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Science stories that soar

This summer's animated movie "Up" and last month's weird tale of the balloon boy may have given you your fill of high-flying fiction - but if you're looking for factual sagas that soar, check out this year's winners of the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards. There's even a story about a kid with a balloon.

Every year, the American Association for the Advancement of Science convenes independent panels of science journalists to select the top stories in several categories of science writing and broadcasting. The winners in each category will receive $3,000 and a plaque in February at the AAAS' 2010 annual meeting in San Diego.

I was lucky enough to receive the award for online journalism in 2002, for a series of stories about genetic genealogy, and the recognition ranks among the highlights of my career. This year's winners raise the bar incredibly high.

Speaking of high, the winning piece in the radio category focuses on the intriguing, seemingly improbable journey of a single balloon. One English girl put a label on the balloon, reading "Please send back to Laura Buxton." Then she released the balloon, which drifted into southern England and landed near the home of ... yet another girl named Laura Buxton. A miracle, no?

"This is a tale about miracles which, on closer examination, are not quite as miraculous as they seem," one of the winners, longtime science journalist Robert Krulwich, was quoted as saying in the AAAS' award announcement. "Ordinarily, an anti-miracle story sounds like a downer, but in this case, by mixing girls, grandpas, balloons, statistics professors and probability theory, we came up with an un-miracle that feels almost miraculous. I think that's way cool."

Another thing that's way cool is that all of the winning entries are available via the Web. Here's the full list of winners, with links to their work:

  • Large newspaper (100,000 or more circulation): Carl Zimmer for three articles in The New York Times: "Now, the Rest of the Genome"; "10 Genes, Furiously Evolving"; and "Blink Twice If You Like Me."
  • Small newspaper (less than 100,000 circulation): Amie Thompson of the Great Falls (Mont.) Tribune for "Lethal Legacy," a series of stories about a family coping with a disease so rare that only a handful of families worldwide are known to be affected by it.
  • Magazine: Gary Wolf of Wired for "Barcode of Life," an article focusing on the arcane field of biological taxonomy and the rise of DNA barcoding.
  • Television (spot news/feature): Julia Cort of "Nova ScienceNOW" for "Diamond Factory," a segment that focused on a production facility that makes diamonds good enough to fool jewelers into thinking they're natural. The technology is paving the way for better electronics and stronger materials.
  • Television (in-depth reporting): Doug Hamilton of WGBH/"Nova" for "The Last Extinction," a documentary exploring the potential factors behind the megafauna extinction that occurred 12,900 years ago. Hats off to "Nova" for putting the whole darn episode online.
  • Radio: Jad Abumrad, Soren Wheeler and Robert Krulwich of WNYC's "Radiolab" for "A Very Lucky Wind," the balloon saga with a tart twist of probability theory.
  • Online: Lisa Friedman of ClimateWire for a series of stories on Bangladesh's climate-induced crisis, including an overview of the "climate exodus" amid rising waters as well as an online video and an on-the-scene report from the ruined village of Gabura.
  • Children's science news: Douglas Fox of Science News for Kids, for "Where Rivers Run Uphill," an article focusing on the scientists who study Antarctica's subsurface lakes.

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