Alumni Who Have Made a Difference - Leon Jaroff

Science for the mass public? In mainstream media? Not so long ago, those questions wouldn't have even been considered worth discussing. But that was before Leon Jaroff.

Leon Jaroff served as a co-chair of the '50E Emeritus Committee. He is pictured here speaking at Emeritus Weekend 2000 about his class' fundraising efforts to purchase a Kenneth Snelson sculpture for the College.

Leon Jaroff (BSE EE/Eng Math '50) has been a mainstay for the Time, Inc. family of publications since he joined the company as an editorial trainee for LIFE magazine in 1951. He moved over to Time in 1954, and became its chief science writer in 1966. In 1970, he was named a senior editor, a post he kept until he semi-retired several years ago. His passion for science is a constant theme in his work.

"I like to think of it as striking a blow for rationality in an ever-increasing irrational world," said Jaroff. "It's hopeless, but I haven't given up," he added with a wry chuckle.

Although he's won numerous awards for his writing, Jaroff, 73, is probably best known as the founding managing editor of Discover magazine.

"In the early 1970s, I began to do research on our newsstand sales and found that the best sellers had featured either science or medicine on the cover. I lobbied for a science magazine for over nine years and finally was able to start Discover."

During Jaroff's more than four years at Discover, articles he edited won the American Institute of Physics Award twice. He is also the author of "The New Genetics" (Whittle Communications: 1991) about the human genome project and its impact on medicine.

One of Jaroff's favorite jobs at Discover was his "Skeptical Eye" column, in which he "shot darts at people who needed it." He was also a founding member of the Committee for Scientific Investigation into Claims of the Paranormal, an international organization dedicated to exposing anti-science trends in society and the media.

Beyond science, Jaroff has two passions: Wolverine football and the possibility that Earth might one day again be hit by a large asteroid or comet - and the lack of preparations to deal with that eventuality.

"I love Michigan football," said Jaroff. "When the game comes on, my wife, Mary Kay, leaves the house because she can't stand the language or yelling. If the team loses, I go into a deep depression. I throw the sports section away so I don't have to read about it."

Jaroff makes a good case for being concerned about an Earth-asteroid collision, noting that it's happened before. He points to the theory that it was such a collision that ended the age of dinosaurs, and even more proudly to his 1986 story that predated acceptance of this theory by the scientific community. He's equally proud of "7829 Jaroff," a 10-km-wide asteroid named after him by the International Astronomical Union.

Jaroff credits the University of Michigan for much of his success. "Everything I've done, I trace back to the University. My studies in the College of Engineering and my work on The Michigan Daily helped shape my life," said Jaroff, who was a managing editor of The Michigan Daily and served as co-chair for the Student Publications Committee in 1991-98. "It's such a treat to work with students. Michigan keeps turning out a great crop of writers."

How did Jaroff become part of that crop? "I was sitting in an engineering mechanics class, surrounded by all of these guys in jeans and plaid shirts. I asked one of my classmates, 'Gee, where are all the girls?' He told me that he heard they were all over at The Michigan Daily. Of such conversations, careers are built," said Jaroff with a smile.

It's been some career. "Leon is a legend around here," said Philip Elmer-DeWitt, science editor of Time. "Generations of science writers have learned from him. He taught us to construct a story like an engineer, one word, one sentence, one paragraph at a time. He has such an appreciation for science, and has no patience for unscientific thinking, wherever he finds it."

Michigan Engineer Fall/Winter 2000