Stories

Selected Work

California Magazine

artist's rendering of earthquakeShake and Bake Summer 2014
A massive earthquake could be only the beginning of the Bay Area’s woes: a few seconds of shaking, a few days of fire, years of social and economic upheaval.

The Daily Beast

No, Animals Can’t Sense Disaster (aka, Turns Out, a Video of Bison Purportedly Fleeing Yellowstone Is a Hoax). April 2014
If you asked me if animals can sense earthquakes in a premonitory way, I’d say, definitely maybe.

Wired 

image of farmers in Kenya
Prime the Pump. December 2013 (21.12).
Selling the poor a way out of poverty. A brief article about Kickstart, in the Bill Gates special issue on innovation and philanthropy. [PDF]

Pop-Pop-Pop Culture. November 2010 (18.11).
From movies to videogames to product design, the AK-47 has taken plenty of star turns in pop culture. [Part of C.J. Chivers’s AK-47 feature.]

Intelligence, Redesigned. November 2009 (17.11).
The textbooks written by Roy A. Gallant taught a generation of students that science could also be art. But research progresses and artistic methods evolve. So we gave these mid-century classics a 21st-century update.

Download (PDF, 3.75MB)

Script: What’s Inside a Cup of Coffee. June 2013.
As long-time factchecker of the What’s Inside column, I contributed the initial script for the coffee installment of the What’s Inside video series.

FRONTLINE/World

The village of Huangbaiyu in rural northeast China was supposed to be a model for energy-conscious design. The initial project was to build 400 sustainable homes, a collaboration between the U.S. architect William McDonough and the Chinese. But something went awry.China: Green Dreams. A not-so-model village. 1 February 2008.
A three-part audio slideshow investigation I produced as a Frontline/World Fellow.

China: Undermined. 4 October 2007.
What began as an investigation of environmental degradation turned into a story of whole villages being literally undermined by an aggressive coal industry — and of people who faced brutal retaliation when they blew the whistle…Reported by Duane Moles, Tim Lesle, and Wu Nan. The report was also part of a 2007 student Emmy award-winning magazine program.

California Magazine

Gadzooks, MOOCS! Winter 2013
Silicon Valley is defined by “disruption,” the upending of existing industries. Is higher education next?

A Stellar Discovery. Winter 2011
A blend of chance and preparedness enabled Lawrence Berkeley’s Peter Nugent and his colleagues to monitor a supernova soon after its birth, an “instant cosmic classic.”

Hot Topic. Fall 2011
The reader may wonder, haven’t three major climate research groups already analyzed the planet’s temperature and found it to be on the rise? Well, yes. But if you thought the science was settled, Richard Muller would like to disagree.

Pressing Business. Summer 2010.
The University of California Press supports its mission of publishing good scholarship.
“The publishing industry is in flux, but the nonprofit UC Press—based in Berkeley but part of the larger UC system—is no stranger to change.”

Meeting Locally, Acting Globally. Winter 2009.
The ELP expands Berkeley’s environmental influence.
“One day last July, an unlikely pair stood ankle-deep in the upper reaches of Strawberry Creek. Titi, a lawyer from Nigeria, and Hernán, a geologist from Colombia were on either side of a small pool, sloshing around in rubber boots. “Keep going!” said Titi, holding a net just downstream of Hernán, who shuffled his feet in order to “disturb the substrate,” as the post-doc leading the exercise put it. The commotion kicked up silt and leaf litter, along with scores of tiny aquatic creatures that were carried by the current into Titi’s net. The two then took their catch to a table where a group comprising Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, and Middle Easterners gathered to sort insects and examine them under a microscope.”

The Girl Curator. Fall 2009.
After 30 years, Renée Dreyfus of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco welcomes the ‘Boy King’ back to the Bay.
“Renée Dreyfus stood in a corridor of the Legion of Honor considering an ancient Egyptian idol carved from granodiorite. The figure, which held an ankh and a scepter, represented a deity, but she couldn’t say which one: It was missing its head. What she did know was that the statue was carved for Amenhotep III’s sed-festival, a ceremony celebrating 30 years or so on the throne, when the gods would renew the aging pharaoh’s power.”

The View From Above. May/June 2009.
An architecture professor finds the right perspective with kites.
“Charles Benton began by choosing the right kite for the strong April winds blowing at San Francisco’s Crissy Field. He had three ‘soft’ kites stuffed into his backpack—soft because they don’t rely on stiff frames to hold their shape. He pulled out the largest one and attached it to a line. The wad of bright nylon fabric filled with wind and rose into the air, straining powerfully against its tether—powerfully enough to loft his digital camera skyward.”

