We’ve moved!

We’ve moved!

But not very far. The Graduate Program in Science Writing is now located in 14N-338, across the hall from our CMS/W Headquarters. If you’re on campus, feel free to pop in and say hello. If you’re writing to us, the mailing address is now 14N-338, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139. If you’re emailing, the address is the same –

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GREs, again

Welcome  to admissions season, applicants!

The question of the day today is about GRE scores.  I’ll try to clear some things up, but feel free to respond in the comments if you have more questions.

Yes, we require scores of everyone.  Even if you already have a Master’s degree.  Even if you’ve been out of school for a while.  Even if you’re international.  Why?  Because although the test is not perfect,  it does tell us something about your ability to succeed at MIT.

No, we don’t have a cutoff score.  But if your scores are very low, it will cause the admissions committee to look much harder at your writing samples, work history and transcript.  Which, if you’re  a bad test-taker, is a good thing.

No, we don’t track the average scores of admitted students from year to year.  When we look at your GRE scores, we’re looking at them in the context of you. How someone else performed doesn’t matter when it’s your application we’re reviewing.

Can’t find the right department code for Science Writing at the test center?  Don’t worry  – as long as your scores get sent to MIT we’ll have access to them.

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Switzer Fellowship Deadline Approaching

Of interest to applicants for the 2013-14 academic year, the January 10 deadline of the Switzer Environmental Fellowship is approaching.

From the website: “The goal of the Switzer Environmental Fellowship Program is to support highly talented graduate students in New England and California whose studies are directed toward improving environmental quality and who demonstrate the potential for leadership in their field.”

It’s a great fellowship, previously awarded to Amanda Martinez, ’10. Any potential environmental writers should apply.

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Cosmic Cradles

In 1995 Robert Williams had a crazy idea. Then director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, he decided to use his allocated time on the Hubble Space Telescope to train its mirror on one tiny spot of the sky—a dark, starless region near the handle of the Big Dipper. Over ten consecutive days the telescope took a series of 342 time-exposure photographs, images that were combined and computer-enhanced to produce the most deeply penetrating astronomical picture of its time. It was called the Hubble Deep Field.

What this stunning picture revealed were some 2,000 galaxies in different stages of development. Like a cosmological core sample, it displayed galaxies in the local, intermediate, and distant universe altogether, out to some 12 billion light-years.

Now a team of astronomers has assembled the eXtreme Deep Field, or XDF for short. They’ve combined ten years worth of data taken by Hubble (some 2,000 images in all) from a patch of sky in the constellation Fornax. This one digs some 13.2 billion years back into time, to just half a billion years after the Big Bang.

Hubble’s eXtreme Deep Field or XDF

All I can say upon gazing at this image is, “Wow!”  How can anyone doubt the possibility of other life beyond the solar system when we have these myriad cosmic cradles sprinkled through space and time.

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Admissions, from the other side

When I applied to the Graduate Program many years ago, I felt like my application was being delivered to some shadowy, anonymous committee for judgment. So later when I was able to serve on the admissions committee, it was enlightening to be on the other side of the process. Here’s what I can tell you from that vantage point.

Although it was daunting to read through dozens of applications in my spare time over a few weeks, it was also often a pleasure. I sat with stacks of folders in the Hayden Library at MIT, which has wide windows and views of the Charles River, reading the thoughts of many ambitious, hopeful people eager to join my profession. It was nice to be reminded that people out there wanted the job I was struggling with each day.

After taking notes and scoring the applicants, I met with the faculty to hash out our choices. Although we were all busy and had to move efficiently, everyone read the applications carefully (which was heartening to realize as a former applicant). Sometimes we were in agreement on an applicant’s potential. But often an essay or writing sample that charmed one person left another indifferent, and we had lengthy discussions about several candidates.

I was struck by the variety of backgrounds, personalities, and reasons for applying. Some were immediately inappropriate. Some seemed too naïve (“I saw a poster for the MIT program and just knew it was my destiny!”). Others were model students with great resumes, but they lacked passion for science writing.

