fledgling journalist on deadline either has the mother of
all science news stories or something else
By: Oliver Baker
When I phoned Kitcherson, I was lashed to the tracks and
in the path of a rushing deadline. A vision of Kitchersons
contraption had come to me out of the desperate vacuum of
mind. As a reporter, I was still just a student, and one who
hadnt produced a thing yet that had seen print. But I knew
a story with potential when the idea was in front of me.
I had heard Kitcherson speak about this thing two years
before. He had played a video showing it in action. In the
video, a living fruit fly dangled in front of a glowing,
wraparound display screen about 10 inches tall. Rectangular
bars drifted one way, then another: Up, down, left,
rightacross the screen. A wire glued to the flys back
suspended it and held it in place, while the camera
alternated between the front and rear of the fly,
alternately zooming in and retreating. When Kitcherson
turned up the sound, the room filled with buzzing. It was
the flyits wings a barely perceptible blur. The
device was to convince a fly it was flying when it really
wasnt. Display screen and all, the contraption pitched,
rolled and yawed in response to any acrobatic whim the fly
chose to act out. It divined the flys whims, Kitcherson had
said, from the force the fly exerted on the wire. The thing
was Kitchersons invention.
What it was good for, I couldnt remember. Whether it
proved anything scientifically, I had no idea. As a nascent
science writer, under most circumstances, I certainly would
have cared. But for a story this kooky, this interesting, it
just didnt matter. People would read it, an editor would
want it, somewhere.
Kitcherson (not his real name) was a young professor of
biology at the University of California, Berkeley. On his
Internet web page, his title was Assistant Professor. I knew
this to be code for job insecure, and instantly formed a
profile of him in my mind. Any year now, Kitcherson would be
facing the decision (not his own) that would either make him
an eminent professor for life or give him a shove out the
door and best wishes for the future. For a young professor,
this was an event as ineluctable as death and taxeswhether
the inventor of fly virtual reality or notand I figured I
had Kitcherson pegged. This was a man who would be
overworked and overwhelmed.
I called four times, left a message twice, and emailed
once. Now it was only a matter of hours before I would have
to present a viable story idea before my classmates, and I
wouldnt have another opportunity to phone. I had concluded
that Kitcherson was out of town. I dialed his number
desultorily and hardly listened as the phone rang. When out
of the receiver there sprang a HelloDavid
Kitcherson, I was off my guard.
Oh, Hi! I said. Uh...My name is Oliver Baker,
who...uh....Ive left you a couple messages?
Oh....right, said Kitcherson.
Im...uh... I said. Welluntil October, I was a
graduate student in the biophysics groupand now, actually,
Im...uh...doing science journalism.
Since the odds of buttonholing Kitcherson seemed long, I
was willing to stoop. Not to lie; but perhaps to exploit the
fact that nobody anywhere seems to know what biophysics
means. For instance, I didnt mind if to Kitcherson it meant
that I was educated about insect flight, or that I had an
education that prepared me to understand it (I didnt).
Neither would I mind if the words graduate student and my
implicit reference to Berkeley ("the biophysics group")
tapped into a sense of obligation Kitcherson might feel as a
professor (or an inclination for camaraderie he might feel,
since having been a graduate student made me a fellow
Berkeley scientist, even if of a lowly caste). And I
certainly wasnt going to volunteer that I was just a
student reporter on a class assignment. My vain hope was
that Kitcherson not think of me as a reporter at all.
I told Kitcherson Id heard and liked a talk hed given,
and was calling to ask how he would feel about having me
write a story on some of his research.
A pause followed, and I began to suspect that Kitcherson
didnt feel too good about it.
Sure, said Kitcherson.
Really?! I said.
Kitcherson paused again, and I thought that if I were
talking to a reporter who had said that, I would have paused
Um...Yeah....Sh-sure he said.
Indeed he was really busy, Kitcherson said. But he had a
friend who was a science journalist. In fact, he had a
reporter in his family toothe husband of a sister he was
very close to.
So I kind of make it a point to make myself available to
the press, he said.
A row of cherries assembled in the window of a slot
machine in my mind. My grip on the phone receiver slackened,
the tension drained from my body, and I sunk deep into my
chair. Kitcherson asked me what I wanted to write about, and
I did not hesitate:
Fruit-fly virtual reality, I said.
