Yudhijit Bhattacharjee Weaves a Tale of Scientific Rivalry and Nobel Celebration

Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

The three cosmologists who shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics for the 1998 discovery of the accelerating universe were only a few of the dozens of scientists, working on two competing teams, who contributed to the discovery. In a show of team-spirited solidarity, those fortunate enough to be recognized by the Nobel committee invited their colleagues—some of whom were bitterly disappointed to have been overlooked—to join them in Stockholm, Sweden, for a week of Nobel festivities. In a story that brings fresh perspective to a famously fierce rivalry, Science staff writer Yudhijit Bhattacharjee used the events of those seven days in Stockholm as a storytelling frame through which he recounted team members’ personal and professional journeys leading up to the groundbreaking discovery and in the years since. [A Week in Stockholm was published in Science on April 6, 2012. Reprint courtesy of Science.]

Here, Bhattacharjee tells TON co-founder Jeanne Erdmann the story behind his story:

How did you come up with the idea for this unusual story?

I started thinking of the story when I was at the American Astronomical Society meeting in January 2012. I was talking to Nick Suntzeff [the Texas A&M University astronomer who co-founded one of the teams that discovered the accelerating universe, but who was not among the Nobelists] for a different story. He was telling me what it was like to be in Stockholm, and how he had all of these powerful emotions that he was wrestling with. I could tell that he was disappointed at not having won the Nobel itself, yet he was very proud. He seemed to be getting it out of his system by telling me and other people. So I thought if I could talk to a number of researchers who were there, then I might be able to tell the story about this rivalry between the teams, and the personal disappointments, through a recounting of those seven days—because it seems natural those feelings would come up while everyone was there.

At the outset, how familiar were you with these teams, the High-z Supernova Search Team and the Supernova Cosmology Project, and with their rivalry?

The scientific story was pretty well known and I’d covered it, so I was familiar with the accelerating universe. I’ve also written a profile of Adam Riess [one of the Nobel Prize winners, from the High-z team] in 2008. I remember that I asked him what it felt like to be on the verge of getting the Nobel Prize while still having a whole career ahead of him. I’d gotten a glimpse of those personal rivalries when I wrote that profile.

And I’ve read a considerable part of [Harvard University astrophysicist] Robert Kirshner’s book, The Extravagant Universe [which detailed the High-z team’s work; Kirshner was Riess’s doctoral adviser]. It was only when I’d started writing this piece that I discovered that a writer named Richard Panek had written a book called The 4% Universe, which included a full-blown account of these two teams and their rivalries. I had not read that book, and when I found out about it I quickly stopped searching the Internet and went back to writing the story.

Why?

I didn’t want to start to feel inadequate.

Was it difficult getting the sources to participate?

When I had my first conversation with Suntzeff, I said, “Do you think other people will be as candid as you have been?” He said, “Well, try them.” Once I started approaching them, everyone quickly got what I was trying to do, so that was helpful.

As you did not attend the ceremonies, how did you so vividly reconstruct Nobel Week, including details of setting and dialogue?

It took a lot of reporting. When I thought of the story I envisioned it as a narrative of those seven days, so I was looking to ask people, “What happened at this event?” or “What happened leading up to that event…and then what happened next? Do you remember what you ate? What somebody said that stood out? How did you guys go? Did you take a bus, or did you take a car?” I’d just prompt them with information that I had, and that immediately would clue in the source to the level of granularity that I was looking for, and they would enthusiastically start remembering things. Then, information from one source would be used to jog the memory of the next source.

I was just lucky to be talking to scientists who were themselves pretty good storytellers—and because the event was such a once-in-a-lifetime event for them, their memory of it was very strong. As it was pretty recent, it was fresh on their minds.

Can you give an example of how you acquired certain information, like the detail about the portrait hanging in the cloakroom of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science?

I was asking about the scene, what it was like to go to the reception, and one of the scientists remembered a giant portrait of the 16th century astronomer Tycho Brahe hanging on the wall in the cloakroom. I was trying to capture the epic nature of the ceremonies, so it seemed like a good detail to use, and it also led to my thinking how different the modern scientific enterprise is compared to centuries past.

What other techniques worked for you?

I was particularly lucky to be able to talk to people who weren’t part of the event. For example, I spoke with [High-z team member] Peter Garnavich’s wife, Lara Arielle Phillips, who was very knowledgeable about the rivalry between the two teams but who really was an outsider to the teams. She had a very good recollection of things that happened.

For the dialogue, I had to ask individual sources to tell me what they said at particular events, and whatever they told me is what I put in the story. I used words like “recalled” to make it clear it wasn’t live conversation I was eavesdropping on.

Why did you decide to structure the story as you did, braiding together the narratives of the Nobel Week events and the teams’ long rivalry?

It just seemed the natural device. When the idea for the story came to me, I knew right away that readers would find it appealing to “attend” this big party through the story, and that would become a device for pulling readers through the narrative… not just of those seven days but of the 15 years of science that had gone before it. The history of the discovery is known—books have been written about it—so that was, by itself, not a new story. But I knew that the Nobel had given it a twist and a freshness that allowed the retelling of the story through a different lens.

People want to be taken on a journey, taken to another world, another place, and to experience a sequence of events that will make an impression. Everyone knows about the Nobel Prize, and a lot of our readers know about the accelerating universe. But most of our readers have never been to Stockholm, and they’ve never won a Nobel Prize. They do know there’s a lot of pomp and ceremony, so that seemed like that natural thing to leverage to tell the story.