It’s always easy to get caught up in your own concerns about what you’re writing and lose sight of your readers. The same is true with applications. Some wanted to impress us, to banish any doubt about their genius and “seal the deal.” But we were all working writers and imperfect people to boot. Perfection didn’t impress us. We glanced at GPAs and test scores, but we knew they wouldn’t help anyone express a complex idea under deadline.

What matters most is your writing. A writing sample that’s relevant—that shows the kind of writing you want to do in the program—is extremely helpful. Academic papers are not only boring to read but target the wrong audience. A paper written for a professor who’s paid to read your work doesn’t show how you’ll capture the attention of a media-drenched reader with no knowledge about your topic. Not everyone was fortunate enough to have a great published clip. Several applicants took it upon themselves to blog about science, and I admired their initiative in taking a stab at the writing they ultimately wanted to do. The essay was, of course, a chance to see an applicant’s style if the clips didn’t shine.

The process gave me a unique window into these people’s lives, and it was great to meet members of the class later and see how they fared. It also made me realize that, as mysterious and impersonal as an application process can be, it is ultimately about people getting to know people. So the best advice I can give is to be honest; go ahead and impress, but also show who you are.

Courtney Humphries graduated from the Program in 2004.  She is the author of “Superdove: How the Pigeon took Manhattan…and the World” and countless magazine and web articles.  She served on the admissions committee for the GPSW class of 2009.

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Admissions time is growing near…

If you’ve previously applied to this program, you’ll notice that we’re launching a new admission system this year.  It should make things much easier for everyone, but I thought I’d take the opportunity clarify a few changes.

  • We will only accept online applications. We’re going green!
  • We will only accept electronic recommendations.  All of your recommendations must be requested via email, directing your evaluator to a link which will allow them to write or upload a letter.  The system will provide you a template, but you need to send the email.  You will be able to track whether your letters have been received or not.
  • You must upload your prose writing samples as a PDF.  It’s just the most universally readable format.  If you have audio or video elements to your portfolio, there will be a place to provide a YouTube or DropBox link.
  • We require that you fill out the “Record of Subjects Taken” part of the application.
  • Your supplemental essay should be pasted in to the box as plain text (seems odd, yes, but makes it more readable and also searchable.)

It should all be quite clear once you’ve started the application, but we hope to hear from you if it’s not.



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The Temporary Universe

(excerpted from my essay in Tin House magazine, March 2012)

Last August my oldest daughter got married. The ceremony took place at a farm in the little town of Wells, in Maine, against the backdrop of rolling green meadows, a white wooden barn, and the sounds of a classical guitar. Each member of the wedding party stepped down a sloping hill towards the chuppah, while the guests sat in simple white chairs bordered by rows of sunflowers. The air was redolent with the smells of maples and grasses and other growing things. It was a marriage we had all hoped for. The two families had known each other with affection for years. Radiant in her white dress, a white dahlia in her hair, my daughter asked to hold my hand as we walked down the aisle.


It was a perfect picture of utter joy, and utter tragedy. Because I wanted my daughter back as she was at age ten, or twenty. As we moved together towards that lovely arch that would swallow us all, other scenes flashed through my mind: my daughter in first grade holding a starfish as big as herself, her smile missing a tooth; my daughter on the back of my bicycle as we rode to a river to drop stones in the water; my daughter telling me the day after she had her first period. Now, she was thirty. I could see lines in her face.


I don’t know why we long so for permanence, why the fleeting nature of things so disturbs. With futility, we cling to the old wallet long after it has fallen apart. We visit and revisit the old neighborhood where we grew up, searching for the remembered grove of trees and the little fence. We clutch our old photographs. In our churches and synagogues and mosques, we pray to the everlasting and eternal. Yet, in every nook and cranny, nature screams at the top of her lungs that nothing lasts, that it is all passing away. All that we see around us, including our own bodies, is shifting and evaporating and one day will be gone. Where are the one billion people who lived and breathed in the year 1800, only two short centuries ago?


