Gerrit Verschuur: the Thrill of Discovery

Gerrit Verschuur describes how the thrill of discovery doesn’t fade, even after decades of research. Listen below or stream the official podcast!

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Dr. Gerrit L. Verschuur is best known for his work in radio astronomy. In his primary field of study Verschuur pioneered the measurement of the interstellar magnetic field using the 21-cm Zeeman effect technique. He is also co-inventor on a dozen patents, his favorites being on ways to read bar codes inside sealed envelopes. The third edition of his book, “The Invisible Universe: The Story of Radio Astronomy,” was published by Springer in 2015.

Gordon A. Crews: There is always a reason why

Dr. Gordon A. Crews discovers through years of research — and one man in particular — that there is always a reason for our behavior, no matter how inexcusable or difficult to understand.

Bio picIn the summer of 2000 I was in the process of making the first of many mistakes in my academic career. I was working as an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at a medium size university in south Georgia. Somehow I was invited by a dean, albeit secretly I was later to find out, to apply for the Department Head position of a very large undergraduate and graduate criminal justice program in Alabama. I should have known it was too good of a deal to be true when he offered to almost double my salary, immediately make me an Associate Professor, and fund me through a private foundation for any and all “associated needs.” Being young, ambitious, and still quite dumb to the world of academia, I immediately jumped at this “opportunity.” I quickly learned that this is often how administrators recruit someone to take over a department that no one in his or her right mind would ever take.

Interestingly, an old mentor of mine was a childhood friend of this dean and had told him about me and recommended me. This old mentor of mine, given his early retirement plans at the time, was also working as an outside consultant for a publisher to review new book proposals, and edit existing works under contract. As fate would have it, he had just received a manuscript/book proposal from a man named Stephen Stanko who was serving ten years in a South Carolina maximum security prison for the charges of “Assault And Battery with Intent to Kill” and “Kidnapping.” The book dealt with his experiences of serving time in an American prison. The rough draft was amazingly written and extremely interesting. The handwriting of the individual was almost as if it had actually been typed—no errors, no white-out, no scratched out words.

Some editors were very interested in publishing the work, but wanted an “academic type” to work with the inmate and control the final draft. Thus, a final piece of the new position offer for me included a contract to work on what would be my fifth book, but ultimately one that would be the most influential in my research career. At the time the work was entitled, After the Gavel, but it would be published in 2004 by me, Stephen, and a third co-author as Living in Prison: A History of the Correctional System with an Insider’s View.

Stephen’s incarceration at the time was due to transgressions resulting from a domestic situation. Apparently, his live-in girlfriend had confronted him one night after finding out that in the prior two or three years, he had been conning her close friends out of their money through various fake deals and lies. This was very disappointing to her in that he had recently started a new job selling used cars after being fired from many others. Unfortunately, this particular day the police had come by her home looking for him with warrants for “breach of trust” and “auto-theft.” It turns out that he was very successful in selling the cars, but not so much in actually turning the money he received over to the used-car lot owner.

Sadly, this confrontation ended up with Stephen tying up his girlfriend and holding her against her will for several hours while he packed and fled from the police and the pending arrest warrants. And, according to her, during this incident he tried to kill her by choking her with a poisoned rag. After three days on the run, he turned himself in to the police. He would ultimately serve eight and one half years out of a 10-year sentence, being released just one month after our book was released in 2004. At this point, Stephen Stanko was being described by many as, “a highly intelligent, polished ex-convict who didn’t mind talking about his life in prison or the book he had written about it.” Stanko would tell everyone, “What I fear most now is that I may carry some of this total institution back into society with me.” These words were ultimately found to be foreshadowing what was to soon occur in all of our lives.

We worked on this book over the final four years of his prison sentence and had a number of arguments over it with various editors, each other, and the South Carolina Department of Corrections. The department felt that Stephen was writing some type of tell-all book, and banned me from visiting him, talking to him on the phone, and receiving or sending prison mail. Therefore, the way this book was ultimately written was from his mother essentially sneaking his writings out from the visitation room during her weekly visits. She and I lived approximately 13 hours apart at this time, so we would meet at a rest stop or restaurant off the highway to exchange pages of manuscript.

Within one year of being released from prison and six months after our book was published, Stephen began conducting library research for a second book we were going to publish. Given his growing depression and issues with returning to free society, I had encouraged him to focus on a new work with me as a way to deal with the issues he faced. While doing this research he apparently befriended a reference librarian at his local library outside Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, became romantically involved with her, and eventually moved in not six months after being released from prison. Unknown to me, he also had developed a seemingly friendly relationship with an elderly library patron.