Kitcherson said Oh. That. Thats old.
Old is never good in journalism. That I knew.
How old? I asked.
The experiments were now two years old, Kitcherson said.
He added, though, that he had only published them last
Although the research had lost its currency to
Kitcherson, it wasnt too old to my mindprovided it hadnt
landed with a big splash in a national newspaper. I figured
the brilliance of fruit-fly virtual reality was visualnot
something well conveyed by a type-written press release. And
I wagered the newspapers hadnt noticed it.
The Boston Globe did a full-page story on it when it
came out Kitcherson said. Thats where my friend worksat
the Boston Globe. Shes the one who wrote the article.
Bad, yes, bad, I thought. But the Boston Globe doesnt
dictate the attention of the country quite like the New York
Times does. I was mulling this over when Kitcherson rushed
to point out that the research article had appeared in
Science magazine. This meant that the eyes of journalists
certainly would have paused on it. In fact, Kitcherson said,
Science had written its own news story for the front pages
of the same issue.
He was telling me this, I figured, as a way to say so
dont think it got in the newspaper just because I have a
friend at the Boston Globe. But what it meant to me was:
By now this story has crayon marks on it in a dusty
third-grade textbook in Cairo.
As I understood Kitcherson, his finding was that wagging
drumstick-like appendages behind each wing of a fruit fly
function as a pair of miniature gyroscopesso that fruit
flies guide themselves the same way that cruise missiles and
There was no chance it had gone unappreciated.
Yet it was hasty to abandon a story this good without
checking what attention it actually had received. I was
planning to write something in-depth. The newspapers
certainly might have given the story short shrift. Before I
had the chance to pursue such thoughts, however, Kitcherson
was talking again.
You know, its really awkward that you should call right
now, he said.
Oh, I said. Huh?
We had been talking for several minutes already, and
Kitchersons comment struck me as rather oddly timed. I
asked if hed prefer that I call him back later.
Oh. No, he said. Its not that.
He elaborated, but I wasnt understanding him.
Its just that... Kitcherson said, weve actually just
finished up some other work, which...which I think is really
quite important. I mean... I mean...Im really not the kind
of scientist who likes to blow his own horn, he said. But,
well...Let me just say, I think this is the best thing Ive
ever been involved with.
Better than fly gyroscopes?
Really? I said. Id love to hear about it!
Um...well...yeah...and Id love to tell you about it,
Kitcherson said. But its just...like I said, its kind of
an awkward time.
Because, he said, were actually about to submit it to
Science...like...tomorrow, in fact. I actually have the
envelope sitting in front of me right now on my desk.
Wow! Really!? I gushed. The Brooklyn Bridge could be
mine if I could only afford the price.
Yeah, he said.
And, actually, said Kitcherson, it would be a really
great thing for you to write up tooespecially since...What
did you say you were studying? Biophysics?
Yes! I proclaimed.
Yeah, so, with your biophysics background... he
But its just kind of awkward... said Kitcherson, his
voice trailing off.
I did not get it.
Awkward... I echoed.
My thought was: The research is done. The results are off
of the computer and onto paper. This is one of those
momentsone of those one or perhaps two a yearthat is
absolutely not awkward. This is the moment a scientist opens
up a beer, talks idly with the lab-matesgoes home early.
Unless...and this was the only exception I could think
ofunless perhaps on the phone there was a
reporter...anyone, really, prepared to listen to what had
just emerged after years of anonymous and blistering toil.
In that case, at a moment like this, a scientist would lean
back in his or her chair, hit the speaker phone button, and
talk and talk and talk.
That wasnt what was happening. Oh, the embargo! I
I had been unprofessional. When Science came up, I should
have realized immediately. Embargo was in fact authentic
journalistic jargon, but it wasnt quite the word. I was
rushing to sound as professional as fast as I could, though,
and it seemed the right word for that.
I meant the policy that nothing gets into Science if it
has premiered elsewhereand that neither does anything in
Science get divulged before subscribers magazines are in
the mail. Kitcherson would fear that the editors at Science
would shred his manuscript and anathematize his name if I
were to spill a single bean publicly about his latest
When I realized this I gave Kitcherson everything I had.
