From Physicist to War Correspondent: Mr. Glanz Goes to Baghdad
By Alaina G. Levine
Photo by Robert Nickelsberg
Jim Glanz (right) interviews the Iranian ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi Qumi, in the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad
Stop the presses. The new Baghdad Bureau Chief of The New York Times is a physicist.
Jim Glanz, who received his PhD from Princeton’s Astrophysical Sciences Department with a concentration on “all kinds of funky waves,” as he says it, has worked for the Times since 1999 when he was hired as a science writer. He filed stories about the engineering and scientific issues pertaining to the fall of the World Trade Center, which he and a colleague compiled into a book, and in 2004 he became a war correspondent. He has since been reporting from Baghdad every few months. His tenure as Bureau Chief began officially this summer and will likely last at least a year.
His decision to take the position, “at the center of the world’s biggest story,” was a no-brainer. “Once you get in the middle of a story like this…you want to see how it all comes out, how the story in effect ends,” he explains. “I was asked to be Bureau Chief, I thought it over and I realized I wanted to continue reporting the story and accepted the job.”
As Bureau Chief, he will concentrate on administrative, security, and editorial issues. Glanz is responsible for the hiring of Iraqi staff, financial concerns such as salaries and expenses, and of course, getting juicy stories.
“You have to try and stay ahead of the news and make sure your folks are covering the right topics at any given time,” he states. “You’re moving the pieces around on the board quite a bit and at the same time you have to be a reporter and file stories and still be productive in that respect.”
Glanz loves being a journalist. But don’t get him wrong. He enjoys physics as well, and has since high school. However, his foray into physics was driven, ironically, by financial necessity. As an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, “I thought I was going to major in journalism, and to tell you the truth I was broke and I walked into the physics lab to get a job,” he recalls. Because he had been around radio stations with his DJ and sportscaster father, “I was more familiar than I even realized with basic electronics, so when I walked [into the lab], the guy said ‘can you read a circuit diagram?’ and I lied said ‘yeah, of course.’ And I sort of realized I had been spending all my life around stuff like this and I turned out to be very good at that kind of thing. Eventually I became passionate about physics too and I changed my major.”
Soon “physics became the center of my world…it kind of gained momentum and all of a sudden I had a scholarship to go to Princeton and I took it,” he says.
But he never stopped writing, and in fact envisioned combining physics and writing in his career, perhaps in the vein of Stephen Jay Gould, who remained in the academy while authoring essays. This was not to be, says Glanz, because, “I really wasn’t a genius [at physics], but you have to be really, really smart to have a lot of fun at physics. Otherwise, it gets tunneled into the narrow specialties and I don’t really like that. And at the same time I tend to really focus hard on things and that never really worked well when I tried to divide my time between physics and writing.”
So upon graduation, although he was offered a job with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the laser physics program, he accepted a much lower paying position at R & D Magazine as a staff writer on the biotechnology and environmental issues beats. “I just felt that was a better way for me to go and I’ve never looked back,” Glanz says.
He stayed at R & D for a few years, wrote a book on soil science and got a job with Science Magazine. And in 1999, after he broke the story about the existence of dark energy and its relationship to the accelerated expansion of the Universe, he was offered a coveted science reporter slot at The New York Times. The lesson: trump the Times and you may just come out ahead.
On September 11, Glanz got to the office before either tower had fallen. “I was rushing by the editorial pod in the science section and the deputy science editor was handing out assignments from her desk,” he recollects. “She just looked at me as I went by and said ‘structure.’ That meant I was supposed to do a low profile story on how the skyscrapers were put together because these planes had hit them.”
But when the towers fell and it became a very high profile story on what made the towers come down, Glanz started going to Ground Zero to investigate. He teamed up with a Times metro reporter and together they wrote 200 articles on the science of the site. They were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.
Glanz’s experience from Ground Zero gave him his first understanding of how his physics background gave him a certain “street credibility” in reporting and speaking with sources.
“I wrote about the cleanup which involved engineers and I spoke their language,” he says. “It wasn’t just a way of understanding what they did, it was also a way of getting them to talk to us. There were all these reporters clamoring for their attention, [and] we had a big advantage because we were out ahead knowledge-wise…We came off as some of the most knowledgeable reporters down there. We had our ducks in a row and we constantly got access and tips on stories.”
