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Once a physicist: Martijn van Calmthout

Martijn van Calmthout is the chief science editor at the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, based in Amsterdam.

Once a physicist: Martijn van Calmthout

What got you interested in physics as a child?
Space travel grabbed me. On 4 July 1976 the US Viking probe landed on Mars and sent fuzzy pictures in black and white back to Earth. The programme lasted for hours, in my recollection. I sat in front of a TV set at our holiday address and took pictures of the screen with my black-and-white camera. In the months that followed I tried to build my own Mars rover, which I operated on the pebbled roof of a shed in our garden at home. It even had a shovel for grabbing rocks. Sadly, I could not figure out how to get rid of the power cable needed to run the thing, which would certainly not reach all the way to Mars, or even the Moon. After that, I built a Newtonian reflector telescope and started looking at objects in the skies, blocking out street lights with a big black sack. I also joined an astronomy club, and one day a retired physics teacher performed a live measurement of the speed of light at our club house. I decided that was the thing to get into for life.

Where did you study physics? Did you enjoy your degree?
I studied physics at Utrecht University, where I started out as an astronomy student. After lazily getting straight A's in high school, I scored an F in my very first exam, which was on special relativity. I realized then that you have to work hard in physics, even when you are good at it. After a year I switched from astronomy to physics because I decided that astronomy was not "hands-on" enough for me. In physics you get to experiment far more. I did some nuclear physics, running an old Van der Graaf accelerator, producing radio chemicals for clinical use. I also got a degree in science and society, focusing on proliferation issues on the one hand and renewable energy on the other. So Utrecht gave me a good start, although I have always wondered how solid my physics really is. The other guys seemed so much smarter.

How did you get into science journalism?
During my student years I joined the university newspaper as a reporter. I soon got involved in the science desk, manned by Maarten Evenblij who later became one of the leading science writers in the Netherlands. He is still writing for De Volkskrant, which is one of the big national newspapers in Holland. But long before that, I had been fiddling around in writing: as a kid, I produced my own astronomy bulletin, straight from the garden-shed roof where my telescope was. After graduating I was at a renewable-energy magazine first, and started out as a freelance. Eventually, through Evenblij, I got to write for De Volkskrant. I wrote about energy and the environment mainly. I remember being very nervous about my first real science story, which was about metal clusters – a subject now long forgotten or replaced by nanoscience.

What do you mainly do in your current job?
As head of De Volkskrant's science desk I lead a team of five science writers and a broad range of freelance authors and columnists, all journalists. We produce a seven-page science section on Saturdays, a kind of weekly magazine about backgrounds and trends in science, ranging from hardcore astronomy and physics, through biology and technology, to social sciences such as history and sociology. In addition to this, we produce daily science news pages in the regular newspaper. As the leading science editor at De Volkskrant I still write about physics and other hard science subjects. I have also been appointed commentator, producing editorials once or twice a week, mainly on science-related issues. In my own time I do some freelance work for magazines abroad, including New Scientist and Physics World, and I contribute to some books. Plus, every now and then I manage to write my own books, including two biographies of Albert Einstein. I am currently researching a new book on the Dutch-American physicist and war hero Sam Goudsmit, who was formerly the president of the American Physical Society and editor-in-chief of Physical Review and Physical Review Letters.

What skills make a good journalist?
The art of science journalism for popular media such as a newspaper is being an insider and an outsider at the same time. You have to understand what is going on in science and communicate with scientists about cutting-edge science. But at the same time, you have to have the viewpoint of your unskilled readers. Balancing the two is difficult but rewarding. Being the first reporter on a subject (and becoming talk of the town afterwards) is a great satisfaction. Two years ago I did the first ever interview with Erik Verlinde, a Dutch string theorist with new and profound insights on the origin of gravity. Verlinde became a top story afterwards in many media.

Any advice for journalists of the future?
Every now and then I teach students about science journalism. My main message, always, is that they must want to be a journalist, since science journalism is a regular brand of journalism. You act like every other news reporter, even if you think science is different from politics or sports. The field is different; the craft is not. And remember: scientists are human beings, struggling, succeeding, making mistakes and so on. Give your readers insights into all those aspects of science.

This article appears in the December 2011 issue of Physics World

last edited: September 11, 2018

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