It came out as a jumble, since the reason that Kitcherson
had nothing to worry about I found embarrassing to reveal.
But the points were 1) I was not a professional journalist,
2) the only place my story had to appear at any set date was
on an obscure Internet web site, which was dedicated to
stories by students in my program, 3) that date was far, far
offand even negotiable.
I felt relieved after I had gotten all of this out,
actually. It was refreshing, as a nobody reporter, to be
able to be up-front with someone about it. And, of course,
now the story would be mine, too.
Huh, said Kitcherson. Thats interesting, because
I...uh...Ive actually helped someone in your position
before. Like I said, Im kind of a friend to the press.
That doesnt really change anything, though.
Huh? I said.
Its just... said Kitcherson, its just I have a lot
of respect for the peer review process. I just think its
Kitcherson meant the process in which a scientific
journal takes candidate manuscripts and sends them around to
a few other scientists working in that specialty. The idea
is that anybody in a lab coat and goggles can claim that his
or her dog understands Shakespeare. Get the experiments past
our hand-picked team of skeptics and well start to believe
youre talking sense.
Perhaps what Kitcherson was saying was that he was just
in the lab-coat-and-goggles stage: That he did not yet
deserve to talk to the press. It was a very sober,
thoughtful and socially conscientious view to hold, and I
had no rebuttal. Yet I couldnt very well let him rattle on
like thisin this way that made it seem like he wasnt
going to give me the story. I stopped him in the middle of a
Um...yeah, I said, I understand completely! In fact, I
agree! And I really dont think that that will be a
I really didnt. Even if Kitcherson was indeed tortured
about promulgating his findings before they received the
stamp of peer review, how likely was it really that they
were utter garbage? Kitcherson has published in Science.
Hes at Berkeley, a prestigious school. He even seems rather
self-critical. I reckoned his results were as solid as
Anyway, as I hastened to point out, I would be conducting
my own peer review (I certainly couldnt take Kitcherson as
my sole source on how important his discovery was). Never
fear and not to worry, I told him.
It wasnt helping.
I went through the steps again. First one way, then the
next. In language colorful and sober. I refused to peter
Finally, he bent. O.K., O.K. he said. Well, hold on a
minute. Ill describe it to you, then well see.
What it was was a giant robotic fly, said Kitcherson.
This was a robot fly that functioned down to the detail like
a real fly. It was 60 centimeters2 feetin wingspan. And
Kitcherson said it had solved the problem of insect
Then he told me about the problem of insect flight. This
was a problem, he said, that had foiled the best attempts of
brilliant theoretical minds for decades. Nobody has been
able to explain what keeps bugs in the air, Kitcherson
saidand that included physicists at supercomputers. Even
the supercomputers are only carrying out computations that
are approximations to the ones that really apply, he says.
The real equations cant be solved. The mathematics is just
too hard. He started to use nuclear physics as an analogy,
but then he said insect aerodynamics was hardernot to
mention unsolved. At least, until now, he said.
This robot fly seemed to me to explain everything. Even
enigmas of the fly nervous system were crumbling under the
weight of this robot fly. The aerodynamics just made
everything about flies transparent, Kitcherson said.
Then Kitcherson said he had to get off the phone.
But, but...would he be comfortable having me write a
story about the robot fly? Yes.
Would, would...he be able to make himself available for
the amount of time it would take for me to understand this
thingthis thing more complicated than nuclear physics?
Had he really not told any of this to anybody beforenot
even at meetings? No.
And was he planning on talking to anybody? No, just me,
Kitcherson saidit was my scoop.
When I put down the phone, I said a word I never use:
Yow! I said. Yow, yow, yow, yow, yow!
I felt that I had cast into the lake with a wispy
thrift-store fishing rod and that now it was bent over with
the 100-year old story on the line.
I had 15 minutes to write a pitch"a paragraph that
would make the idea seem worthy of a full story. Five
minutes was enough. A bugs...the cutting edge of
aerodynamics here, a physicists confounded there, a
biologist has the answer, and finally giant robot fly,
kerplopend of pitch. I wrote it and wondered how soon
Hollywood would be at my doorstep.
The giant robot fly story is a definite go, said the
email from my instructor.
