It's no secret that Stanford structural biologist Michael Levitt, PhD, won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry last week for his contributions to the understanding, via computational simulation and molecular modeling, of the immense molecules that we carbon-based lifeforms are made of. This is tremendously valuable work.
But if you're ever so slightly prone to glazing over at terms such as "computational simulation and molecular modeling," then I have a real secret to share with you.
I received an e-mail earlier this year from Levitt, with whom I hadn't met during my five years as a science writer here. He'd just had a paper accepted in the journal Structure and was wondering whether our office might want to publicize it via a news release. "This is my best work since 1976," he wrote.
Like many studies that pass before my eyes, this was a work of first-rate science. Levitt and his associates had solved the structure of the most complex members of an important class of proteins called chaperonins.
But trying to explain the significance of this finding, let alone Levitt's math- and computation-heavy methodology, to lay readers via an 800-word news release was a nonstarter. I replied with what I hoped was a respectful explanation of why I couldn't write a release on the study: The fact that a scientific work is noteworthy doesn't necessarily make it newsworthy. The working press, we have learned, often require evidence of a direct, easily understood connection between breaking research and its implications for readers in the here-and-now. While understandable, this can make basic research a tough sell.
"Clearly this is a huge methodological advance," I wrote. "But... it necessarily contains a nested sequence of concepts and references to key molecules. Any of these, alone, would be tough to explain... The attention span of the hyperkinetic, overworked editors and reporters who serve as surrogate readers for [our target nonscientific audience] is simply too short for us to pull that off..."
My message far exceeded the word-count limit of any release I might have scratched together.
Levitt's response was gracious, serene and practically immediate: "Hi, Bruce. Your note was terrific and oh so helpful. [I have] some trial elevator-pitch paragraphs to try on you, more from the interest of the exercise than for any real desire to get publicity." And sure enough, there followed two concise, if still somewhat terminologically freighted, paragraphs on his new work and its implications.
I responded: "Hi, Michael. I very much appreciate your efforts." And, with the sincerest of good intentions, I proceeded to rewrite his paragraphs, substituting my snappy constructions for his honest, earnest explications. I suggested he could consider either concentrating on his new findings or focus on the methods he'd devised to get them. Maybe he'll find himself in an elevator with a grantor or donor someday, I thought, and here I am helping him find les mots justes for that occasion.
He didn't write back, but from this parched soil grew a beautiful flower.
Last Wednesday, a 4 AM phone call directed me to come into the office because Levitt had just won the Nobel. I had three hours to put together a one-page "explainer" from scratch. (Have I mentioned that this was seriously hard-to-explain science?)
The only thing that saved me was my pack-rat propensity to save my e-mails. I unearthed the last one I'd sent Levitt and found the two partially polished elevator-pitch paragraphs I'd crafted in my effort to Anglicize and slangify his prose. My explainer piece was already about half-completed. Momentum and adrenalin took me the rest of the way.
Later, I dug up the entire e-mail thread, addressed it to Levitt, and appended the following at the top:
Dear Michael, I see you've found an alternative way to generate publicity for your research. Congratulations! Bruce
Both Levitt, during his post-announcement press conference, and his fellow 2013 Stanford Nobel laureate, neuroscientist Tom Südhof, MD, in a conversation with me about a month ago, uttered nearly identical words: Forget "Eureka!" moments; science proceeds in small, incremental steps.
Each step, looked at individually (as one must for a news release), may seem flat, rectangular, wooden. Viewed together, they are seen for what they are: a staircase to heaven.
Previously: Stanford's Michael Levitt wins 2013 Nobel Prize in chemistry, No average morning for Nobel winner Michael Levitt, The lure of research: How Nobel winner Tom Südhof came to work in the basic sciences and Nobel Prize-netting iPS-cell discovery was initially a tough sell (for me, anyway)
Photo of Levitt talking with reporters last Wednesday by L.A. Cicero/ Stanford News Service