objects out there that we haven't discovered yet. One of them could easily be headed our way.

Cort's award will be presented on March 19, 2009 at the American Physical Society's March Meeting in Pittsburgh. A recording of the broadcast can be viewed at:


The first movie ever to be copyrighted in the United States was a short film made in 1894 by Thomas Edison called "Fred Ott's Sneeze." More than a century later we now understand much more about the physiology of the sneeze reflex and the microscopic particles that make us sneeze, but there is still something universal in that simple moment Edison captured at the dawn of film history -- a person having an uncontrollable sneeze.

"SNEEZE!" follows nine kids who each discover a different reason for sneezing. It is a story told on two levels. Open the book to almost any page and you will find author Alexandra Siy's easy-flowing writing wrapped around her carefully-lighted black-and-white photographs. At times poetic and at times expository, the text is also juxtaposed with co-author Dennis Kunkel's high-resolution color electron micrographs. These beautiful images reveal the microscopic world behind the sneeze, and through them the book takes a larger-than-life look at those things that cause us to sneeze -- pollen, mold, goose down, dust mites, dander, flu, and other invisible irritants magnified 400 to more than 200,000 times.

The universal nature of sneezing was the inspiration for the book, but it was the contrast of micro and macro, complex and simple, and color and black-and-white that brought the idea to life, the authors say. In ways that children can understand, the book examines human neurons, muscles, lungs, and the physiological characteristics of the familiar, hardwired reflex from which the book borrows its name. "Rushing through nine windpipes," the book reads, "warm, moist air bursts from nine noses and mouths at a speed of 100 miles per hour... ACHOO!"

The nine children in the book were photographed in Alaska and New York and include one of the author's sons, as well as several of her sons' friends. Despite their young age, they never fail to convincingly depict the book's subject matter. "Children can fake a good sneeze on demand," says Siy. However, she warns, "It takes a couple of hours to vacuum up after a staged pillow fight."

Siy and Kunkel will receive their award this July at the American Association of Physics Teachers' summer meeting in Ann Arbor, MI. More information about the book can also be found at the publisher's Web site:


Contact: Jason Bardi
American Institute of Physics

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