Two weeks later I was on the phone again with Kitcherson.
I wanted to schedule a time to meet himto come up to
Berkeley and see the robot fly. Kitcherson said, of course,
no problem, and he offered me a time just three days in the
future. He apologized for being cagey the first time. I must
think he was paranoid or uptight, he ventured.
No, no! I said. I understand completely.
I was being sincere. Though I hadnt talked to Kitcherson
very much, I was starting to like him.
Then, because I was on my toes, I thought to put another
matter to Kitcherson. The next stage of the writing process
was fast approaching. It was time to start thinking in terms
of a broader perspective than just the man who built the
robot fly. Who could I call for an outside view on what this
revolutionary robot meant for the human race? A theoretical
physicist? Another specialist in insect flight?
Instantly, he was cagey again, hesitant again. A couple
of names came out. A couple of concerns were raised. And
then, when in response I offered the same soothing
assurances I had offered him the last time, finally, in his
courteous and self-effacing way, Kitcherson went
Now...see!... he said, this is exactlyexactlythe
problem I was getting atwhen I said this was going to be
an awkward time. I cant have youI cant...
It took half an hour to disentangle what it was that
Kitcherson was going on about and to calm him down, but
eventually I got it: It was about unseemliness.
Kitcherson wanted no unseemliness while his paper was in
the process of peer review. It was bad for his chances, he
contended. If I were going to create unseemliness, then I
could not write the story.
So what counts as unseemly? Well, some people in
Kitchersons field debuted their research results in
magazines like Scientific American or Discover, and this
is unseemly. Unseemly, because these werent research
journalsthese werent peer-reviewedand because parading
your conclusions in this way before the naive public without
having subjected them to peer review looks like youre out
to gain attention you havent earned. Also unseemly, for the
same reason, is grandstanding about your research prior to
peer review. And finally, one might as well be creating
unseemliness if one were to be creating the appearance of
In practical terms: If a peer reviewer were to surmise
that Kitcherson was talking to the press, it would be
When I asked Kitcherson to confirm that this was really
what he meant, I thought we had reached reductio ad
But he just said yes.
So I asked soberly into the phone, Would you rather I
were whispering right now?
And his response was Hah!.. No, no, no...
He was not that skittish a guy, he said. And he was not
out to make my work impossible. He was a friend to the
Remember? he asked me.
But he seemed pretty skittish to me.
In the end, what we concluded was this: Kitcherson would
give me some names when I came to Berkeley; I could write
the story; I could talk to the scientists whose names hed
give me; I would be sworn not mention the robot fly when I
talked to them; and I would be sworn not to mention his
name. Or maybe we wouldnt have to be quite so strict. Wed
All right? asked Kitcherson, No worries?".
When I met him in his office in Berkeley, I did have some
worries, but nothing to dampen my enthusiasm about the fact
that the reporting was under wayand especially that I was
going to finally behold this robot fly. I wanted my senses
to be alert and my mind to be unclouded: With the impression
this robot fly was going to make on me, it was my task to
amaze the English-speaking world. This was the duty I had to
the robot fly, and to Kitcherson for giving me the
storynot to mention my duty to the world. After all, how
could I feel otherwise? Combine the innate universal
fascination and the transcendental scientific importance of
this robot fly; consider the widespread public ignorance
about science and the correspondingly widespread desire for
better education: Do we not arrive at a moral imperative?
How could I ever begrudge Kitcherson for anything, with the
opportunity he was giving me?
So what if he was being a little neurotic about his
papers review? If I were a young assistant professora
professor of any ageand a paper of mine were teetering on
acceptance into Science I would be edgy too. Anyway, the
fault was partly my own, I figured. I had gone and
admittedno, trumpetedthat I was not a professional
journalist. That might have scared anybody in a situation
where discretion was an issue.
Because I had only talked to Kitcherson on the phone, I
felt I had the opportunity to turn this first impression
around. I was going to be professional. I was going to look
professional. When Kitcherson needed to premier a
breakthrough in the future, he would not be phoning National
Geographic or New Scientist, he would be phoning me. Thats
how professional this interview was going to be. I bought a
miniature cassette recorder of the type that reporters use
just five minutes before I got to Kitchersons lab.