The evidence seems overly clear. In the summer months, mayflies drop by the billions within 24 hours of birth. Drone ants perish in two weeks. Daylilies bloom and then wilt, leaving dead, papery stalks. Forests burn down, replenish themselves, then disappear again. Ancient stone temples and spires flake in the salty air, fracture and fragment, dwindle to spindly nubs, and eventually dissolve into nothing. Coastlines erode and crumble. Glaciers slowly but surely grind down the land. Once, the continents were joined. Once the air was ammonia and methane. Now it is oxygen and nitrogen. In the future, it will be something else. The sun is depleting its nuclear fuel. And just look at our own bodies. In the middle years and beyond, skin sags and cracks. Eyesight fades. Hearing diminishes. Bones shrink and turn brittle.


Just the other day, I had to retire my favorite shoes, a pair of copper colored wing tips that I purchased thirty years ago to wear at a friend’s graduation. For the first few years, all I had to do to keep the shoes looking spiffy was to polish them. Then, the soles began to wear down. Every couple of years, I would take my wing tips to a small shoe repair shop I knew and have new soles installed. The shop was run by three generations of an Italian family. In the early years, the grandfather worked on my shoes. Then he died and his son took over the job. The resoling kept my shoes going another twenty years. My wife begged me to surrender. But I loved those shoes. They reminded me of me in my salad days. Eventually, the upper leather of the shoes became so thin that it cracked and split. I took the shoes back to the shop. The cobbler looked at them, shook his head, and smiled.


Physicists call it the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It is also called the arrow of time. Oblivious to our human yearnings for permanence, the universe is relentlessly wearing down, falling apart, driving itself towards a condition of maximum disorder. It is a question of probabilities. You start from a situation of improbable order, like a deck of cards all arranged according to number and suit, or like a solar system with several planets orbiting nicely about a central star. Then you drop the deck of cards on the floor over and over again. You let other stars randomly whiz by your solar system, jostling it with their gravity. The cards become jumbled. The planets get picked off and go aimlessly wandering through space. Order has yielded to disorder. Repeated patterns to change. In the end, you cannot defeat the odds. You might beat the house for a while, but the universe has an infinite supply of time and can outlast any player.

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Galileo for a Day

January is the month that Galileo made his most monumental discovery: spotting the four moons of Jupiter through his twenty-power spyglass.

Representatives of Instituto e Museo Nazionale di Storia della Scienza in Florence, Italy place the Galileo telescope into the display at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania April 1, 2009.

It reminds me of a visit I made three years ago to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, when they had one of Galileo’s telescopes on display.

It looked rather mundane, like an extra-long paper-towel tube: a blotchy brown cylinder about three feet long and two inches wide made out of wood and varnished paper, all held together by rings of metal wire.  This instrument is one of only two still in existence made by Galileo.

Scheduled to give an evening lecture, I was fortunate to be at the Institute during the exhibit. Arriving early, I had time to peruse the Galileo exhibition and to my delight found the rooms, filled with astronomical artifacts from the Renaissance, deserted. Walking by the astrolabes, compasses, and quadrants, I turned a corner, and there it was: Galileo’s telescope, perched at an angle on two transparent rods. It was enclosed in a tall glass case, standing solitary and majestic on the polished wooden floor. I was alone with one of the greatest artifacts in astronomical history.

Despite the instrument’s plain appearance, it took my breath away. No one is sure what discoveries Galileo made with this specific telescope (he constructed many), but the aura of fame still surrounds it. I was able to kneel down to position my eye within an inch of the eyepiece, separated only by the glass case. Peering down the tube, which holds Galileo’s original lenses, I saw a blurry white spot. Alas, just the museum ceiling. But in my imagination, I was sighting the phases of Venus, mountains on the Moon, and Jupiter’s satellites for the very first time, just as Galileo did four hundred years earlier.

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A Plea

Please make sure your name is on every page of everything you upload. That includes your writing samples and supplemental essay.


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We’ve had more questions about admission!

Today’s was about transcripts – do we accept electronic transcripts, and who should receive them? And what’s our cut-off GPA for admission?

The answer to the first and second is absolutely, we accept electronic transcripts! We love them. You may have them sent to the Academic Administrator, Shannon Larkin at her email address

The answer to the second is that we don’t have cutoffs. Nor does our admissions committee pay much attention to GPA – they look at all the individual grades.

Keep these questions coming.

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