Lecture: Robert Lee Hotz

Robert Lee Hotz
Robert Lee Hotz talking with NYU Journalism students after dissecting his Column One story "Mapping the Mind." Photo: Kristina Fiore.

When Robert Lee Hotz first met Sandra Witelson, a "raven-haired Canadian psychologist with a taste for black leather and red showgirl nails," he was almost certain he had found what he was looking for.

Hotz, a veteran science journalist with the Los Angeles Times, had been seeking an angle for the third story in his Column One series—a front-page column in the paper—titled "Mapping the Mind," about how certain neural structures affect behavior and beliefs. Witelson's research on gender-based differences in the human brain made compelling reading.

After 10 years' worth of notebook scribblings about a story he was dying to cover, Hotz crossed the border into Canada last April, en route to a meeting with a quirky psychologist who had a fondness for Albert Einstein and the world's largest collection of human brains.

What Hotz wasn't expecting when Witelson entered his life were the trying nights of rewrites; what he thought was going to be a profile of an eccentric scientist developed into an expository article on the neurological basis of differences in male and female intelligence, based on Witelson's studies of Einstein's brain.

On October 18, Hotz conducted a post-mortem on the 3,000-word story (which ran under the title "Mapping the Mind: Deep, Dark Secrets of His and Her Brains") at "Inside Out," a lecture series hosted by NYU Journalism's Science and Environmental Reporting Program.

"We thought it would be a good narrative cadaver to take apart," he told an audience of students and faculty. "You think you're writing a story about one topic or one person and you have a very strong idea, going into the reporting process, of what you want to bring back. But then there's a gravitational effect that just pulls you somewhere else."

From the first, Hotz was fascinated by Witelson. During their first interview, in the psychologist's office, his eyes wandered from pictures of Witelson's grandson dressed as Einstein to the Einstein action figures on her desk. And then there was her penchant for black leather apparel and bright red nails. Witelson was a journalist's dream.

She had a "Victorian" approach to studying her 125 brains, which "sat in frosted jars and snap-top plastic tubs like quarts of boiled shrimp and wedges of cheese," Hotz wrote. She used hands-on techniques of a past era—like weighing the brains, labeling them and preserving them, as well as interviewing their owners while they were alive—which inspired the lede paragraph of what Hotz was certain would be a fascinating personality profile.

"I thought, 'What a great lede: She'll take out the brain and hold it up and it will be a Hamlet-like thing."

He soon realized, however, that there was a much larger social context to his story. About a week after Hotz began researching the story, Harvard president Larry Summers made his infamous claim that men are better at math and science than women.

"[Witelson] is exactly the person that everyone was talking about," Hotz said. "She is a senior woman scientist at the top of her game at a major national university. This [woman, as well as her research] is what Larry Summers was arguing [against]."

"After 10 years' worth of notebook scribblings about a subject he was dying to cover, Hotz found the perfect hook: a quirky psychologist with a fondness for Albert Einstein and the world's largest collection of human brains."

As if that weren't enough plot twists for one story, Hotz discovered that there was a third party involved in Witelson's research: Albert Einstein.

Thomas Harvey, a 94-year-old retired pathologist from Princeton, New Jersey, had been "quixotic custodian of the 20th century's most famous brain," Hotz wrote. For over 40 years, he waited for the right person to collaborate with him in using Einstein's brain to unlock some of the mysteries of human intelligence. When he heard about Witelson's research, he knew she was the one.

When Hotz learned of Witelson's collaboration with Harvey, he realized his profile was no longer a profile. It was a story about two researchers' quest to find out whether intelligence was linked to the brain's anatomy by studying samples of Einstein's brain. "It took me a while to figure that out," he said.

Hotz's journey from decade-long obsession to finished story started, in earnest, in March 2005, when he began searching for a vehicle by which to tell the story of how neural structures affect behavior and beliefs. He met Witelson in April, worked on the article through late May, and, 32 agonizing drafts later, the published piece appeared in Column One in mid-June.

Why 32 drafts? He simply had too much great information, said Hotz. "We learn a lot as science writers and we want to let everybody know what we've learned, but that's not really the best thing for our readers," he said. "I'm asking readers to count cells in the cortex. We have to keep it as simple as possible."

Simplifying the technical details is only part of Hotz's ongoing attempt to make science more accessible to the lay reader, to show the public that science is, at its core, a very human process.

"[Science] is the most passionate, hard-fought, mean-spirited, personality-ridden thing you can possibly imagine," he told his audience. "The stakes are not just money and greed. It's somebody's life, somebody's passion. [T]he scientific process…is a very colorful thing."

Kristina Fiore is the graduate assistant for NYU's Science and Environmental Reporting Program (SERP).