AJR  The Beat
From AJR,   December/January 2009

90 is the New 20   

This science writer’s passion is undiminished after almost 50 years on the beat.

By Lindsay Gsell
Lindsay Gsell is an AJR editorial assistant.     

When San Francisco Chronicle Science Editor David Perlman began his career in science writing, no one had ever heard of AIDS. Man had not landed on the moon, and no one was debating the ethics of stem cell research.

In the following five decades, Perlman has reported on all of these developments and more: He has written thousands of stories, including more than 300 about the AIDS epidemic; more than 250 on evolution, and more than 275 about climate developments, space missions and the possibility of life on Mars.

"Dr. Dave," as he's known in the newsroom, has no thoughts of retiring as he approaches his ninetieth birthday.

"He brings to his work the excitement that you'd expect to find from a man in his 20s," says Susan Sward, a colleague and friend of Perlman's for 30 years.

While out on a dinner date recently, Perlman felt a small earthquake shake the floor beneath him. He excused himself from the restaurant mid-meal, leaving his guest a credit card to cover the bill, and headed to the newsroom to pursue the story. In May, Perlman was one of the few reporters who stayed up all night at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena to watch the Phoenix spacecraft land on Mars.

"That's just typical David," says Steve Proctor, deputy managing editor for news at the San Francisco Chronicle.

"Each article is suffused with joy and wonder about discoveries that are made. He's never lost the enthusiasm for the subject, and he conveys that in the writing to the readers," Proctor says. "He's got an amazing gift and a zest for life."

Perlman's passion for journalism began 78 years ago, when his mother took him to see an original stage production of "The Front Page" in New York. "I am a man with a single-track mind, so to speak," Perlman says. "I never considered doing anything else. Being a reporter is what I really wanted to do, and that's why I'm still doing it."

After graduating from Columbia University in 1940 with a journalism degree, Perlman briefly held a newspaper job in Bismarck, North Dakota, before heading west to San Francisco to work as a copy boy for the Chronicle.

After the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Perlman enlisted in the Army, and served in France and Germany during World War II. After leaving the service, he stayed in Europe to work for New York Herald Tribune's European edition (now the International Herald Tribune), which sent him to cover news in the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Iran.

In 1951, Perlman jumped at the chance to head back to San Francisco to be a city reporter at the Chronicle. "When I went back to the Chronicle, it certainly wasn't to be a science reporter," he says. "I didn't know anything about science, and I didn't particularly care about it. I can remember in the late 1950s when Sputnik happened, I really didn't know what the hell kept it up in the air. I remember asking one of the other reporters in the newsroom, 'Charlie? Why doesn't that wretched thing fall down? How does it stay up there?' That was one of my first run-ins with science."

A chance assignment turned Perlman, who had met only the minimum science course requirements at Columbia, into a science lover.

"My first science story was by accident in 1959. It was about a meteor shower that people were talking about. I didn't understand what meteors were, and I started asking around, and the result of that was, 'Hey, I could do a feature story about this.' I started investigating, I went up to the major observatory by San Francisco, and I ran into an astronomer, and I said to him, 'Well, sir, you're an astronomer. What exactly do you do?' He started explaining about the Orion Nebula being a birthplace for new stars. He said it was pregnant with stars and I just thought it was a wondrous idea. It was such a dazzling epiphany, so I wrote a story about it."

His curiosity piqued, Perlman pursued more assignments about science, which turned into a full-time beat by 1960. A science writer's mission, Perlman says, is to take dense, scientific material and translate it into layman's terms. He figured out early on how to work his sources.

"Science writing is like political writing in Washington. Reporters develop contacts to help steer them in a very complicated stage where the actors are playing out. Over the years, I've managed to write about enough people accurately enough so I can come back to them and ask for help. I find now that if I read a paper or article in a journal, I often know somebody in that field with whom I have some kind of relationship," says Perlman, for whom the American Geophysical Union named a science journalism award in 2000. Perlman received a Distinguished Service Award from the Society of Professional Journalists in 2008.

Perlman has reported science stories from far-flung destinations such as the Galapagos Islands and Alaska's North Slope, and tackled topics ranging from the speed of Neptune's clouds to the 1989 San Francisco earthquake to evolution, which has become a hot-button political issue.

"When I write about evolution, I write about how the fact took place, not whether it's justified or not. I feel quite strongly that I can present scientific evidence for various aspects [of] the process of evolution," Perlman says. "I don't write stories that put intelligent design or creationism against evolution. As far as I'm concerned, I'm the science writer, so I write about science. I don't consider intelligent design or creationism a scientific theory. It's a religious theory, so I let the religion writer deal with that!"

In 2006, at age 87, Perlman's passion for reporting on evolution took him to Ethiopia to accompany Tim White, an integrative biology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, on an archaeological dig at the Middle Awash paleoanthropological project. The project is an international, multidisciplinary effort to investigate human origins and evolution during the last six million years.

Perlman "loved every minute of it, despite the extreme difficulties and dangers of living in a tent camp in the middle of one of the world's most formidable deserts," White says.

"I was amazed by his endurance, an endurance fired by his curiosity and downright persistence in getting to the bottom of the story and then telling it in a way that draws the reader in."