A Science Reporter Asks: ‘Where Are the Aliens?’

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Since 2000, Kenneth Chang has covered a lot of news for The New York Times — worldly and extraterrestrial. As a science reporter, Mr. Chang has stood by at NASA launch sites, waiting for rockets to lift off to the moon. (They sometimes don’t.) He has profiled a chemist with onstage ambitions. And he has spoken with experts about the advancements this month in nuclear fusion, the effort to reproduce the sun’s power in a lab — and what that might mean for the future of energy.

Mr. Chang holds a bachelor’s degree in physics and worked on a Ph.D. in the subject before he decided to become a reporter. That experience, he says, helps him parse complicated concepts for readers, or at least gives him an idea of exactly what he should be asking while on the job.

In an interview, Mr. Chang spoke about how he stays informed on his beat, the joy he still feels from reporting on a new discovery and how he breaks down advanced concepts for readers. This interview has been edited.

Would you consider this a more exciting time than usual for a science reporter?

It’s always exciting. In fusion, this is a major landmark. In particle physics, the big announcement was the Higgs boson collider a while back, and that’s been quiet the last few years. And there are a lot of areas where there are interesting things being done in solid state of physics with strange metals, which, if nothing else, has a really cool name.

Once in a while there’s a big burst of different things that happen. The science beat is fun because there’s always something new and unexpected.

Does your sense of wonder or joy remain intact after covering the beat for some time now?

I studied physics in college and went to grad school hoping to become a physicist. The romantic notion of physics is that you want to understand the universe, and physics is trying to break it down to the most fundamental laws — what the universe is made out of, what’s going to happen to the universe. All the wonderful, big questions. Eventually I came to the conclusion that I’m fine if someone else figures it out and just tells me the answer. That’s still what I’m doing.

I find that I have a better understanding now of the big picture when I’m doing these stories than when I was a grad student focusing on one small problem, not really understanding the equation or what my next step should be. It’s great because it’s a license to actually wallow in wonder as a job.

What are you most excited about covering?

Mars is always interesting because there’s that lingering question of what was early Mars like? Life might have been there when that planet was much warmer and wetter. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, but it’s an understanding of what leads to life and what doesn’t.

There’s a similar parallel path of inquiry with exoplanets. We can start to see thousands of planets. We can start seeing which ones seem to have conditions that are favorable to life, which ones you can find signs of oxygen in the atmosphere — which isn’t definitive proof of life, but it could be the product of photosynthesis. This is a level of inquiry that didn’t exist before. And I wonder where are the aliens?

There’s also this longstanding question of why does the universe exist at all? That’s something I’m hoping someone will tell me soon.

How would you describe your beat?

I usually say that health is stuff that can kill you, technology is stuff that can kill other people, and science is everything in between that doesn’t have any practical application.

Do you have your own journalistic methodology to try to explain headier topics to readers?

I try to do enough interviews and digging so that I understand it well enough on a semitechnical level. My test is if I can explain it well enough to someone else on a more general level. If I don’t understand it, then that becomes really, really painful and hard. If I can explain it in a way that feels like it’s not too tortured, that means I’ve actually done a good job. If it sounds vague, and I can tell that I really am trying to skip over something and hoping you don’t notice, that usually means there’s a gap in my knowledge as well.

How much does your experience in physics come in handy?

The useful part is that I understand more about how science is done. I can ask about the errors, the important questions of is it definite, or is it the first step out of 10 in what you want to discover? That helps. There are a lot of really good science reporters who don’t have a direct science background. But it’s helpful.