Eric Berger, B.A. Astronomy, ’95
Senior Space Editor, Ars Technica, and Editor, Space City Weather. Interviewed by Marc Airhart. Edited for space.
You spent 17 years covering space and science for the Houston Chronicle, before moving to online 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.
You also became a certified meteorologist and run the website Space City Weather. Tell me about that.
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.