September 21, 2000

First High-Energy Astronomy Journalism Prize Awarded

It's hard for astronomers to pick a favorite star within a binary star system. As such, the High Energy Astrophysics Division (HEAD) of the American Astronomical Society has chosen two winners for the first David N. Schramm Award for High-Energy Astrophysics Science Journalism.

The winners are Kathy Sawyer of the Washington Post and Robert Zimmerman, a freelance writer. They will share the $1,000 prize and will be presented a plaque at the HEAD scientific meeting in Honolulu in November.

Zimmerman won for an article about gamma ray bursts in The Sciences entitled, "There She Blows." In the article, Zimmerman delves into the 35-year-old history of burst observations and gibes at a few scientists who were absolutely convinced they understood what these bursts were but have since been proven wrong.

"We're going through a renaissance in astronomy, and it's always exciting to be able to write about it," said Zimmerman, who is also a frequent contributor to Astronomy, Invention & Technology, and The Wall Street Journal. "The great thing about covering astronomy is that you can look up an astronomer's number in the phone book, call them, and they will answer your questions at length."

Zimmerman is the author of two books: The Chronological Encyclopedia of Discoveries in Space (Oryx Press, 2000) and Genesis -- The Story of Apollo 8, the First Human Flight to Another World (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1998).

Sawyer won this year's Schramm Award for her piece in the Post called "Flash!", also about gamma ray bursts. The article is full of such rich descriptions as "flamboyant havoc" and "titanic cataclysms," characteristic of Sawyer's thorough yet entertaining reporting.

"I'm delighted and honored to win the award," said Sawyer, "especially since Dr. Schramm was always so willing to patiently help me try to understand and put into plain English the knottier aspects of Big Bang astrophysics."

Sawyer has worked at the Washington Post for 24 years and has covered space science and technology for 14 years (since the 1986 Challenger accident.) She has also written for National Geographic and Astronomy magazines.

David Schramm, of the University of Chicago, was a world leader in theoretical astrophysics and a leading authority on the Big Bang model of the formation of the universe. He was killed in 1997 when the twin-engine plane he was piloting crashed outside of Denver. Schramm was dedicated to public outreach, and the newly created writing award that bears his name recognizes distinguished writing on high energy astrophysics that improves the general public's understanding in and appreciation of this exciting field of research.

HEAD will present this award every 18 months at its division meetings. Entries are judged by a committee of distinguished scientists and journalists selected by the HEAD Executive Committee. Information about the prize is available at