Everything was going fine. All of Kitchersons former
caginess was gone. He was being articulate and talking for
long intervals about interesting things with hardly any
prompting. Id toss out a topic and he would expound on it.
We talked about his academic background, about his approach
to science, about the nervous system of flies. Kitcherson
waxed philosophical about how the brain of a fly would
hardly have reason to exist were it not for all the demands
Huh! I said, admiring the iconoclasm of the idea.
So how big a CPUor chip, or whatever, I asked, do
you have inside Robofly?
Kitcherson had made me curious about just how powerful a
fly brain was in comparison to computers. And if a fly brain
existed mostly just for flying, then I thought the amount of
computer it took to run a perfect model of a fly would be a
pretty good indicator. ("Robofly was the name Kitcherson
said that everybody used around the laboratory, and I had
taken to using it with gusto).
Inside? responded Kitcherson.
Inside Robofly, I answered back.
There was a pause.
Um, I said, I mean...I know...I-mean-I-dont-know
whether you control this thing by remote control....Well...I
guess you must...so...then I guess its not really the same
thing as in a real fly, which...uh...needs to make decisions
about which way its going to go and...stuff...too.
It had been a stupid question, I realized.
So...uh... I continued, since, I guess...hah!...we
hardly... hah!...know how even a fly brain works...hah!
It was a really stupid question.
Then...hah!...I guess it really doesnt make any sense
to ask that kind of question...hah!...in the first
Theres no inside of Robofly, Kitcherson said. Youre
not thinking... His voice trailed off.
I knew what I was thinking but I didnt feel inclined to
Kitcherson suddenly leaned forward in his chair, fixed me
with a look of astonishment and blurted this is not
something that flies around the room!
Uh, you mean...uh... I said, with a burgeoning feeling
of dread, you mean it just like...it has wires coming out
of it, or...uh...just sits on a table?
No! It doesnt sit on a table! said Kitcherson politely
This thing is sitting in 500 gallons of mineral oil in
the basement! This is a pair of wings! he said, A pair of
robotic wings scaled like a flysthat reproduce the flow
patterns around the wings of a fly! Remember?! I said this
was about aerodynamics?
I understood now.
It was a measure of Kitchersons distaste for
unseemliness that with hardly a pause we carried on as if no
misunderstanding had ever taken place.
After the interview, Kitcherson led me from his
fifth-floor office down to the basement. Turning the key and
opening the door with a grandiose sweep, he invited me to
Robofly said Kitcherson. He pointed to the center of
the small, windowless room.
Where? I said.
There! in the center of the room! in the tank! he said.
We stepped in for a closer look.
The tank was built to Houdini specificationsa
rectangular glass cell as tall and a bit wider than a phone
boothand filled with liquid. A wriggling hand-cuffed man
hanging upside-down inside I could have spotted instantly.
But instead it was a pair of clear, 10-inch plexiglass wings
joined at right angles to two rods about half an inch thick,
dangling at about eye level. My disappointment hadnt
climaxed when Kitcherson suddenly said
Here, I should probably get it going for you.
He rattled away at the keyboard of a computer directly in
front of Roboflys tank and the two plexiglass ovals slowly
began to move. Or rather, instantly they began to move, but
very, very slowly. They swept towards the front of the tank
in a kind of clapping gesture, with a feathering or twisting
of the blades at the same time. The whole wing beat took
about five secondswith the effect that Robofly in action
was more like a demonstration of the breast stroke than of
flapping insect flight.
At the sight, my chest muscles clenched and my face
muscles turned to jelly. I kept my eyes fixed on the tank
and tried to muster the appearance of nonchalant curiosity,
meanwhile hoping that Kitcherson wasnt looking. In one
sense or another he looked the other way. We parted on
pleasant terms, and with the agreement to meet again or talk
more on the phone over the next weeks. I thanked Kitcherson
for his time and especially for permitting me to see
It was too late to alter course. I was committed to
Robofly for two separate story assignments. My obligation
was to write about Robofly in whatever form it chose to
assume on earth or under mineral oil.
With the science-fiction splendor of a robot fly no
longer among the storys virtues, I felt obliged somehow to
make up for the loss. My only option seemingly was to
identify whatever profound but technical principle Robofly
proved, and to write about this in a manner that was
But then it appeared that what Robofly proved about the
nervous system amounted to very little. When I pinned him
down on the question, Kitcherson said that in describing
this aspect of his research he had been speaking broadly.