This entrée into story scoops continues today in Iraq. “It’s been a real boost for me because…I have a natural connection to all the engineers who were left here,” Glanz describes. As he interacts with Iraqi engineers, he is seen as someone who can speak a language more important than Arabic or English, that is, the language of science.
“The language of science is so universal it allows you to make this immediate connection with someone who otherwise might seem completely different from you,” Glanz says, “and I used that again and again and again to gain interviews and get insights into people and to get help with stories.”
Glanz concedes that he misses the day-to-day action of being in physics, and refers to himself as a “former physicist.” He compares the lament he experiences of not being a “practicing physicist” to that of an amputee: “It’s sort of a lost limb thing–they say if your hand gets chopped off you feel pain in your pinky every now and again and I do feel that pain.”
But he has an advantage. Glanz opines that being a journalist is “not that different from when I was a physicist. At some basic levels you want to say the best thing is grappling with reality, learning about it and being able to write about it to some kind of public. I love all aspects of it. I love the reporting, I love the writing, I love the fact that…there’s reality that you’re using as material for that whole process, which for me is a very visceral kind of thing and one I can’t imagine living without.”
Gonzalez Labors in the “Trenches” of Cancer Treatment Research
Medical physics is not a well-known field, but it’s an extremely important one, says medical physicist Albin Gonzalez. As chief medical physicist at the Firelands Cancer Center in Sandusky, Ohio, Gonzalez works with a team that is responsible for patient treatment and safety. Every day, Gonzalez applies his knowledge of physics, biology, medicine, and computer technology to give patients the best possible treatment.
Gonzalez works with high-tech machines, commercial versions of the same type of accelerators used in cutting-edge science. His clinic recently moved to a new building and bought two new linear accelerators “with all the bells and whistles,” he says.
With the rapid improvement in cancer treatment, Gonzalez is constantly learning new technology. “We are actually implementing new technology to do new types of treatments,” he says. Physicists have been responsible for many of the improvements in cancer treatment, Gonzalez says. For instance, just a few years ago, people who had some types of cancer were treated with large beams of radiation that damaged healthy cells. But now, a new type of treatment called intensity modulated radiation therapy allows doctors to shape the beam more precisely, so the beam hits only tumor cells and avoids harming healthy tissue. “And all this improvement has been done by physicists. Physicists have been the champions of bringing a lot of new technology,” says Gonzalez.
Like many medical physicists, Gonzalez has a PhD in physics. Originally from Panama, Gonzalez came to the United States to pursue an advanced degree in physics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. While searching for a topic for his PhD thesis, he happened to find a research group that was working in medical physics. That subject caught his interest, and he decided to join the group. He soon realized he wanted to do more than just academic research, he wanted to directly affect patient care by working in a clinical setting.
Gonzalez has been doing that for several years now, working “in the trenches” he says, at the Firelands Cancer Center. He is certified by the American Board of Radiology.
Gonzalez collaborates with a team that includes the radiation oncologist, radiation therapists, and a dosimetrist, who calculates the dose of radiation for each patient. Gonzalez enjoys working with this group of people. “It’s a wide environment,” he says.
On a typical day, Gonzalez and his coworkers must check patient charts and review treatment plans. Gonzalez must also check the equipment. He describes a lot of his work as “quality assurance.” He uses detectors to make measurements to check that the machines are delivering the right doses of radiation. He also has to check several computers that control the treatment, and make sure all these computers are working together properly.
Most of the time, Gonzalez does not work directly with patients, but occasionally he is called upon to talk with them. For instance, some patients receiving some types of radiation therapy worry that they are radioactive and dangerous to their family if they go home. Gonzalez explains the physics involved in the treatment, and assures them that from a radiation safety standpoint that they are quite safe.
Gonzalez likes the challenge of solving new problems every day. Sometimes the technology is so new that it’s not known how best to use it, and there is often trouble with the equipment. Gonzalez has to understand the principles of how the treatments work so he can find and solve the problems. That’s where his physics training is useful. “I think the most important thing is that as a physicist, you have problem-solving skills,” he says. In the clinical setting, it’s extremely important that everything work correctly, because people’s lives and health are at stake. “This is actually taking care of real people. You cannot put people in danger,” he says.
Gonzalez wishes people knew more about medical physics. “There is a lot of need. There are a lot of jobs out there,” he says. Being able to help patients is one of the biggest rewards of the job, he says. “We can make a real difference treating cancer patients. The more we know about this disease and how to treat it safely, the better quality of life we can give these people.”