Ep 32: Decentralized Internet, a Trip into Space, and a Roiling Debate Among Science Writers


Join journalist, author, and the director of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing Seth Mnookin as he chats with colleague and award-winning author Marcia Bartusiak about her new collection of essays, “Dispatches from Planet 3: Thirty-Two (Brief) Tales on the Solar System, the Milky Way, and Beyond.” Also in this episode: Kasha Patel looks at the different roles and objectives of science communicators and science journalists, and what those differences mean for the future of science journalism, and reporter Selene Ross shows what a decentralized internet might look like.

Below are the individual segments and a full transcript of the podcast, lightly edited for clarity. You can also subscribe to the Undark podcast at iTunes or listen on Spotify.


Kasha Patel: Hey Undark Listeners, it’s your host, Kasha Patel. Last December, I went down to Kennedy Space Center to see a rocket launch because that is one of the perks of working at NASA. But, the day before the launch, it got delayed. But the news didn’t come from our press office or from a breaking news story. It came from a tweet by the company launching the rocket: SpaceX. I remember thinking, “Really? That’s how I find out this information?”

But, it’s not that weird. Nowadays we get science-related information from all kinds of directions: Institutions are directly using social media to get their messages out. And sometimes I read paid sponsored content on journalistic websites. But then I also read objective investigative reports funded by institutions.

The National Association of Science Writers, or NASW — the largest and oldest professional science writing organization in the country — recently sent out a survey to all 2,697 of its members and asked “What kind of work do you do? The list of options for defining your career was telling. It included 16 different occupations from all those you might think of — journalism, press release writing, book writing — all the way to event managers and curriculum writers.

I’m on the NASW’s membership committee and I crunched the numbers from the survey. While the most common response was “journalism,” institutional communications — like writing for a university or research center — and media relations, like writing press releases, were close behind.

Where does that lead us? Well, in a world where writing jobs funded by institutions or agencies are increasing, journalists are fighting to make clear the distinction between what they do, and what, say, a public information officer does. It’s an important distinction: When you read what looks like a news story, you kind of want to know whether they are writing this for YOU, to keep you informed, or writing it on behalf of whatever company or lab or agency is paying them, right?

It makes perfect sense, but in this fast-paced digital age, it’s sometimes hard to put producers of news in one camp or the other. I’m thinking of people like Curt Guyette, the writer largely credited with uncovering the Flint water crisis. Guyette worked for the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, of Michigan and he was funded by a grant to help report on government openness for the ACLU. His title is “investigative reporter,” and he was even named Michigan Journalist of the Year by the Michigan Press Association. But he was ineligible for submitting his name for the Pulitzer Prize because he worked for an advocacy organization. Was that fair?

In an email, Guyette told me: “Their prize, their rules. And I’m fine with that. The important thing is not the label, but the mindset. Whatever people want to call me, I approach my work with the mindset of someone who has been a journalist for more than 30 years. Which means that what I report is fair and accurate.”

Guyette is one of many who are finding writing jobs outside of traditional journalism outlets. Many freelance journalists also supplement their income by writing for institutions — which, by the way, typically pays better. But does that compromise their objectivity?

Well, you won’t find it surprising that debate over those questions has been popping up within NASW itself — most recently in the form of membership during NASW’s conference this month right here in Washington. Now, I’m going to get into weeds here, but stick with me. For years, the only people allowed to be elected to one of the four top leadership positions at NASW — president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer — were people who spent a substantial majority of their time doing journalism. You could shorten that to one word: journalists. But two years ago, an amendment was proposed that non-journalists should be allowed to take these top officer positions, too. That proposal failed, though, by a narrow margin, but non-journalists within the group put the motion up for vote again this year.

