Alumnus Eric Berger Reflects on the Joys of Science Communication

February 4, 2019 • by Marc Airhart

Meet Eric Berger (B.S. Astronomy, '95), Senior Space Editor at Ars Technica and Editor at Space City Weather.

Portrait of a man in a jacket standing at the shore of a body of water with clouds overhead

Eric Berger. Photo credit: Brent Humphreys.

You spent 17 years covering science for The Houston Chronicle, before moving to online-only news. What do you enjoy most about your work?

Wherever your imagination takes you, you can just go follow it, on a day-to-day basis. You're not the one doing the hard work, like scientists are, but you're helping to translate their findings and make them more publicly accessible. And in my case, it's also with experience being able to put the bigger picture together, to tell people where things are going and what's really happening.

It's been fabulous to immerse myself in a field and really develop deep sources and deep understanding of what's happening in, for example, space flight. That's from the stuff that everyone knows about, with SpaceX to NASA's efforts to go to Mars or the moon, to interesting things happening below the radar. I'm self-motivated to go out and find things to write about.

Looking back on your career so far, what have been some of your favorite stories to work on or people to interview?

I've had the pleasure of interviewing Stephen Hawking three or four times. I got to go to Kazakhstan in 2014 to see a Russian rocket launch, which was a pretty awesome experience. In early 2018, on the day before the Falcon Heavy launch, I had a 15-minute interview with Elon Musk at the launchpad, talking about the rocket. I've traveled to Japan and South America, to see spaceports and other facilities. So it's been cool. Lots of great experiences.

You got your bachelor's in astronomy at UT Austin, but then left to get a master's in journalism. Why the switch?

It takes a special mentality to be a research scientist. And after three years I had realized that probably wasn't for me. I didn't want to specialize and study one particular class of stars for my entire career. I also got by in my math and physics classes, got good grades, but I wasn't great at it. And the job market for astronomers was very competitive.

I think I was between my junior and senior year when I met a UT journalism professor and I told him I was trying to figure out what to do. He encouraged me to think about journalism. He had been a professor before at the University of Missouri and said they had a good master's program. So I ended up finishing my astronomy degree at UT and then going on to journalism.

You worked at the Houston Chronicle at a time when the internet was turning that whole industry upside down. How did that affect you?

Before the internet, if you were writing a weather forecast for a print newspaper, by the time people were reading it the next day, it was already 12 hours old. How could you compete with the TV guys who go live with updated information and graphics? The internet changed that. I started the SciGuy Blog where I could write about science and weather. All of a sudden, you could be competitive with television. And so that actually really helped my career because on one hand newspapers were losing their influence traditionally, but at least for the weather coverage, we were able to gain influence in areas traditionally dominated by television.

You also became a certified meteorologist and run the website Space City Weather. Tell me about that.

I'm writing for the mothers in the Houston area who are trying to make decisions about their families and maybe they don't want to watch the television news, or they don't have time. So I'm basically telling them what they need to know, what they really should worry about and what they don't have to worry about. We offer people trust.

So much of meteorology is communicating uncertainty. All kinds of forecasts—rainfall, temperature, when and where a hurricane will make landfall—everything is a probability. I'm able to forecast, but I think my greater strength is then communicating those uncertainties to people in a way that is genuine.

There's a lot of pressure on TV and online weather sites to be sensational. So even if there isn't much threat to Houston from a hurricane, the tendency is to play up the threat. I've become known for my no-hype philosophy.

Yet even being only part-time with meteorology, you predicted Houston's extreme flooding days before Hurricane Harvey hit. Your posts during the storm went viral. How did that feel?

I was at an event at Rice University a few weeks later, and I found out the professors and students had all been reading our posts during the storm. It was pretty gratifying that the nerdiest, smartest people in the city found that valuable. Other people told me, "I wasn't sure if this was real or if we should be worried, but if you guys are saying we should pay attention to it, then we should probably pay attention to it." There was a recognition that we were not there crying wolf all the time. It was just me sitting behind a computer trying to help people understand what was happening and making sense from all the information overload they were getting. It's been incredibly gratifying to see how much people valued and used the site during the storm.