How to win a Nobel

Last fall, I scraped and cleaned data for the more than 21,000 nominations submitted for Nobel Prizes between 1901 and 1966 — the only years for which data were publicly available. For each nomination, the database contains the names of both the nominator and the nominee, along with such information as their gender, hometown, birth year, death year, and profession.

Some surprising factoids began to jump out at me as I looked over the data. I thought I’d tell the story of one of them for this assignment, .

To see the story, download the zip from and open index.html in your browser.

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The three things I learned by tracking my media diet for a week

1. Mornings are for work, evenings for play.


I generally only ask three things of the internet: to inform me, to entertain me, and to make me better at my job. Apparently, that last one stops being important after two in the afternoon. That’s when my consumption of work-related media — stories about science or journalism — trails off and my consumption of general news and entertainment picks up. By midnight, I’m gorging on music, pop culture, and politics.

2. Kanye West might well be a genius, but he’s no Einstein.


I’m not too ashamed to admit that the Kanye circus sucked up a lot of my internet time this week. But the data don’t lie, and the data are saying that I was even more enthralled with the discovery of gravitational waves, whose existence was predicted 100 years ago by Albert Einstein.

3. Old media is dying, not dead.


More than eight in every ten stories I read, watched, or listened to originated from the internet. But I found it refreshing to ruffle through the pages of a magazine, let talk radio play in the background, or watch a show with the family.


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An insta-oracle for science journalists

First, a confession: The tool I’m going to talk about doesn’t exist. Not yet. But it seems to have a legitimate shot at becoming a real thing. And if it does, it will almost certainly change the way I and many other science writers do our jobs.

It’s called Science Surveyor, and its developers describe it as “an algorithm-based method to help science journalists rapidly and effectively characterize the rich literature for any topic they might cover.” Basically, you give it a journal article, and it gives you context – whether the ideas presented are old or new, whether they support scientific consensus or challenge it, that kind of thing.

Here’s a prototype screenshot, lifted from Science Surveyor’s github site:


Here’s another:


And here’s NIemanLab’s take on the project.

The screengrabs suggest that, at present, the context that Science Surveyor provides is relatively crude, based on the network concept of centrality. Still, that might be enough to help a reporter make a first guess about a paper’s potential impact. Or it might raise red flags on papers that sound impressive but promote discredited ideas. For journalists who cover science, that could mean less time wasted slogging through articles that turn out to be unimportant. (“Context on deadline,” the site’s tagline promises.)

Of course, it’s possible Science Surveyor will never see the light of day. A team of journalists and scientists at Stanford and Columbia University took up the project in 2014, but they haven’t yet announced a rollout date. (The project is funded by a “Magic Grant” from Columbia University’s Brown Institute.) Still, as a science journalist who’s wasted many an afternoon struggling through the thickets and weeds of the scientific literature, I’ve got my fingers crossed.

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Ashley Smart

ashley s

I’m a chemical engineer-turned-science journalist, born and raised in the quiet little college town of Gainesville, Florida. I’m currently a Knight Science Journalism fellow at MIT, on leave from Physics Today magazine, where I’ve written about everything from infant sand dunes to alien stardust. Before that, I was a postdoc at Caltech and studied at Northwestern University and the University of Florida.

I also have this pet project: A friend and I started HBSciU, a science news blog that spotlights work being done by black scientists and by scientists at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. We think it’s a vastly underreported beat.

My biggest projects, however, are my three-month-old and two-year-old boys. If I’m not working, watching a movie, playing soccer, or trying out a new recipe in the kitchen, you can probably find me hanging out with them.



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