I talked to some of the conference attendees, and one major argument against the amendment was concerns about conflicts of interest and bias. Here’s a journalist for the publication Nature, Sara Reardon:

Sara Reardon: Journalists aren’t saying PIOs are unethical. They just have a very different job from us. And their job intrinsically is to promote something. And journalists, not to get on a high horse, our job is to be unbiased and not cover somebody favorably or unfavorably based on our own biases.

Kasha Patel: Writers in favor of the amendment, meanwhile, argued that media relations professionals and public information officers make up a significant portion of NASW’s membership — and they pay the same dues as journalists. Here’s Arvind Suresh, a science writer at the University of Pittsburgh.

Arvind Suresh: The organization is evolving and people should recognize the organization is evolving. The NASW exists to serve the needs of its members first and foremost.

Kasha Patel: The issue percolated across the conference — particularly against the backdrop of the Trump administration, which has shown a track record of misinformation when it comes to scientific evidence on environmental problems, human-driven climate change, and other public health issues, all of which are tied to policy decisions. One panel posed this interesting question to the audience: “Science writers are responsible for building public trust in science — Agree or Disagree?”

It was a tricky question, and some of the participants later told me they weren’t sure where they came down. For others, though, the role of science journalists was clear. Here’s John Travis, managing editor for news at Science Magazine:

John Travis: For the science journalists in the room, it wasn’t our job to convince the public that science is something to be trusted, that we needed to expose all of its warts and let the public decide.

Kasha Patel: Ok, but if journalists believe it’s not their job to instill public trust in science, then whose job is it?

John Travis: Scientists, the scientific community, PIOs.

Josh Sokol: Policymakers who implement science, science communicators at institutions.

X Lim: Places like museums. PIOS have a big, big role to play. Teachers. Like when you educate kids in school, they need to understand the scientific process.

Kasha Patel: The answers varied, but many people said it should fall to public information officers or PIOs. Remember, that’s someone who works for or is funded by an institution or agency. So I asked PIO Massie Ballon, who works at the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute.

Massie Ballon: There are different ways to report the stories. There are different responsibilities. If this is where taxpayer funds are going, what is the benefit, and what can we show, and I think that’s one of the institutional angles in reporting the story. You want to convey it to a wide audience, you want to convey it accurately, but there may be other nuances to the story that other people will bring in, kind of depending on where they’re coming from.

Kasha Patel: Massie has a good point. Ok, you’re wondering about that vote, aren’t you? Well, it failed again — and this time, by an even wider margin. And I guess the takeaway might be something like this: Sure, there’s a line to be drawn between what journalists do and what writers like me, who — when we’re not podcasting — work for institutions or government agencies. Journalists are supposed to write for the public, without fear or favor. That’s the objectivity that we want.

Institutional writers, on the other hand — their job is to inform, too, but also to represent the organization or agency that pays their rent. You can’t avoid that. And in a perfect world, all the PIOs would do their jobs, and all the people who want to be journalists would find staff jobs at magazines and newspapers, TV stations, and websites. But we’re not in a perfect world. Staff jobs in journalism are scarce, the pay is often lousy, and a lot of science writers are forced to straddle that line — maybe even cross it sometimes — so that they can make a living.

Is that ideal? Probably not. Is it the reality, at least for now? Seems like it is. And that is what NASW, and really all of us who read the news, are wrestling with.

[Music Break]

Kasha Patel: One of my favorite television shows is HBO’s hilarious show called “Silicon Valley.” It’s about a tech startup who was at first trying to create a new internet, specifically a decentralized one that is controlled by users like me and you instead of big corporations. It turns out this idea is not so fictional. Reporter Selene Ross shows us a company trying to do something similar — they’re trying to create an alternate open internet. Ross began covering this story for KALW earlier this month. Let’s take a listen.

Selene Ross: On a rooftop in Oakland, California, volunteers from a group called Sudo Mesh are huddled around a coil of ethernet cable and some kind of antenna.

Background voice, ratcheting sounds: You need a Philips, right?

Selene Ross: They’re installing a node, a router that will beam a signal across the freeway and deliver internet to people living in a homeless encampment.

