Short swarthy, smiling Leon Svirsky, a Nieman Fellow, on leave of absence from Time Magazine where he edited the Science department, fondly thinks that the traditional Time Jargon is one the way out. "I don't make any effort to write in the so-called Time style," he says. "We just try to make the news clear to everybody."
Before coming to Cambridge as a student, Svirsky last year clarified University news for his readers by reporting a mob beating, with race implications, inflicted on two undergraduates. His hiterpretation was hotly contested by the Dean's office, and a fierce battle was subsequently waged in Time's Letters department.
Svirsky was apparently forgiven, because last summer his application for a Nieman Fellowship, sent two days late, was gracefully accepted.
Physics Review Needed
"When the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, I thought I'd better review my elementary physics in justice to the readers," he says. He entered the University with the special yearly group of Nieman Fellows, and has become, he thinks, the oldest Math Aa student in the College.
Svirsky became Science Editor of Time in 1943 purely by accident. He points out that a similar situation exists on almost every periodical: men reporting scientific news never received any actual training for the job. And in the light of recent events, he feels that science reporting is a subject too long neglected by American universities.
"Neither editors nor readers," he says, "are prepared to understand recent developments. A survey course in science, on the lines of the General Education proposal, is genuinely needed.
"Harvard has first rate science teachers," he continues, "but too many of the elementary courses here are taught only for the benefit of men preparing to concentrate in that department. Everybody should have a minimum understanding of the basic scientific principles underlying our civilization; to that and I think many more general courses should be offered.
"Students should be encouraged to become excited about science courses; a touch of showmanship should be used; and faculties ought to be staffed with inspiring teachers. Perhaps the Faculty could take a hint from the vast crop of Science Fiction, which doesn't seem to be as far off the track as we once suspected."
Boston Papers Lousy"
Svirsky has been disappointed with the coverage given recent atomic developments by the Boston press, but he is even more dismayed by its indifference toward shady local politics. "Boston newspapers are lousy," he says bluntly.
"Lincoln Steffens gave me some idea of what to expect of Boston when he told me that the Hub City is the most corrupt community in the country, but I didn't quite expect this. Either Boston papers reflect a degraded level of civic life or they are a direct cause of it."
Svirsky's journalistic aspirations received their first jolt when he "failed badly" as a heeler for the Yale Daily News. With a successful newspaper career behind him in spite of that rejection, he now recalls that the News was chiefly a haven for big men on the Eli campus. "Journalism didn't count for much with them."
Inasmuch as his education was undertaken at Yale and consequently rather shaky, Svirsky had to start here on the ground floor. He began with Math C this fall and progressed so rapidly that he was able to earn a 97 this term in an unofficial Math Aa hour exam, and take and master a course in Atomic Physics at the same time.
Nieman Fellows are not required to take examinations, and most of them don't preferring to sample liberally University facilities in a year of rare academic freedom.
"I admire the hospitable atmosphere you have here," he says, "especially the encouragement given to students with real intellectual curiosity. I note this particularly, because, in my day, Yale did not seem to be chiefly an institution of learning.
"Social activities, athletics, and drinking in the wildest prohibition fashion far overshadowed any pursuit of knowledge. Most of the professors put on a good show, but were not very stimulating. I found that very few Yale men read the newspapers; here there appears to be a healthy interest in world affairs."
Svirsky majored in English and took a smattering of History and Psychology during his stay in Elitown. "But," he says, "I think I'm learning more in one year her than I did in tow years at Yale." He takes advantage of the free run of the University offered to Nieman Fellows, auditing, among others, a course at the Medical School.
After graduating from Yale in 1927, Svirsky worked for several Trade Union publications, and got a job with the New York World in 1929. When that paper was bought out by the Telegram in 1931, he became School Editor for the new owners and in 19374 went to Time to head their Education department.
Czar Nabs Wrong Man
Svirsky was born in Russia in 1904; seen after his birth his meek, shopkeeper father was accused by Czarist police of revolutionary activity.
Without his knowledge, radicals had used the elder Svirsky's store for a meeting place. The family fied to America, settled in Brooklyn, and moved to Hartford, Connecticut when Svirsky was 13. There he busied himself unlearning a William Bendix accent and editing the high school literary review.
His sturdy educational convictions were not born in those high school days when he cluded chemistry and physics as nearly as anyone in the history of the Hartford school system.