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Dennis Overbye '66

New York Timesreporter covers science wonders
February 24, 2009

Dennis Overbye ‘66 writes about topics as diverse as the future of Hubble Space Telescope repairs and an immersive performance dome designed to showcase virtual-reality technology. His job, science correspondent for the New York Times, keeps him in the company of sharp, creative scientists whose work, from the public’s perspective, can seem impenetrable, irrelevant, or both. His task is to make it accessible.

“It’s part of being human to wonder what the world is up to and what it’s made of,” Overbye says. “It’s the same as appreciation of good art, or music, or anything else. It’s part of a well-rounded life.”

Overbye also believes that understanding scientific innovation is crucial to nurturing a healthy democracy. “So many political decisions now depend on scientific judgments,” he says, citing decisions on climate change, missile defense, arms control, and stem-cell research. “You need to have some concept of what the science is because the body politic is called upon to make these decisions.”

Overbye graduated from MIT in 1966 with an SB in physics and a knack for writing. He took a job at Boeing but later gravitated toward editorial work at Sky and Telescope magazine and Discover. In 1988 he joined the New York Times as deputy science editor, and in 2001 he switched to writing because “reporters have more fun.”

Three decades of reporting and two books have yielded an array of accolades for Overbye, including science writing awards from the American Institute of Physics and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is the author of Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, a book about the pioneers of modern cosmology, and Einstein in Love, which recounts Albert Einstein’s youth and discusses whether his first wife contributed to the theory of relativity.

Overbye, who lives in New York City with his wife, Nancy, and their six-year-old daughter, Mira, says MIT has had a lasting influence on his life and work. He has particularly happy campus memories of rowing crew. These days Overbye stays active with a neighborhood football team that spends Saturdays in Manhattan’s Riverside Park. He also ice-skates with Mira.

With hundreds of stories under his belt, Overbye is quick to answer when asked which was the toughest and most challenging to report: “It’s always the next story.”

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