Lesley Bell: Yeah, and that’ll provide internet to anyone who can access the signal…

Selene Ross: Lesley Bell is a Sudo Mesh volunteer, and this node is part of an alternate internet called The People’s Open Net. It’s what’s called a wireless mesh network, and according to them, it’s an internet you can build yourself — a step toward a decentralized and democratic internet. As Sudo Mesh co-founder Jenny Ryan put it:

Jenny Ryan: Access to the internet should be as basic a resource as food, water, housing.

Selene Ross: For many of us, how we access a website or database is a bit of a mystery. So before we get into alternate internets, let’s take a look at the internet as we know it:

Say you live in England and want to go to “Undark.org.” Each website lives on a physical server somewhere in the world, tagged with a unique IP address. Your computer creates a kind of letter requesting a copy of the website from that server, and your internet service provider (ISP) looks up the IP address in a Domain Name System, which is like a yellow-pages.

Then the letter is passed from network to network, like post office to post office, through underground wires and undersea fiber-optic cables, until it reaches the right server. Which sends a copy of the website back through that infrastructure and back to your computer. And… this all happens in about a second.

Jonah Edwards: I’m Jonah Edwards. I run the network and the data center infrastructure here at the Internet Archive, a non-profit digital library in San Francisco. Core internet infrastructure… is run by a bunch of old white guys who all knew each other in the 70s and when things break, they just call each other directly.

Selene Ross: That core internet infrastructure is the backbone of the internet, like underground wire and undersea cable, and Tier One internet service providers control it. These are the big ISPs, like AT&T and Level Three, and they either share access with each other or sell access to Tier Two or Tier Three providers.

Jenny Ryan: There are places across Oakland where there’s only one ISP provider, and maybe that provider doesn’t serve that area very well or overcharges.

Selene Ross: Besides costs, according to Ryan and the rest of Sudo Mesh, there are a bunch of other issues with the way these big ISPs control internet access, like collecting personal data, and throttling, or slowing down connections (that’s the whole net neutrality debate).

So Sudo Mesh is creating an alternative: The People’s Open Net is different from a traditional ISP subscription because instead of people connecting to a central node owned by an ISP, the nodes connect to each other, and are owned by the people who use them. This allows users to communicate with their neighbors without an ISP and to also share their existing internet connection. I came to one of Sudo Mesh’s Tuesday night meetings to find out how.

Voice1: The thing we call the internet could not exist at all, and we could still build our own.

Voice 2: Separate, like we could communicate and do things with each other, but in terms of communicating with all the other websites we know and use, that’s through?

Voice 3: Yeah, it’s kinda weird to think about because usually you are just on the main internet…

Selene Ross: What these volunteers are pointing out is if you built your own network from scratch, you’ll only see what’s on the mesh. That’s a valuable way to connect people in a community or share maps of local resources, and it could be resilient even if the main internet went down, like during a natural disaster. But other websites — Amazon, Netflix, Facebook — are hosted on their own servers and to send a letter to that server, your computer still needs an ISP connection. Here’s Jonah Edwards from the Internet Archive again.

Jonah Edwards: You can build an amazing functional mesh network that people aren’t interested in joining because it doesn’t get them access to the internet at large. Sudo Mesh and People’s Open Network have sort of found a few different ways around this…

Selene Ross: Right now, the People’s Open Net can connect to the wider internet because individuals are sharing their existing ISP’s internet connection with the mesh.

If you installed a mesh node you could get online if there was another node nearby sharing their internet connection. You could also share your own internet connection and beam it to your neighbors with a big rooftop extender node. The speed will vary depending on how many users are online and how much bandwidth, the data transfer speed, is being donated to the network.

Jenny Ryan: So when we hook up someone’s existing connection to the mesh, we encourage them to have a subscription to an ISP that allows for sharing within their terms of service. ISP that allows for sharing within their terms of service. Comcast and AT&T do not.

