A science journalist asks: “Where are the aliens?”
Times Insider explains who we are and what we do, and provides a behind-the-scenes look at how our journalism comes together.
Since 2000, Kenneth Chang has covered plenty of news for The New York Times – mundane and extraterrestrial. As a science journalist, Mr. Chang stayed at NASA launch sites, waiting for rockets to blast off to the moon. (Sometimes not.) He portrayed a chemist with stage ambitions. And he spoke with experts about progress made this month in nuclear fusion, the effort to replicate the power of the sun in a lab – and what it could mean for the future of the energy.
Mr. Chang holds a bachelor’s degree in physics and worked on a doctorate. on the subject before deciding to become a journalist. This experience, he says, helps him analyze complicated concepts for readers, or at least gives him an idea of exactly what he should ask for at work.
In an interview, Chang talked about how he stays informed on his pace, the joy he still feels in reporting a new discovery, and how he breaks down advanced concepts for readers. This interview has been edited.
Would you consider this a more exciting time than usual for a science journalist?
It’s always exciting. In fusion, it is a major benchmark. In particle physics, the big announcement was the Higgs boson collider some time ago, and it has been quiet for the past few years. And there are a lot of areas where interesting things are being done in solid state physics with weird metals, which at the very least have a really cool name.
Every now and then there’s a big explosion of different things that happen. Science Rhythm is fun because there is always something new and unexpected.
Does your sense of wonder or joy remain intact after covering the beat for a while now?
I studied physics in college and went to graduate school hoping to become a physicist. The romantic notion of physics is that you want to understand the universe, and physics tries to break that down into the most basic laws – what the universe is made of, what’s going to happen to the universe. All wonderful and great questions. Eventually I came to the conclusion that I’m fine if someone else finds out and just tells me the answer. That’s always what I do.
I find I have a better understanding now of the big picture when I’m doing these stories than when I was a grad student focusing on a small problem, not really understanding the equation or what my next step should be. It’s great because it’s a license to wallow in wonder as a job.
What are you most excited about covering?
Mars is always interesting because there’s this lingering question of what was Mars like in the beginning? Life may have been around when this planet was much warmer and wetter. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, but it’s an understanding of what leads to life and what doesn’t.
There is a similar parallel path of inquiry with exoplanets. We can begin to see thousands of planets. We can start to see which ones seem to have favorable conditions for life, which ones you can find signs of oxygen in the atmosphere – which is not definitive proof of life, but it could be the product of photosynthesis. This is a level of investigation that did not exist before. And I wonder where the aliens are?
There’s also this long-standing question of why does the universe exist? This is something I hope someone will tell me soon.
How would you describe your pace?
I used to say that health is something that can kill you, technology is something that can kill other people, and science is anything that has no practical application.
Do you have your own journalistic methodology to try to explain more headline topics to readers?
I try to do enough interviews and digging that I understand pretty well on a semi-technical level. My test is if I can explain it well enough to someone else on a more general level. If I don’t understand it, then it gets really, really painful and hard. If I can explain it in a way that doesn’t sound too tortured, that means I did a good job. If that sounds vague and I can tell that I’m really trying to skip something and you don’t notice, that usually means there’s a gap in my knowledge as well.
How useful is your background in physics to you?
The useful part is that I better understand how science is done. I can ask about errors, important questions about whether this is final, or is this the first step out of 10 in what you want to find out? Who helps. There are many very good science journalists who do not have a direct scientific training. But it is useful.