Science writing by scientists, for non-scientists

For nine years now, I have served on a Rockefeller University committee that awards a more-or-less annual prize for science writing -- not to a full-time reporter the likes of me, but to a distinguished researcher with a gift for unraveling science to a wide public audience: Jared Diamond, Oliver Sacks, Carl Sagan, and E. O. Wilson figure among the winners. The prize went first to physician and poet Lewis Thomas, shortly before his death in 1993, and has been known ever since as the Lewis Thomas Prize. Dr. Thomas's literary essays in The New England Journal of Medicine, collected in popular volumes such as The Lives of a Cell and Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony set a high standard for later honorees.

This past week, psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison of the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore became the first woman to receive the Lewis Thomas Prize. The award citation praised her book, Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, for changing minds in the medical community as well as the general public on the nature and stigma of mental illness.

A perk of serving on the selection committee is attending the winner's invited lecture on the Rockefeller campus -- a gated enclave for research and advanced education in the medical sciences, perched at the easternmost edge of mid-town Manhattan, where the current faculty includes six Nobel laureates.

Dr. Jamison opened herself to the audience at the start of her remarks by alluding to her own manic-depressive illness, or bi-polar disorder, which struck her at age seventeen. She stressed the importance of early diagnosis and treatment, since the condition worsens over time, and she credited lithium with an eight-fold reduction in the number of suicides attributable to manic depression.

Her other books include An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, in which she describes her own alternating episodes of suicidal depression and sleep-deprived mania. In addition to her teaching at Hopkins and clinical work in its Mood Disorders Center, she is currently writing a biography of American poet Robert Lowell, one of several manic-depressive artists she discusses in Touched With Fire.

Dr. Jamison saluted Lewis Thomas by letting him have the last words of her talk: "The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA," he had written in The Lives of a Cell. "Without this special attribute, we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music."

Stars and Stardom

Recalling, as I do, the birth and short life of the long-echoing "Star Trek" television series, I was honored to meet the real Lt. Uhura -- Nichelle Nichols -- at the Astrobiology Science Conference in Atlanta this week. We exchanged pleasantries with "Live long and prosper" hand salutes.

As the former communications officer aboard the starship Enterprise, Ms. Nichols, still glamorous at 79, moderated a competitive event called "FameLab," which challenged young scientists to communicate scientific concepts in language anyone might understand. The evening's entertainment featured eleven "FameLab" finalists from fields as diverse as astronomy and paleontology. Each had three minutes to expound on a topic with as much clarity, enthusiasm and humor as he or she could muster.

When the panel of three judges left the stage of the Georgia Tech Conference Center to deliberate, Ms. Nichols called up memories of auditioning for her life-changing role. The part of Lt. Uhura not only carried her through three television seasons and six movies, but also led to an affiliation with NASA as a recruiter of women astronauts. In fact, she had long since unwittingly inducted Mae Jemison, who watched "Star Trek" at age nine and followed Lt. Uhura's lead to become first a medical doctor and later a Space Shuttle mission specialist.

During a question-and-answer period, a young astronomer leapt to his feet, star-struck almost to the point of speechlessness by the presence of Ms. Nichols. "I want to thank you," he said. "Your appearance on that TV show led to my decision to study astronomy, and made me what I am today. I never thought I would get to thank you in person!"

For many years, I've credited Carl Sagan and his "Cosmos" series with creating an entire generation of astronomers. While that assessment remains valid, I'm happy to acknowledge the parallel effect of "Star Trek." Even in re-runs of its re-runs, the show spawned legions of "Trekkies" whose ranks include untold numbers of bona fide scientists.