Selene Ross: Nodes on the People’s Open Net are spread across rooftops in Oakland, but access to roofs is always an issue, and maintaining and de-bugging a network takes a lot of time and energy, which for an all-volunteer group, can be a challenge. Even still, the project hopes to eventually replace people’s ISP subscriptions entirely by building a connection to bandwidth donated from Paxio, a local ISP that believes in the goals of the project, and The Internet Archive. Here’s Edwards again:

Jonah Edwards: Our mission statement that we really try to hold to is universal access to all knowledge. We can provide that knowledge. But unless people have a way to access that content, they can’t reach it.

Selene Ross: All of the code that’s being used to build the network is open-source, meaning anyone can use or copy it. Right now there’s about 50 nodes on the People’s Open Net, and the technology is built upon the work of other mesh networks around the world– from the 230 node New York City mesh to the 35,000 node Guifi network in Catalonia.

Jenny Ryan: The project is…to make the internet less of this obtuse, magical thing, and to show that the internet is actually something we can all build together.

Selene Ross: In Oakland, for Undark, I’m Selene Ross.

[Music Break]

Kasha Patel: For our next segment, we’re going to go to space. In her new book, Marcia Bartusiak talked to astronomers, historians, and many others to create a collection of astronomical stories. Guiding us in a conversation with Marcia is Seth Mnookin, a journalist, author, and director of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing. Seth, thank you for joining us.

Seth Mnookin: Thanks so much Kasha. It’s great to be here. It is my absolute pleasure to welcome to the podcast Marcia Bartusiak. Marcia is the author of eight books, and is also a professor in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing. Today, she’s here to talk about her latest book, a really wonderful collection of essays called “Dispatches from Planet 3: Thirty-Two (Brief) Tales on the Solar System, the Milky Way, and Beyond.”

Marcia, thanks so much for joining us.

Marcia Bartusiak: Thank you, Seth. It’s great to be here.

Seth Mnookin: So Marcia, can you tell us, what is this book about?

Marcia Bartusiak: Essentially, this book involves the backstory behind some of the greatest ideas and discoveries in astronomy.

Seth Mnookin: So this book is a little bit different from a lot of your books in that it’s not a narrative, it’s not sort of telling one story. Can you describe the structure of the book and how you set out to do that?

Marcia Bartusiak: Yes, it’s a collection. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do because this is what I grew up on. I grew up with the collections of Isaac Asimov. I just love the fact that you’d pick up this book, and you’d be able to read a chapter, and the next chapter was on something totally different. I always loved that format. I have spent nearly 40 years, I’ve had the great pleasure of covering the frontiers of astrophysics. And later in my career, I started doing more history, looking back and looking at the origins of some of these astronomical discoveries, and I saw this as an opportunity to put the two together, to meld them.

Seth Mnookin: I thought it was really elegantly put together. In a way, it reminded me a little bit of a book by another one of our colleagues, Alan Lightman, his book, “Einstein’s Dreams.” All of the individual 32 essays that you have are very gripping, and poetic, and informative in their own right. And then when you read them all together, you get a sum that is definitely greater than all of these individual parts.

Marcia Bartusiak: Well, thank you. I appreciate you saying that.

Seth Mnookin: Trying to figure out a way for these different essays to fit together, was that a sort of conscious part of the organization process in the writing process? Or was that something that kind of became apparent to you after everything started to appear on the page?

Marcia Bartusiak: I had no agenda with this. I set out a few years ago to take something that was in the news and something that interested me. For example, when Pluto was demoted-

Seth Mnookin: Right.

Marcia Bartusiak: … to dwarf planet in 2006, it reminded me that this happened before, it happened back in the 19th century when Ceres, and Vesta, and Pallas, and Juno were discovered in the 19th century, right past Mars. They were put into the textbooks as planets until they realized they were quite small, and they were actually the largest members of what we now call the asteroid belt. But this happened before we had objects that were called planets that got demoted. So that was one of my stories that was putting together something that happened and giving the backstory. And then when I put this collection together, that’s when I tried to start seeing patterns. And one pattern that really surprised me was how many women were part of my backstories, women, many of them not in the textbooks.