Yes, in general, fly aerodynamics offered revelations about
the fly nervous system. But Robofly? He didnt really see
What Robofly revealed about aerodynamics suddenly
appeared to thin too. Solves the problem of insect flight,
yes, in a manner of speaking, said Kitcherson. That didnt
mean he had any equations to place in the hands of yearning
theorists. It meant that Robofly realistically modeled how
air flows around the wings of a flapping fly. Now scientists
could see it, he meant.
Finally, I learned that Roboflys wouldnt be the first
pair of robot insect wings to hit the pages of a research
The story lacked the urgency that strikes a newspaper
editor between the eyes.
Nevermind. Important technical findings of potentially
large importance within a field can constitute news. This
story was just the kind of thing with which a science
journalist justifies his or her employment. It would be a
I would make it understandable and interesting, or die
I needed only to identify what made Robofly such a
contribution to insect aerodynamics that, on the basis of
some experience, Kitcherson thought it a sure thing for
Science (barring unseemliness, that is). But plainly, no
editor would trust Kitcherson as an authority on the
brilliance of his own work. I needed another insect
About 10 people in the world laid claim to the title,
according to Kitcherson. And the idea of me talking to any
one of them, he said, made him very nervous. Any two or
three might be the ones right now deciding whether Robofly
would appear in Science (peer review is anonymous and there
was no telling which ones it might be). With even greater
likelihood, Id pick the talkative chum of a reviewer. In
fact, Kitcherson knew them all, he said, and they were
Fine. I would learn insect aerodynamics and the
importance of Robofly myself. Ive been to graduate school
once, I reasoned.
Kitcherson faxed me a copy of the manuscript he had
submitted to Science. I scoured it, but since the original
was in color, the meaning of the graphs on my
black-and-white facsimile was obscure. And though graphs
arent usually essential in identifying what authors
consider to be the groundbreaking aspects of their research,
discerning these aspects in Kitchersons article turned out
to be my biggest challenge. Kitcherson had buried anything
new and novel within a thicket of references to prior
findings. He told me that in writing this way he was trying
not to hold himself too high above anybody else: Any of the
authors of those prior findings might be a reviewer of the
My instructor said Look, Ive got a suggestion for this
story: New Journalism.
Preposterous, a cop-outwas my reaction. Im doing this
story straight-up. This isnt Hunter S. Thompson, this is
insect aerodynamicsand a damn important case of it
I searched a few databases in the library and made a
short list of 29 scientific articles that seemed especially
likely to help in appraising what made Robofly so important.
I photocopied 10 (time spent photocopying was time better
spent reading). I also checked out a book on fluid physics
The book was impressively engaging for a book chock full
of physics. But I just didnt have the time to read it
With four waking hours to go, I decided to phone the
author, Steven Vogel. Actually, his name was one of those
that Kitcherson had given me. Vogel was not an insect
aerodynamicist per se, Kitcherson had said. But he had
trained a slew of the people now doing the very best
research in the field of biomechanicswhich covered insect
flight. And Vogel himself had researched fruit-fly
aerodynamics early in his career. Vogel was knowledgeable,
had perspective and wouldnt be reviewing the paper.
Of course, I still wasnt allowed to breath a word to him
On the phone with Vogel, he asked me who I wrote for. He
said, personally, he often wrote articles for Discover. I
became convinced more than ever that, if anybody in the
world could engagingly describe the aerodynamic enigma that
Robofly dispelled, it was Vogel.
We had a pleasant discussion that ranged over all kinds
of things. Unable to mention Robofly, I had no way to keep
Vogel oriented to the matter at hand.
I came away with one lucid, engaging and seemingly
pertinent quote; and in the hour left to me to ponder what
this story would be about, it was this quote that stared up
at me from my notes. Regarding the problem faced by physics
in explaining what keeps bugs in the air, Vogel said: What
I had my story.
- A.B., chemistry,
physics, Trent University, Canada; A.B., Ph.D., biophysics,
University of California, Berkeley.
Internship: Science News,
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1999 Oliver Baker