AIP announces winners of the 2011 AIP Science Communication Awards

Theories that predict the end of time and one astronomer’s pioneering quest to find distant cousins of Earth are the stories honored with this year’s American Institute of Physics (AIP) Science Communication Awards.

George Musser will receive the prize in science writing for his article “Could Time End?” published inScientific American. Vicki Oransky Wittenstein will receive the award in the children’s category for her book Planet Hunter: Geoff Marcy and the Search for Other Earths.

A clear and engaging style, ambitious subjects, and excellent science content were some of the traits that won these pieces top praise from the selection committee.

“These outstanding stories present complex science topics in entertaining and thought-provoking ways,” said Catherine O’Riordan, AIP vice president for Physics Resources. “Both Musser and Wittenstein really captured the universal excitement of physics and astronomy through their writing, and we are pleased to recognize them for their excellent work.”

The winners will each receive an award of $3,000, an inscribed Windsor chair, and a certificate of recognition. The awards will be presented at the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) on Wednesday, January 11, 2012, in Austin, Texas.

Science Writing Award

That time could have a beginning is mind-blowing enough, but how could time possibly have an end? What does that even mean? How can there be a moment without another moment that comes after it? The idea violates our deepest intuitions about the world, and George Musser explores these and related themes in his Scientific American article about the physics of time as we understand it – and don’t. For millennia, the end of time has been a conversation-stopper, and even today, researchers still face the same basic dilemma. General relativity predicts that time ends in spacetime singularities, yet most physicists take this as a failing of the theory rather than a real feature of nature. Musser’s article “Could Time End?” delves into several research programs that are not directly connected and finds in them a common theme: they treat the end of time as a process rather than an abrupt event. Time might lose its many attributes one by one – a picture that is natural if spacetime is emergent rather than a fundamental ingredient of nature. Such a conception of time might resolve our conflict in understanding.

George Musser is a staff editor and writer for Scientific Americanmagazine in New York, N.Y. He did his undergraduate studies in electrical engineering and mathematics at Brown University and his graduate studies in planetary science at Cornell. Although he had long done journalism as a hobby, his entry into science writing was something of an accident having to do with a desire never to experience another winter in upstate New York. From 1994 to 1998, Musser served as editor of Mercury magazine and of The Universe in the Classroom tutorial series at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. He then went to Scientific American, where his primary focus has been space science, broadly defined. Musser was the originator and one of the lead editors for the single-topic issue “A Matter of Time” (Sept. 2002), which won a National Magazine Award for editorial excellence, and he coordinated the single-topic issue “Crossroads for Planet Earth” (Sept. 2005), which won a Global Media Award from the Population Institute and was a National Magazine Award finalist. His first book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to String Theory, was published by Alpha in 2008.

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Science Writing Award – Children’s Category

Planet Hunter: Geoff Marcy and the Search for Other Earths
 tells the inspiring story of astronomer Geoff Marcy, who has discovered hundreds of planets and keeps finding more. Growing up, Marcy gazed through a small telescope and wondered about life beyond Earth. Later, as an astronomer, he hunted for distant planets at a time when many scientists thought they would be impossible to detect – if they existed at all. But Marcy, along with his colleague Paul Butler, made history with the discovery of their first exoplanets in 1995. To learn about planet hunting, author Vicki Wittenstein visited Marcy at the Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano in Hawaii. With photographs and drawings, the book shows how Marcy’s work and other techniques set the stage for NASA programs such as the Kepler Mission. To date, Kepler has detected more than 1,200 planet candidates – some of which just might harbor life. 

When the first exoplanets were detected in 1995, Vicki Wittenstein was glued to the news. Although astronomers had thought there were planets orbiting other stars, finally there was compelling evidence. The genesis of a book about renowned astronomer Geoff Marcy, and the techniques astronomers employ to discover these new worlds, began to take shape.

Wittenstein has been a prosecutor and an advocate for children and families. Since the 1990s she has been writing nonfiction for children, and has published articles in Highlights for ChildrenOdysseyFaces, and The Best of the Children’s Market. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell Law School, she later received a Master of Fine Arts degree in writing for children from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her book Planet Hunter was named a 2010 Honor Book by the Society of School Librarians International. It also received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews and was recommended by the National Science Teachers Association. Wittenstein and her husband live in Brooklyn, New York, and have two children.

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