Seth Mnookin: It’s interesting that you talk about the role of women because that was actually one of my questions. It seemed like one of the themes through the book is recognizing the contributions and accomplishments and achievements of women who not only were overlooked during their time, but oftentimes have continued to be overlooked. I was curious as to whether that was a conscious theme, or one that you sort of realized was coming through as you were doing your research, and it sounds like it was the latter that that was not something that you set out to explore, but that it became apparent as you’re working on it that there were these under-told, or in some cases, not told stories.

Marcia Bartusiak: Exactly. I actually didn’t have that as an agenda. As I said, I let the news set the agenda, and then I would dig into the archives and the back journal papers, and lo and behold, the women are there. I love to see that about a quarter of the stories involve really important discoveries where women were the central linchpin, but they have never been in the spotlight. These women tempted to work on their projects without too much publicity. They didn’t ring their bell too much.

Seth Mnookin: Right, right.

Marcia Bartusiak: And sometimes that’s, well in any endeavor, not just science, but in any endeavor, you have to be a little bit of a showman. I mean, Edwin Hubble was a bit of a showman, and he gets a lot more credit than he deserves. That’s another chapter in my book is there are other men that have not gotten their credit as well. And part of that is you have to be the carnival barker and let people know what you’ve been doing. And these women tended to really just focus on their work and let the chips fall where they may. But hopefully, and in some cases, they are starting to get recognition.

Henrietta Leavitt provided the cosmological yardstick that enabled astronomers to measure distances much farther than they had ever been able to do before. And this enabled Edwin Hubble to discover that indeed, there were other galaxies beyond the borders of the Milky Way. He could not have done that without Henrietta Leavitt’s work. There was Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin who discovered that hydrogen was the major element of the universe, and that was highly controversial at the time, so much so that they had to take it out of her thesis. And Jocelyn Bell Burnell who discovered the first neutron star. She did not win the Nobel Prize, it was her adviser who won it. But just a couple months ago, she won the $3 million [Special] Breakthrough Prize, which is also very prestigious.

So slowly, I think these stories are going to hopefully wind their way into the textbook so that the students, the science students will learn about these accomplishments.

Seth Mnookin: And that prize pays better than the Nobel also, right?

Marcia Bartusiak: Oh, yeah.

Seth Mnookin: Right.

Marcia Bartusiak: The Nobel maybe around a $1 million. This was $3 million.

Seth Mnookin: Right, exactly.

Marcia Bartusiak: Which she is totally giving over to scholarships.

Seth Mnookin: Right, that’s incredible. I’m interested as to whether in your career as a science writer you have ever encountered some of those same hurdles to getting recognition that you write about. You write about physics, you write about astronomy, and even now as we know in our program, a huge number of science writers entering the field, and who’ve been in the field for a long time are female. Still at the kind of top levels, it’s a field that when you look at editor, when you look at who gets the big book contracts, it’s oftentimes dominated by men. And I’m curious as to whether you have ever encountered an attitude like, “Oh, well, she can’t write about physics. What is a woman doing trying to write about physics?”

Marcia Bartusiak: I have to say, when I first started out in the 1980s, really doing science writing full-time, there were the elderly scientists who would see me knocking on their door, coming in, sitting down for the interview, and you could just see in their face that they thought I couldn’t possibly understand anything that they were doing. What helped me, what really helped me is before I started science writing full-time, I had an undergraduate degree in journalism. But because I wanted to write on science, I actually went back to school, loved it so much I ended up with a master’s degree in physics. And that was my ace in the hole. Because when these old timers heard that I had this graduate degree, you could see literally the relief on their face, and that gave me a foot in the door.