Shortly thereafter, something went terribly wrong on the night of April 8, 2005, with both of these relationships. Stanko was charged and convicted – after a failed insanity defense – of strangling his new librarian girlfriend, shooting the elderly patron, and sexually assaulting and twice slashing the throat of his girlfriend’s teenage daughter, who survived and made the 911 call for help. The details of what is known about what happened that night are eerily similar to those which occurred with his prior girlfriend on that night in 1996.

Subsequently a nationwide manhunt ensued, my family was taken into police custody for protection, my college campus was closed for two days, and my face appeared on every television show from Good Morning America, to Anderson Cooper 360, to even Nancy Grace. Eventually Stanko was arrested without incident by the U.S. Marshals Service in Augusta, Georgia, on April 12, 2005. Following the conviction he was sentenced to death and placed on South Carolina’s Death Row at Lieber Correctional Institution in Ridgeville, South Carolina. Since this time I have served as a consultant and interviewee on 48 Hours episodes, Evil Men episodes, and numerous true crime books about Stephen Stanko. Each time I have tried to bring attention to the issues that individuals experience while trying to return to our communities as convicted felons, and what baggage they may bring back with them from being incarcerated. Though there is no excuse for such violence, there are causes.

After his first round of unsuccessful appeals were over, we renewed our contact and began working together again in the fall of 2008. Since that time, we have become colleagues in writing and research projects, but in a weird way that I cannot articulate, we have also developed a very unique and close personal relationship, even friendship.

As of 2015, we are working on a number of writing projects including two books under contract. The first is entitled The Realities of Living and Dying in Prison. This work is an extensive examination of all stages of the criminal justice process from initial arrest, the trial, appeals, years of incarceration, and even up to facing the ultimate penalty on death row from the perspective of the incarcerated offender. The second is entitled The Death Row Cookbook. This work is a fascinating collection of over 200 recipes which can be made in a 6 x 11 cell with only a bowl, spoon, hot water, and occasionally a microwave, while in lock down for 23 out of 24 hours per day. This collection includes appetizers, entrees, and even deserts. The ingredients for these recipes can only come from the prison canteen list, from certain food items being “relocated” from the kitchen by a prison food service inmate, or saved after one’s meals in his or her cell.

Ours is a very unusual relationship. It always has been, and always will be. We speak on the phone two-to-three times per week. We visit once every other month, even though we are approximately nine hours apart. And we continue to write and publish together. Our visits are face-to-face, but through very thick panes of glass, and we speak through mesh metal plates. He mails me his writings for me to type up, edit, and review, and I mail drafts back and forth between us.

To say our relationship is a bit unorthodox and hard for some to understand would be a huge understatement. During our various forms of contact over the years, we have shared opinions on each other’s situations and whatever issues one of us might be facing at any given time. As bizarre and incomprehensible as it might sound to some, over the last 15 years Stephen has offered advice to my son on how to deal with growing up with a demanding father, advice to me on how to deal with romantic relationships, advice to my daughter on the benefits of going away to college, and career advice to my students through class lectures given over a cell phone and a speaker. Before my experience with Stephen I would have never imagined any of this from such an individual, but that change in my attitude is part of the important lessons I have learned over the years. I also feel that my past experiences before meeting Stephen have had a major impact on making such a relationship possible.

Prior to beginning my academic career, I worked in law enforcement as criminal investigator (crimes against persons and sexual assault), a field training officer and bloodhound tracker, and eventually in corrections just prior to accepting my first college teaching position. Since that time, my research focus has been on violence and the damage we cause to each other as human beings. I saw it daily in police work and studied it weekly in graduate school. I wrote about it in nine books and numerous articles. I have interviewed many violent adult and juvenile offenders about why they have committed some of the most horrible acts imaginable. This combination of unique real life experience combined with personal interests, albeit dark, have allowed me a deep understanding and appreciation for why people sometimes do what they do. This does not mean it should be excused, nor that they should not be punished – just that any type of behavior has a cause. Violent behavior is no different.

Story notes #1 — End at the end

The following post about tips on storytelling is the first in a three part series called “Story Notes,” all of which originally appeared on the blog of Story Collider Co-Founder, Ben Lillie.

When your story is over, stop.

IMG_2243Or, as Lewis Carroll put it, “Begin at the beginning… and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

When people get to the end of their story, there’s a common impulse to say more – to explain what it means, to meditate on the success or failures, or to make clear the point that the story was trying to get across.

Resist that impulse. Resist it with everything you have.

This is far and away the most common note we give after seeing a first draft. Particularly in a stage show* the tension of “what will happen next?” is what drives the action forward. Once the story is over the audience tends to check out. The action is done, they can relax. Anything after that point feels like filler.

“The dragon took a deep breath, and just then Joan threw her sword with one strong motion, struck it through the neck and killed it. The thing that had kept Joan going, the thing that had helped guide her hand at the last moment, was her faith in herself, despite all the doubters.”