California goes Planet Hunting. November-December 2008.
Until 1995, exoplanets—planets orbiting sun-like stars—were more figment than fact, the stuff of sci-fi novels. But in 1995, a Swiss group discovered the first known example, called 51 Pegasi b, and since then, astronomers have documented more than 300 exoplanets. Of those, nearly half have been discovered by the team led by Cal astronomy professor Geoff Marcy, who directs the Center for Integrative Planetary Science. An audio slideshow. (Currently hosted on this site.)

Lucky Star. November-December 2008.
The first indication that something big was happening arrived in Maryam Modjaz’s inbox on January 10. The circular came from Princeton scientists who noticed a burst of X-rays while reviewing data from a NASA satellite. The event was labeled XRT 080109, and at first, all anyone knew for sure was that it was a transient—an object that quickly becomes luminous and then fades away.

Hydrogen. What’s Not to Like? September-October 2008.
Q & A on the potential side effects of a hydrogen economy with atmospheric chemist Kristie Boering.

Cradle and All. September-October 2008.
Profile of anthropologist Shannon May. When Shannon May went to China, what she expected was a a glimpse of rural life. What she found was a lesson on the pitfalls of green design.

Longshot Magazine

The Price of Life. July 2011.
We’ve been trying to nail down the dollar value of a life since the Middle Ages—when blood money was a legal obligation known as weregild—and we’re still trying today to appraise the inestimable. [Intro only. For more background, see this post.]

Self-Published

pierces_house_hayward1868Devoted to a Fault June 2008.
A long-form story in which I accompany a USGS geologist on a tour of the Hayward fault, the so-called geological time-bomb that runs under a number of communities in the East Bay region near San Francisco. It was one of the most fun stories I’ve reported. I learned that a New York Times Magazine editor really liked it, but the problem with these kinds of stories, he told me, is that an editor won’t be interested in something like this until a big earthquake hits, at which point they still wouldn’t take it because it would then be too late. That’s journalism for you.

cropped image of Hao Zifu smoking
Boom Times: Life in China’s Coal Country June 2007.
A series of photos taken in rural Shanxi, China, the heart of that country’s coal industry. Winner of the Susan Meiselas Award for Excellence in Photojournalism. The project is related to Duane Moles’s Frontline/World video China: Undermined.

Dwell Magazine

Western Promises. October 2008.
The design for a small village in northeastern China was meant to stand as a model for sustainable development. Instead, it proves that the pursuit of better design should never lose sight of context and culture. Download PDF.

Terrain Magazine

A Rising Tide. Summer 2009.
“Bob Battalio and David Revell brace against a powerful wind as bits of litter fly past and waves crash below. It’s a bright, clear April afternoon, and we are standing on the Pacifica pier, the long, L-shaped piece of engineering that juts defiantly into the ocean. Pacifica, located just a few miles south of San Francisco on Highway 1, is a town of about 40,000. It crops up periodically in the news due to its love-hate relationship with the Pacific Ocean. Pacifica wants to stay where it is, but the ocean keeps grabbing at chunks of it.”

Brink Magazine

Biggest Startup Ever. May 2008.
Hotmail co-founder Sabeer Bhatia is working on a new startup. While software is hot these days, Bhatia’s new venture will be all hardware—metal, cement, asphalt—the stuf that goes into buildings and roads. Bhatia’s startup is a brand new city. In India. [Download PDF]

Following the Fault: Dispatches from along the East Bay’s geological time bomb. May 2008.
The Hayward Fault is the dark horse of California faults, far lesser known and, at about 45 miles in length, a mere fraction of the size of the gargantuan 800-mile San Andreas…It turns out the average interval between the last five large quakes on the Hayward fault is roughly 140 years. This October marks the 1868 quake’s 140th anniversary. [Download PDF]

view of oyster racks from boat
Fall of the Wild: Photographs. May 2008.
“The fate of an oyster farm sets the local food movement against the ideal of wilderness. Article by Charlie Foster, photographs by Timothy Lesle. View photos of the Drakes Bay Oyster Farm here.

The New York Times Magazine

Sailing an Oil Tanker. 10 December 2006.
2006 has been a good year for the California-based company KiteShip, which makes”‘very large free-flying sails”–basically, giant traction kites that harness the wind to pull very large free-floating objects.

The San Jose Mercury News

Fresh vistas lure Bollywood to Bay Area. 5 August 2008.
This is a first trip to America for several in the Indian crew. “London was cool,” said Satish Raj, 24, an assistant director, “but California is beautiful.” Vinod Pillai, 31, an assistant director of photography, does have one complaint: “Climate is a big problem. It is cold.”

North Gate News Online

Proposition 87: Four articles on the proposed oil tax to fund alternative energy and the ensuing advertising campaign–at $155 million, the most expensive in California history. November 2006.
1) Big Money Battles Over Oil Tax.
2 November 2006, the curtain-raiser story.
“This is the first initiative I’m going to vote for in a long time. I’m going to have to violate my rule against voting for all initiatives except for the initiative that abolishes other initiatives.”