So I did face a little of that from the older generation. But as the decades went on, I would say in the last few decades, I really haven’t had that problem at all. And I think that’s also by setting up a track record. If you as a science writer establish a track record of not just being both a good writer, but an accurate writer, then that makes a huge difference for the respect from the community to allow you to come in and snoop around and put your nose into their observations and experiments.

Seth Mnookin: Can you explain the title a little bit, “Dispatches from Planet 3”? What does that mean, and how did you decide on that?

Marcia Bartusiak: Yeah, it took a while for my editor and I to come to agreement on what the title of this book was going to be because they are these separate essays. My working title was “Goodnight Cosmos.”

Seth Mnookin: Right, right.

Marcia Bartusiak: Because I thought of people having it on their nightstand and picking it up and reading one chapter each night, but they weren’t too keen on that. So in the opening chapter of my book, I talk about how over the years our cosmic address has been getting longer, and longer, and longer, and I actually list it out, it’s Planet Number Three, Solar System, Orion Spur on the Sagittarius spiral arm, Milky Way, Local Cluster, Virgo Supercluster, Universe, Multiverse. We have a really long address. I have no idea what our zip code is.

Seth Mnookin: Right, right, right. And it actually also … it also relates to how the book is structured, because it’s not told chronologically, you don’t go through and start at the earliest discovery and bring us up to present day. You start essentially at Earth, and then work your way outwards. Was that a structure that you came up with right away? Or how did you end up with that as the sort of organizing principle?

Marcia Bartusiak: Yeah, it took me a while. I spent a couple days on it. It was almost like where you have one of those games of concentration, and you have all the index cards all over the table and you’re trying to find the right combination. And I thought it first chronological, but then to go from, say, galactic studies back to Mars or Pluto, it didn’t make sense. And I thought maybe the best thing to do would be to give it a sense of location and group my stories, starting with the solar system, then out to the local neighborhood of galaxies in the Milky Way, and then out to the far galaxies, and then onto my more esoteric subjects. At the very last chapter, I talk about the very question of how space and time originated. So it gives you a sense of the great arc of our universe from our local little planet here, planet number three, out to the Big Bang.

Seth Mnookin: One chapter, one discovery I was really interested in and I thought was really fascinating was your description of how scientists discovered that we were actually in the Milky Way, part of the Milky Way. Can you talk about that a little?

Marcia Bartusiak: Yes. It’s really intriguing in that for many years, we could see more clearly out to the distant galaxies than we could see our own Milky Way galaxy, and that’s because we are immersed in this disk filled with stars and gas that we literally it’s hard to see through. It’s like being on the edge of a china plate and trying to discern the pattern of the china. And so it’s taken a long time for us to realize that we live within this spiraling disk of gas and stars. And one of the great breakthroughs was in the 1950s with radio astronomy. That allowed us to collect those radio waves that can go right through the gas as if it’s not there, where the light waves are blocked. So that allowed astronomers, finally after many decades of thinking hard of what our local neighborhood looked like, to see that we are part of this beautiful spiraling disk. So we’re finally learning a little bit more about our home galaxy even as we’re able to see out to 13 billion light years away.

Seth Mnookin: One of the things that I think is so wonderful about your work, generally in this book specifically, is you take topics that I think are daunting to a lot of general readers, even just referring to Einstein’s theories, or what is a black hole, or what does it mean for the universe to be constantly expanding. I think that intimidates a lot of readers who might be more comfortable reading about biology or the human body, and you’re able to translate it in a way that is not only accessible, but that really captures some of the thrill and the excitement of these discoveries and of this work. Reading on the page, it seems to flow so naturally, and I was wondering if there was anything that you really struggled to explain, or if there was a phenomenon, or a researcher, or a breakthrough that you just weren’t sure how to translate that for an audience that did not have a master’s in physics.

