Council for the Advancement of Science Writing

Letter from Flagstaff: Stunning Landscapes, Frontier Science

From New Horizons Program Director Paul Raeburn:

Flagstaff, Arizona, at an elevation of almost 7,000 feet, is 75 miles south of the Grand Canyon, 30 miles north of Sedona (see photos) and the Red Rock Country by way of the switchbacks of Oak Creek Canyon, and in the middle one of the largest continuous ponderosa pine forests in the world.

It also features a nicely restored downtown where you can get a drink in a hotel, the Weatherford, that was built when this was still the Arizona Territory. Or a burger in a locavore joint featuring beef from nearby ranches dressed with nopales.

I visited Flagstaff in early April to interview potential speakers for this fall’s New Horizons in Science meeting, which, along with the workshops of the National Association of Science Writers, is part of ScienceWriters2011. (The meeting will run from Oct. 14-18, 2011.) Our host this year is Northern Arizona University, and for that we can thank Peter Friederici, a science writer and newly tenured professor of journalism who worked hard to make this possible. (He has some wonderful ideas for field trips. Anyone interested in getting out on the Colorado?)

Arizona roadmapPeter told me that the temperatures in October should be about what they were when I was there in April—in the 60s during the day, plunging to the 30s at night, typical of the high desert. (Bring layers.) Those traveling from the East Coast, who will likely wake up for sunrise on their first morning in Flag (as it’s called), will see the broad brushstrokes of salmon and turquoise that inspire the local pottery.

During my visit, I talked to scientists working with the nearby Navajo and Hopi reservations on environmental and public health projects (one talks about his work as “applied anthropology”). I visited the Lowell Observatory, a leading astronomical observatory, where the canals on Mars were discovered (and undiscovered), and where Pluto and evidence of the redshift were first seen. With luck, attendees will get a look through the telescope Percival Lowell used to find those canals. 

Many of the researchers are working on projects involving the land, community groups, and the reservations. The scientists, it seemed to me, were understandably unable to ignore the land and the people around them as they pursued their research, so they’ve structured their research both to study their surroundings and the community, and to improve them.

Arizona sunset, on the road to PhoenixI’m just now starting to put the program together, but restoration ecology, the environment, and cultural anthropology are all likely to be more important in this year’s program than they have been in previous programs. I will, as usual, invite speakers from around the country on a broad range of topics, so that the meeting will offer something for everyone.

Flagstaff is easier to get to than you might think: US Airways has about six flights a day, and you can catch an inexpensive shuttle from Phoenix to Flat, a drive of about 2-3 hours. If you have the time and can round up a few friends, I highly recommend renting a car and driving from Phoenix, to allow time for stopping along the way, buying jewelry in Sedona, or hiking the Red Rock Country. (Not to mention heading north to the Canyon.)

I’ll have more to say soon about field trips, speakers, and other plans as the meeting comes together. In the meantime, please email me with suggestions and comments, at [email protected].