How did you decide how you would structure the story?

Once I thought of breaking out the story into sections as if they were diary entries, that helped me to write one section after another without worrying about the overall structure, which can be terrifying when you’re writing a long piece and you don’t know where you’ll end up or whether you’ll go off track. So that framework came to me because I visualized the layout.

I also insisted that the layout include a picture of every team member, partly because I wanted 50 people to save a copy of the magazine, but also because I felt that the story was a tribute to the teams and if we committed the same “mistake” the Nobel committee had made by picking out some and talking about their story and leaving out the rest, it would go against the spirit of the piece.

What were the greatest challenges you encountered in writing the story, and how did you deal with them?

What I found most challenging was that in most stories, we write about one or two people because that lends itself to narrative. As soon as you write about a group of people, things get diffuse and you can’t hold the reader’s attention same way as if you describe one person. So I had to balance among multiple voices and still convey a single theme. That’s where the device of the events of the seven days became helpful.

It must have been difficult to report two narrative timelines simultaneously. How did you handle that?

Both teams started working on the science in the 80s, so they had been competing for about 10 to 15 years before the discovery was made in 1998. And then the jockeying for credit went on for many years after that. It was impossible to pick out the defining moments when there are so many. When I would start to ask people about something that happened 12 or 15 years ago, they would start to unleash a torrent of information. I would sometimes be hopelessly lost because I knew that I’d have to write a book to do justice to that. I’d say “No, no, no, this is a very short project so I need to get a broad impression.” But I knew I needed a granular impression of these seven days. It was hard to toggle between the big-picture reporting for that earlier timeline and the detailed view that I needed of the seven days. I was worried about the writing of it—whether I would be able to pull it off without it being too confusing to readers who had to go back and forth. There were several problems to be solved in the writing which I was nervous about.

What were those problems?

It was really the structural problem of juxtaposing these two timelines. I was worried that maybe what happened during the week couldn’t be directly related to the scientific milestones that came on the way to the discovery, and I knew that I’d need some seamless transitions to be able to go from champagne at a reception to the origins of the project. So I was worried that I’d make it too complex and yank readers back and forth from Stockholm, to Chile, to Berkeley. Ultimately I wanted it to be very elegant, and wanted readers at all times present in Stockholm. I especially struggled with the second-to-last section, at the colloquium, which was really the grand finale of the rivalry.

What was especially challenging about that section?

The colloquium is all on video, so I was able to just listen to every talk and then interview the people who spoke to find out what they implied when they said certain things. When I saw that some speakers had narrated anecdotes from the history in that colloquium, I thought it would be great to report them in real time. But I struggled with that because that would have been a real switch of the timeline. So I gave up on that because it was important to keep readers mentally in Stockholm. I decided I had to just choose one or two things from the colloquium from a long list of anecdotes that were described by one speaker after the other. It might have not been the best literary solution, but it worked for my purposes.

How did you end up choosing the anecdotes that you used from the colloquium?

I was looking for some sort of resolution. I wanted the story to go from point A to point B, so you come away with a different view of the world, slightly transformed. The movement in this case was a coming to terms between the two teams, and also for the members who made significant contributions but who did not win the Nobel.

The anecdote that jumped out was the funny one that Peter Nugent told about driving down this Chilean mountain in a Beetle and having an accident, and then Bryan Schmidt, who was on the other team, hurrying out to pull him out of the car and help dust him off. That anecdote got the best reaction, if you watch the whole video. It was just the one thing that implied a reconciliation—the fact that the science was bigger than the personal ego. It also showed that the younger crowd within these two teams was on friendly terms with each other.

The other anecdotes that were more contentious, I left out. There were some mean things that were also said that I filtered out because ultimately everyone that I spoke to said that they came away with a good feeling.

Looking back, is there anything you would handle differently?

I think that I would have reported even more. For example, I got a letter from Bob Kirshner’s daughter saying that when she learned that her father hadn’t won, she wasn’t angry, but she was worried about how he was feeling. In my story I just reported based on my conversations with Kirshner, who said his daughter was upset. Obviously that was secondhand reporting—I should have found out from the daughter exactly what had happened.

There were some other fuzzy spots, like exactly how the fire occurred behind the curtain when the High-z team was having lunch at the restaurant. I would add more depth in reporting for the ring of truth. It doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things whether a pile of t-shirts burned or just one, but it would have helped me visualize the situation with the fire in more concrete terms, and that visualization gets reflected in the way you write and your writing becomes truthful. To the reader, it might seem like it doesn’t matter, but put all that texture together and it creates the emotional response for a story like this.

Also, I don’t want to admit it, but I don’t think I reported the Supernova Cosmology group’s side as deeply as I did the High-z team. The Supernova Cosmology team had a more hierarchical organization and the rivalries within that team seemed better managed, or didn’t come to the surface. There’s more to that story than I was able to get.

Is there anything people wouldn’t know from the piece that you’d like them to know?

I did a lot of reporting to recreate scenes. People said it was odd that it got dark [so early] in the afternoon—one of them specifically told me the sun set at 2:00 p.m. I looked it up and did some research on the web to confirm that’s when the sun set. I went to Google to see what does this building really look like; what the weather was; what the temperature was; was it really raining this day; what do buses in Stockholm look like; what is the menu at F12. It just seemed very important to reconstruct those things to give people a sense of the place. Those are little things that might end up as a phrase here or a word there, but they bring everything into bold relief.

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