At the end there is a moment, one chance that you have as a storyteller to hit the audience with everything you’ve put into the story. Done right, that moment is crystalized in the mind of everyone who saw it. That’s drained if you then take some time to explain what it was all about. After everyone is sure how it ends they’ll lean back in their chairs and whisper comments to their friends and you’ve lost them.

The flip side of that is that if you keep some suspense you can actually get quite a bit of material in.

“The dragon took a deep breath, and Joan flashed back to all the doubters – how they had questioned her and mocked her and told her she was a girl and could never kill a dragon. And she realized she didn’t care. She had never cared. That was true strength – not caring no matter what people said. And threw her sword with one strong motion, struck the dragon through the neck and killed it.”

Better, right? Now, don’t abuse that. You can’t keep the suspense up for a long dissertation, but you can get some really good stuff in there.

The best way, though, is to let the story carry the message on it’s own. To trust the audience to get the point:

“lots of great stuff showing doubters and mocking and they stole her lunch and we see her hurt by it and then start to ignore it and then the dragon comes and kills lots of people then…>. The dragon took a deep breath, and just then Joan threw her sword with one strong motion, struck it through the neck and killed it.”

It’s fascinating how people’s desire to find the lesson can…. Oh… wait.

*I’m not an expert on written narrative nonfiction, so maybe it can work there – although Evan Ratliff and David Dobbs, among others, don’t think so.

Ben Lillie is a high-energy particle physicist who left the ivory tower for the wilds of New York’s theater district. He now writes and performs stories about science and being a scientist, and is a Moth StorySLAM champion. He is the co-founder and director of The Story Collider, where people are invited to tell stories of their personal experience of science, and is a former writer for

Raid Amin: Statistically improbable

Statistician Dr. Raid Amin defies all odds to chase his passion

My PhotoI love statistics. For me it is like the magnifying glass detectives use in classic, black and white movies. Statistics can unlock mysteries, and makes me feel powerful in lifting the darkness and shedding light on circumstances that appear unsolvable. It was also my salvation from the political and social tumult of my youth, and the solution to my own seemingly impossible situation.

I chose to study statistics in college due to my lack of proficiency in language. While I studied in my native Iraq, I had lived outside the country and had difficulty speaking and reading Arabic. This forced me to avoid any subjects that required a deep understanding of lengthy text. But I could still “read” and understand formulas and logic – the language of statistics. I had found my home, so to speak.

After my graduation from Baghdad University I got a job as a statistics specialist at a multi-national organization focused on adult education. My employer explained to me that, “Eighty percent of [my] work would not be in statistics,” and that the other 20 percent of my time could be used to do any statistical work I wanted to pursue. While not ideal, it was still better than being dragged to the front as a soldier in the war between Iraq and Iran; students from so-called “less important” disciplines were pushed to the forefront for what amounted to World-War-One-style battles. Engineers and physicians were sheltered from such fighting. Like my fellow statisticians and doctors, I was not expendable.

One morning as I still lay in bed, I heard a thunderous roar outside of our home. The sound was an Iranian air force Phantom fighter jet dropping the additional fuel tank it required to make the flight from Tehran to Baghdad. A day later at work, all employees were summoned to the safest floor during a bombing raid on Baghdad. Needless to say the deafening sound of fighter planes flying very close to our building on the Tigris River was terrifying. When I returned home that day, I made up my mind that it was a good time to try and leave Iraq to study abroad.

Party politics

My college education started in the College of Business Administration and Economics at Baghdad University. I majored in statistics, and in 1978 I graduated with the seventh highest grades out of more than 400 students. My wish was to continue my education in the Master’s program at Baghdad University where my late father was the Director of Graduate Studies. But there was one catch – neither he nor I were members of the Baath party that ruled Iraq at that time. One day while my family was eating lunch, my father turned and said that officials told him that unless I join the party, I will not be allowed to join the graduate program. My reply to my father was that in such a case I preferred not to become a graduate student. He was not happy with my reply and told me that I needed to think carefully about the consequences to my future goals. We finally agreed to a compromise – I would not join the party, but would still apply.

About twenty students were accepted into the statistics graduate program that year, based on their grade point averages for their BS degrees. Based on this criterion, I should have been in without a second thought. However, when the admission names were published in the official newspaper, I recognized students one through six in rank order. But the seventh name on the list was not “Raid Amin,” but was in fact some other student. What had been told to my father had come to pass, and I was denied admission. Weeks later my father came home from work and threw my application folder on the table. It has been returned to him since he was the Director of the Graduate Studies.

On top of this, college graduates were not even given their official BS diplomas unless they were party members. I wanted to study overseas in Germany (where I had lived for a brief while) or in the UK or the USA, but in order to apply I needed my official diploma. Since I had still not joined the party this would be a problem. But in some stroke of fantastic luck my diploma was somehow included in the rejected application folder that had been returned to my father! I was ecstatic for such a surprise outcome from my failed application, and this was the moment that changed my fortune.

