Physics on the Air
by Judy Jackson
Particle physicists are used to dealing with the smallest things human beings have ever seen. Quarks. Leptons. The number of working journalists who truly understand experimental physics.
It's a small, small world; but in recent months the ranks of journalists who can tell a boson from a black hole in the ground have swelled by at least one. And if the new guy's particle physics background is in any way deficient, we have no one to blame but ourselves: we raised him. National Public Radio's newest science reporter, David Kestenbaum, began collaborating on CDF as a high-school student, spent his undergraduate and graduate careers at Fermilab, and wrote his thesis on the discovery of the top quark. His first science stories were assignments from FermiNews. This man knows from neutrinos.
The physics bug bit early. As a high-school physics student growing up near Philadelphia in the mid-eighties, Kestenbaum encountered University of Pennsylvania physicist Nigel Lockyer, a Fermilab experimenter who soon recruited him to work on the fledgling Collider Detector at Fermilab.
"They needed someone at CDF to work on alarms and limits of accelerator monitors," Kestenbaum recalled recently. "I was, what, seventeen? It was the most amazing thing. They actually depended on me. In those days, it took forever for the detector to turn on, one system at a time. If they couldn't turn on, they'd call me to come and help. It was such a thrill! At that time, I had no idea what a quark was."
Alarms and limits apparently weren't the only attraction at CDF.
"David worked for me as a high school student," Lockyer remembers, "and for most of his undergraduate career at Yale. He babysat my kids at the Fermilab pool. He danced on the CDF trigger room table. Henry [Frisch, a University of Chicago physicist] chewed him out, and his reply was something like 'Cool it, Dad.' David was very popular after that."
When the time came for grad school, it was "between Penn and Melissa," he said. Melissa Franklin, a Harvard physicist who had herself worked on Fermilab experiments as a teenager, finally corralled him for Harvard, where she was his advisor.
At Harvard, Kestenbaum loved working with the engineers and technicians in the university shop, building CDF drift tubes to chart the flight of particles through the detector. Like many physicists, he enjoyed making things with his hands, creating things that no one had ever built before.
Along the way, Kestenbaum acquired a pretty good idea what a quark was. He began his Ph.D. thesis research at the time when, after nearly two decades of searches at accelerators around the world, Fermilab experiments were finally closing in on the top quark
"I wrote my thesis on one of the analyses of the top," Kestenbaum said. "I felt very lucky to be on CDF at the time of the discovery. People had been working for many years to get to that point."
And at about that time, Kestenbaum showed up at the FermiNews office and hesitantly asked to try his hand at science writing. His first assignment, a story about the Fermilab Users' Annual Meeting of 1995, contained this prescient paragraph:
"The National Science Foundation's Robert Ely reported that grants from NSF would drop by a few percent as funding shifted to CLEO upgrades at Cornell. Perhaps Ely unconsciously illuminated what this means to physicists as, responding to a funding question, he absentmindedly removed a dollar bill from his pocket, nervously smoothed it, and then put it away in another pocket. He may have hit upon the metaphor for future HEP fundingˇone hand taking from the other, with tough decisions about where to put resources."
Even then, the kid had an eye for the fundamentals.
When Kestenbaum received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1996, he decided to become not a scientist but a science writer.
"I had been doing experimental particle physics since I was seventeen," he said recently. "A lot of people treat physics like the priesthood. I was very grateful that I had a chance to do it. But I needed something else. I talked to Melissa. She encouraged me to go ahead and try being a writer."
After a stint as a freelance, and a science journalism internship at WOSU (Ohio State University) radio in Columbus, Ohio, Kestenbaum joined the staff of Science magazine in Washington, DC, where he covered such Fermilab stories as the discovery of the last of the B mesons. He liked Science ("They were like family."), but his stint at the radio station had convinced him that the air waves were his true medium; and after a year he joined the science staff at NPR. Now his broadcast stories prompt proud "Hey, I heard David this morning!" comments from Fermilab listeners arriving at work.
Four years after leaving Fermilab, does he miss physics? Any regrets about the choice he has made?
"When I first started writing for a living," Kestenbaum said, "I used to have dreams that I was building an accelerator in my apartment living room. I'd be ordering parts, and I'd be very worried about the effects on the beam from the vibrations from the apartment upstairs. Now, there are times when I am talking to a physicist who has done something cool and beautiful and simple, and I want to go to work for him. Sometimes I'm envious of people who are doing science. Once in awhile I feel like a parasite, as if other people are actually doing things, and I'm not, I'm just observing."
Mostly, though, he loves what he does.
"Two weeks ago, I was going in to work at NPR. It was about 9:30 in the morning, and I had biked to work. I was wearing jeans and sneakers, and I didn't feel like I was going to work at all. I feel perfectly suited for what I am doing. I have the best job in the world."
Spoken like a physicist. Or like a journalist with a world-class physics education.
|last modified 3/10/2000 email Fermilab|