500 Columns: Lee Dye, Unusual Science Guy

When I first started writing this column, I thought it would last about six months. That was nearly 10 years ago. This is my 500th column on science for ABCNews.com. That may be somewhat of an Internet record, which is probably more of a tribute to my long-suffering editors than it is to my personal endurance.

Much has changed over those years. We didn't have search engines in the beginning, so just finding a lead was a challenge. But as the medium evolved, it became easier for me to live out a dream of living on an island in Alaska, in a log cabin built by myself and my wife, Sherie.

As a print journalist, I didn't know what to expect from writing for the Web, which most of us in the "mainline" media thought of as a retarded stepchild. But my very first column taught me that this was a field that deserved to be taken seriously.

ABCNews.com wasn't even legitimate during its first week of operation. It would be several weeks before its presence would be announced by the network. I didn't expect a lot of readers with my first effort because few people even knew that the site had "gone live," as they say in the TV biz. But I ran across a lead that I felt was important.

NASA had turned to the public for help in finding new ways for launching spacecraft into space. No idea was to be considered too wild. Space elevators consisting of craft that would literally ride a beam of light into orbit, and spaceships powered by solar wind like sailboats crossing the sea were among the concepts being explored.

It was a terrific story. But to be honest, I don't have any real evidence that anyone even saw it except the people I wrote about -- and they saw it because I e-mailed it to them. But for years after that I received e-mail from those very clever folks, keeping me informed about the evolution and status of their ideas.

Obviously, they took this new medium very seriously. And from that point on, so did I.

From L.A. Times to 'Dyehard'

I was not new to science writing, having spent several years covering science for The Los Angeles Times. But the Web changed my thinking about science and the remarkable people who pursue its goals. As most people reading this column know, the Web is a very intimate form of communication. It's possible to get to know someone quite well who's on the other side of the globe.

Years ago, I was trying to reach an American scientist who was studying neutrinos, those infinitely small subatomic particles that bombard us from space. But he was far from his office, and very difficult to reach.

But I interviewed him anyway, by e-mail. I was in my cabin in Alaska. He was in Japan. In a cave. An underground reservoir in the cave captured neutrinos as they blasted through the Earth, and my new friend was willing to share his excitement with a reporter he had never met. We talked for several days, spanning an ocean. E-mail had suddenly shrunken the Earth. No scientist was beyond my reach.

Deconstructing Scientists

So over the last decade I've interviewed hundreds of scientists, from many different fields, and I can tell you that these people are among the most misunderstood folks on the planet. People who know little about science think of scientists as aloof, non-communicative, borderline savants who can't remember where they left their car keys.

Hogwash. Most scientists I've met are pretty much like the rest of us. They have many interests beyond their work. But they care passionately about science.

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