500 Columns: Lee Dye, Unusual Science Guy

Dec. 6, 2006 — -- 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.

My best friend, Frank Dalton, is a physicist who is among the world's leading experts on the dynamics of soil. But he also can build a terrific classical guitar.

We've talked for many years about science, and guitars, and golf, and it all leads me to wonder where the nonsense came from about scientists not being able to talk about their work in language that the rest of us can understand. Most scientists either have worked, or still work, as teachers, and they love to talk about their work. Sometimes, it's harder to get them off the phone than it was to get them on. They can be terrific communicators.

One of my favorites is physicist Hartmut Sadrozinski of the University of California, Santa Cruz. He couldn't get his teenage son interested in physics, so he found a fun way to do it. How do you make a kid appreciate something as arcane as electromagnetic fields? Easy. Zap the prof with lightning.

Sadrozinski came up with a suit of armor that looked like something from the Middle Ages. Then he toured local high schools, wearing the armor and allowing students to flip a switch that blasted the armor with lightning. The powerful charge made a terrific sound, produced the stench of ozone, but traveled around the outside of the armor to the ground in a perfect demonstration of how an electric field behaves. Sadrozinski was unscathed.

At last his son could hear, smell and see physics in action. But the last time I checked, he was headed for a career in marine biology. Can't win them all.

Elvis the Calculus Dog

And then there's mathematician Tim Pennings of Hope College, Holland, Mich., who announced one day that his dog, Elvis, could do calculus.

A basic problem in calculus is finding the quickest route from one point to another, weighing all sorts of variables. So one day Pennings lectured his class about calculating variations in speed when a route included some swimming, and some running.

A few days later, he tossed a tennis ball into Lake Michigan and watched his Welsh Corgi follow a convoluted course in retrieving the ball in the shortest possible time.

"I thought, man, that's exactly what I drew on the board," he told me. "He's doing the very same thing."

Elvis, he insists, was doing calculus.

You've got to love these folks. For them, science is an adventure, an intellectual journey through the wonders of life.

No doubt they've turned many young people on to science. They are probably among those I hear from regularly, asking me to send them all my "stuff" on some subject.

I wish them the best of luck. But I don't do homework.