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Going Gonzo: Science News Writer John Bohannon Uncovers the Fun of Science
Camel in Mongolia
[Photographs © and courtesy of John Bohannon]
Shortly before a solar eclipse over Mongolia last month, Science news correspondent John Bohannon found himself surrounded by a crowd participating in an ancient ritual to dissuade Rah—alternatively described a god, dragon, or monster—from devouring the sun like a "snake eats an egg."
Traveling to the Central Asian steppes to write about the 1 August eclipse for his Science series The Gonzo Scientist, Bohannon said that as soon as the first sliver of sun disappeared behind the moon, "several hundred people essentially went insane." Led by a shaman dressed in multi-colored yak skins and tall feathered headpiece, ceremony participants circled around a bonfire banged drums, shouted, and received lashings on their backs with leather cat-o'-nine-tails.
Stunned by the display and sounds, Bohannon recounted in his article "How Astronomers Have Fun (and Nearly Die Trying)" that he remained silent for the entire two-minute spectacle.
Bohannon's article on the solar eclipse was the seventh in a series that celebrates its one-year anniversary this month. Published roughly once a month, each installment features an online article and multi-media presentation detailing Bohannon's quest to describe "the intersections among science, culture, and art."
Over the past 12 months, the series has taken Bohannon, who regularly covers European affairs for Science news, around the world.
In Toronto, he participated in a three-day science and technology workshop that he described as "a summer camp for grown-up geeks." Beyond the expected talks by a "Who's Who of science, technology, and the arts," the summer camp featured a physics-defying talent show in which a man turned himself into a human gyroscope, popping in and out of a revolving aluminum ring on stage, an astrophysicist belly dancer, and free coffee (the event was co-sponsored by Starbucks).
In Sweden, Bohannon attended a 300th birthday party for taxonomy founder Carl Linnaeus complete with recreations of 18th century meals from peasant food to a royal banquet. While the royal banquet featured pleasant dishes such as roasted lamb with green parsley and thyme sauce, crusty sourdough bread, cheeses, and a rose-hip mousse with sour cream for dessert, Bohannon said the salted herring and onion at the peasant's lunch was so salty that it "shocked" the tongue.
In Vienna, where he was based while writing for Science, Bohannon traveled to Mars (sort of) in his apartment by simulating conditions in a Mars space capsule. For five days, he limited his water use to 10 liters per day for cooking, cleaning, and bathing; exercised daily; and even unplugged his phone and delayed email response time by several minutes to simulate the actual time messages would take to travel in space. On Day Five, Bohannon obtained a space suit and decided to take a bike ride around the city in his new costume. Unfortunately, the plastic shield fogged up, and, unable to clear his vision, Bohannon was nearly thrown from the bike after hitting the curb (he was wearing a helmet).
While completing his Ph.D. at Oxford, Bohannon said that he began to "fall out of love with laboratory work and deeply in love with story-telling." While at Oxford, he won their top drama prize and was convinced that theater was going to be his next move. But after putting the play on in London, he changed his mind.
While defending his graduate thesis on evolutionary genetics in 2002, Bohannon contacted Science on a whim, asking if they would be "able to put a molecular biologist playwright to some use." Eventually, his letter made its way to the desk of then UK news editor (and now Beijing bureau chief) Richard Stone, who hired Bohannon, teaching him the nuts and bolts of journalism. Since then, Bohannon has reported for Science from France, Germany, and now Austria.
Bohannon said that a turning point in his career occurred in 2004 while covering a story for Science on six health care workers sentenced to death following dubious accusations that they infected several children with the HIV virus. After interviewing Libyan officials about the case in the county's capital of Tripoli, Bohannon was on his way to meet a team of archeologists in the Sahara Desert when he was arrested by plainclothes officers. After sitting in a locked, empty room for hours, his captors let him go without any explanation.
"The incident taught me that science journalism can be much more than the feel-good stories generated by university press releases," said Bohannon.
Bohannon added that just over three years later, the medical workers were released, in large part due to "careful and relentless reporting" by science journalists proving the scientific inaccuracies in the prosecution's case.
Science News Editor Colin Norman said that when Bohannon first contacted him two years ago with a proposal to develop a fresh, quirky article series, neither knew exactly what the final product would be.
After tossing around several ideas, Bohannon came up with a concept he called the Gonzo Scientist, naming the series after a style of writing made famous by Hunter S. Thompson in which authors insert themselves into the story through a first-person narrative that tends, at times, toward the surreal. Bohannon said that Norman was instantly on board and has been very supportive as the project evolved from an idea into a finished product.
"Having journalists participate in events and write about them in the first-person is certainly a new departure for a science journal," said Norman, but "that approach, combined with video, audio slideshows, and podcasts, has brought these events to life."
Every new Gonzo episode is an experiment, Norman added, "and that seems very appropriate for a science journal."
Bohannon said that the mission of the Gonzo Scientist is "to use the raw materials of science to tell a science story in a way that no one else is telling it." For example, while many people wrote about the 50th anniversary of the Sputnik launch, Bohannon said he was the only one to join schoolchildren at the United Nations World's Space Day event and turn his apartment into a simulated Mars space capsule.
But the best-case scenario, he continued, is to tell stories that no is telling at all. To find those, sometimes you have to make them up.
In early 2008, Bohannon created and hosted the first ever "Dance Your Ph.D. Contest" in which graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors from astronomy, quantum physics, anthropology, and archaeology, and molecular biology choreographed dances to explain their theses.
The eventual winner was Brian Stewart, a University of Oxford archaeology graduate student, who won a subscription to Science for his performance describing the hunting and food preparation rituals of a South African Stone Age society. In his article "Can Scientists Dance?" Bohannon described the performance as "a jazz interpretation of African Pygmy tribal music by Herbie Hancock, creating an atmosphere of funky ancientness," adding that Stewart wore nothing but a "shimmering, translucent loin cloth."
"The Gonzo Scientist articles try to show that scientists are more than people in a distant lab performing irrelevant research," said Bohannon. "It's important that people recognize that science matters, that it affects lives, and it can be immensely interesting if the story is told in the right way."
23 September 2008