Marcia Bartusiak: My hardest one was the last chapter where you’re really struggling with the merger of general relativity, which you have to explain, with quantum mechanics, which you have to explain.

Seth Mnookin: Which you have to explain, right.

Marcia Bartusiak: But that’s what we teach here at MIT at our science writing program, and it’s what we tell our students to take the strange, borrowing words from the New York Times reporter George Johnson, to take the strange and make it familiar. So we’re not teaching science, that’s not my concern. But what we have to do is try to find something in our everyday life that will make the mechanisms, the processes of science to be familiar to the layman, and that’s what I’m struggling with. For example, in that chapter, I mentioned that they are now thinking that time is not a real property, that it just emerges sort of like air pressure, that it doesn’t exist on the tiniest of scales, but exists and comes out slowly, almost like a crystallization.

And so I use the idea of a pointillist painting where you have all these separate little dots that if you look at it real close up, you can’t discern anything, but as you pull back, you can then view the larger picture. And so the analogy then is that time also has no definition. We can’t tell time on the smallest of scales, submicroscopic scales, but as you pull back into our larger world, into the whole universe, time finally has a definition and a place. So that’s what you’re looking to do. That’s basically what I’ve been doing for 40 years is explanatory journalism. And that’s what I’m always looking for, to find that metaphor or analogy that will make people comfortable and slap their head and say, “Oh, my gosh, I can understand quantum chromodynamics.”

Seth Mnookin: Right, right.

Marcia Bartusiak: And then I feel I’ve been successful.

I wanted to add one more thing is that you always want to tell a story to find the narrative, especially when you’re dealing with the hard sciences like physics and astronomy. To find a story, to put the human element into there, is so essential at the same time. And that’s what I’m also trying to balance is not only bringing in the metaphors and analogies, but to convey to people that this is a human enterprise with all the foils and fables that involve any other human activity. Science is a human enterprise. It is not just this pristine thing off in a corner with people in white lab coats. They are people, and to bring those stories in as well is very important to reaching a wider audience.

Seth Mnookin: And actually from that, did you have any particular story that was your favorite, either your favorite to learn about, your favorite to write, your favorite to play around with?

Marcia Bartusiak: I have to say I have a real … Well, I think there’s two. One is the dark matter story because I was in on it so early. I wrote as a … When I was doing magazine features back in the 1980s, was one of the first to write on dark matter. In fact, it wasn’t even known as dark matter yet, it was known as the missing mass. I had done it so early, and to be able to see how that mystery has just been evolving and changing over the decades, and it’s still not solved. The story I love the most is on gravitational-wave astronomy, because in the late 1990s, before anybody else was willing to write on this topic, I was right at the LIGO Observatories, the Gravitational-Wave Observatories as they were under construction, and I was able to talk to all the people who were at the very foundation and beginning of that enterprise. And that’s what I loved.

I had gotten into science writing thinking I was part of the cleanup operation, that all the different arenas of astronomy had already been done. And here I found something totally new, had never been done before, and I was in on the ground floor. And to be able to see that field develop and know the people personally and interact with them over 20 years and see them come to the great detection, the first detection of a gravitational wave predicted by Einstein more than 100 years ago, that was my favorite, absolutely.

Seth Mnookin: Right. Marcia Bartusiak, it’s been really wonderful talking with you and talking about your new book, “Dispatches from Planet 3: Thirty-Two (Brief) Tales on the Solar System, the Milky Way, and Beyond.” I cannot recommend it highly enough, and I can’t wait to see what you’re going to work on next, and hopefully, we can have you back and talk about that as well.

Marcia Bartusiak: Thank you, Seth. I enjoyed it immensely.

Kasha Patel: Ok Undark listeners, that’s all for this month. Thank you for joining us. We’re produced by Lydia Chain. Music in Selene Ross’s piece was done by Lee Rosevere, while music for the rest of the podcast was done by the Undark team. I’m your host, Kasha Patel, and see you next month.