2) Oil Tax Popular in Bay Area and 3) Voters Appear to Be Rejecting New Oil Tax.
7 November 2006, the election night updates.
“It screams the self-righteousness that comes with oversimplification.”
“Gas prices are the ultimate pocketbook issue.”
4) Californians Reject Oil Tax, but Observers Think the Issue Will Resurface.
8 November 2006, the wrap-up.
“Prop 87 had the right end but the wrong means.”

Angelides Reaches out to Chinese-American Voters. 26 October 2006.
Angelides visited the Sweet Mart on Washington Street as part of his handshake tour of local merchants. Owner Daniel Lo, 52, seemed surprised by the visit. After Angelides left, he laughed and said, “They help us, we help them.”

Death of San Leandro Woman Remains a Mystery. 21 October 2006.
Sonia Ilustre wanted to establish a neighborhood watch program.

Residents Cope as Violence Swirls Around Them. 16 October 2006.
When Markel Abram walks in his West Oakland neighborhood, his 6-foot-9-inch frame is hard to miss. He gets a steady stream of shouts and honking horns. People are saying hello.

San Francisco Considers Foot Patrols to Beat Crime. 2 October 2006.
“There’s no reason why people need to be dying in one of the most sophisticated cities on the planet.”

Tenderloin Fights Gritty Image. 21 September 2006.
The veteran actor Martin Landau recently walked the streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood wearing a rumpled brown trench coat, a carefully creased fedora, and a look of exasperation.

Bonus: Supervisors Oppose No-Match Immigration Measures. 12 September 2006.
“We’re not required to check immigrant status. And we like it that way.”

The Planet

Making a Just Transition. September/October 2006.
“We’ve been running so fast chasing the American Dream because that’s what the rest of the world tells us that we want and need.”

Hot or Not? Climatologist Stephen Schneider on how industry has manufactured ‘uncertainty.’ September/October 2005.
“In political reporting, where there is no standard of who is right or wrong because you’re reporting on philosophy, you give roughly equal weight to these two sides and you let them duke it out. When you apply that model to science, you end up in the cacophonous disaster we have now. Because in science, there aren’t two sides.”

Witnessing the World Through Words: Poet Robert Hass on Poetry and Nature. July/August 2005.
“I think that the old formula of the civil rights and anti-war movements—which was pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will—seems to me really necessary right now.”

Thinking Big and Small: Designing the Next Industrial Revolution. An interview with William McDonough. July/August 2005.
“Set the goal as being relatively simple. Our goals start with a tone poem, which is that we love all the children of all species for all time. And we think that there is no end game. What we’re looking for is the infinite game—the game we get to play forever.”

Getting Somewhere on the ‘Bridges to Nowhere.’ January/February 2006.
In August, Alaska Representative Don Young bragged that he stuffed the 2005 federal transportation bill ‘like a turkey,’ with billions of dollars of spending, including two proposed bridges in Alaska.

Building Environmental Community One Canyon at a Time. January/February 2006.
When you see what you stand to lose, then you learn to love it. If we’d never had to fight to protect this place, a lot fewer people would even know about it.

States Take Lead on Mercury, Global Warming. July/August 2006.
“Minnesota is the ‘Land of 10,000 Lakes.’ You basically don’t find a body of water in Minnesota that doesn’t have mercury contamination in the fish.”

Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science

From Space Travel to Social Justice: An Interview with Freeman Dyson. Fall 2001.
“This Orion Project was a crazy idea. I think it could have worked, technically. It would have covered the globe with radioactivity, so that wasn’t such a good idea. And I could see that from the start, that this problem with radioactive fallout would be the showstopper in the end. It wouldn’t fly because of the fallout problem. But still, apart from that, it was a great idea.” [PDF only]

Ecology and Education: David Orr. Fall 2001.
“The problem with contemporary education,” Orr says, “is that there is a disorder in thought, which leads to a disorder in development.”[PDF only]

In Memoriam: Half Zantop. Spring 2001.
As we drove on the highway from Fresnillo to Zacatecas, Half Zantop turned to me and recited a poem. It was the first stanza to Rainer Rilke’s “Der Panther.” He carried those words with him for half a century, the verse memorized during his days in grade school. The lines, as he spoke them in German, were invested with a rhythm and quiet intensity that, in the imperfect realm of memory, perfectly complemented the sunlight reflected upon the dry Mexican countryside. [PDF only]

Ernest Fox Nichols: Dartmouth’s Scientist President. Spring 2000
An experimental physicist during some of the formative years of modern physics, Nichols’ talent would take him from a modest upbringing in the Kansas of the Old West to the universities and institutions of the Northeast and Europe, with a couple of stops at Dartmouth along the way. [PDF only]

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