“Applying” resolve and resourcefulness

In order to apply to schools abroad, I had to get this diploma translated from Arabic to English by the US Embassy in Baghdad. However at that time there was no US Embassy, only a US Interest Section at the Belgian Embassy. I took several busses, and about 90 minutes later I arrived to find two or three Iraqi soldiers and police officers stationed outside the building. To this day I can still remember how scared I was to walk up to the building, fearing what the resulting penalty might entail if something went wrong. I chickened out and made the bus trip back to our home where my late mother was waiting for me in the kitchen. She was unhappy with the outcome, and emphatically encouraged me to consider returning to get the diploma translated and certified.

After two additional attempts I finally summoned the courage to walk up to the front gate. As I approached one of the guards stopped me, machine gun dangling from one of his shoulders, and inquired as to why I wanted to get inside a US Interest Section. But I had my excuse prepared: I told him that I was picking up my Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) score, and to my elation, he believed me. I entered and I picked up my TOEFL documents first (I was not lying), and then waited until my turn to look into getting my diploma translated. After going through a lengthy, multi-step process, and forking over what amounted to a fortune given my income, I finally obtained several copies of certified translation documents bearing the red wax seal of the US Interest Section. I was a very happy young man, to say the least!

My next task was to figure out where to apply. It was not permitted to apply to overseas universities, especially in the USA, so I had to be as discrete as possible. But it got worse. In addition to the privileges denied non-party members, typewriters were not allowed without written permission from the Interior Ministry. But I needed a typewriter as I was required to submit a typed application. One of my friends agreed to lend me an old typewriter, but only for a few days. I recall him arriving under the cover of night to deliver that heavy machine. I snuck it up into my bedroom on the second floor of our home, and each night I typed one letter. Once I had my letters in hand, my next challenge was smuggling the letters out of Iraq. I was lucky to know some incredibly gracious people who agreed to take my letters with them and mail them as they traveled to conferences abroad. Heartened by the fact that I thought I had found a way to leave Iraq, you can imagine my devastation to learn that while my applications had been well-received by renowned statistics departments, each graduate school insisted on “original” diplomas, refusing to accept “certified translations.” I could not believe such silliness – didn’t they understand my circumstances? But I refused to give up on my ambitions, and I found another way.

In order to get an official BS diploma issued by Baghdad University, in English, I needed an I-20 form. But in order to get the I-20 I needed to have my official transcripts in English. The Graduate Administrator of my top choice in programs had a German name, and I still had my elementary school “Zeugnis,” or, diploma, from the Matthias Claudius Volksschule in Bonn, Germany where I had studied as a child. Since I had no other options I mailed Professor Hinkelmann my German diploma, along with a letter explaining my predicament – this “catch 22.” I had, in effect, actually applied to a graduate program in the USA based on my German elementary school education! Finally, after waiting patiently for a sign, Professor Hinkelmann sent me the I-20 in the mail, which in turn allowed me to obtain my official transcripts. I was accepted to the program and could finally, legally leave Iraq to study in the US.

Wheels up

It was during the winter of 1981 when my Dad drove me to Baghdad Airport to fly to New York. We were both excited and scared at the same time. What if some security officer blocked my departure? There were still many things that could go wrong but this time things would work out as planned. I still recall the strange feeling of walking the corridors of JFK airport upon arrival, in shock that I had actually made it there, when I heard over the loudspeakers, “Mr. Amin … Mr. Amin …please identify yourself.” The first horrifying thought that ran through my mind was, “they found out!” But it turned out to be an agency that volunteered to help international students find their way out of the airport. I had forgotten that I checked that box on my application!

It continued to be a bumpy ride for me for a while, really until the day I finally got my Green Card. The United States fought their own two wars with Iraq, and I was often reminded by others that I was not wanted. But in my heart I knew that I had done the right thing leaving Iraq. And to this day statistics remains my passion, and my saving grace, as it has always been. It lifted the darkness of my early struggles, and afforded me the freedom to fulfill my dreams. And for that I will be eternally grateful.

Tomorrow is launch day at Before the Abstract!

Springer StorytellersHello BTA fans and subscribers – the day is almost here that we finally go live!

Tomorrow we will post our inaugural Springer Storytellers podcast in the “Listen” section, which features the story of Dr. Kaspar von Braun, astrophysicist at Lowell  Observatory. Dr. von Braun presented his story on January 6, 2015, alongside the American Astronomical Society’s annual meeting.

Be sure to sign up to receive regular updates when new content is posted, and you can also subscribe at “Before the Abstract” on iTunes. And maybe most importantly – tell your friends, family and colleagues to do the same!

Thanks for your support, and we look forward to bringing you many, many more examples of storytelling in science.