Monday, March 12, 2012

Science Writing Top 5

Nearly every surface of my room is covered by newspaper --clippings taped to the walls, old issues piled high on desks or splayed open mid-article, curled edges poking out of drawers. This is fortunate for the art student across the hall*, whose papier-mâché dreams were realized when two months of New York Times back issues finally made it into the recycling bin.
*Not quite as fortunate for my roommate; sorry, Sara. 

The time Orson Welles stopped by my room to chat.

No surprise, I have read a lot of articles. But there are only a few that I've remembered through the years. These pieces have left lasting impressions on my own writing style; all are excellent examples of science writing and literary journalism. Today, I sit down to think about how each piece has held my attention for so long. And because I am borrowing a friend's tablet, my thinking entails a lot of unnecessary doodling...

5. "Brilliant Light" by Oliver Sacks (The New Yorker1999)

Summary: Oliver Sacks spent his childhood marveling at metals and their chemical properties. He remembers those years here in a lengthy piece for The New Yorker.

Why it's successful: Sacks transforms a subject that most have no interest in (Seriously, transition metals?) into a fantastic autobiographical essay that is both literary and informative. He writes lyrically --sentence by sentence so that you don't mind the length. His metaphors are uncommon and memorable. Sacks also appeals to the senses in a smart way for his topic, using color and coolness and chemical odors; after all, what else embodies the physical sciences more than tangible observation?

Favorite excerpt:
"I often dream of chemistry at night, dreams that conflate the past and the
present, the grid of the Periodic Table transformed to the grid of Manhattan ... I dream of eating hamburgers made of scandium. Sometimes, too, I dream of the indecipherable language of tin ... But my favorite dream is of going to the opera (I am Hafnium), sharing a box at the Met with the other heavy transition metals—my old and valued friends—Tantalum, Tungsten, Rhenium, Osmium, Iridium, Platinum, and Gold."

4. "King of the Cosmos" by Carl Zimmer (Playboy2012)

Summary: Carl Zimmer profiles rockstar astrophysicist and scientific communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Why it's successfulZimmer is always aware of his structure. This is vital. With someone as well-known as deGrasse Tyson, there is great potential for an unfocused, overly ambitious profile. Zimmer touches upon the necessary items of a feature--how did Tyson become interested in science, what held him back? He opens in the middle of a scene to grab reader attention, and he makes his way back to it at the end for a nice sense of closure. Perhaps most importantly, Zimmer gets to the meat of the interview towards the end, that intimate glimpse into Tyson's motivations that we could get from no one else but someone in Zimmer's position. 

Favorite excerpt:  
"On a hay-mown crest, dozens of people are crouching in the dark. The Earth has turned away from the sun, and the sky has flowed down a color chart, from light gray to orange to bluish-black. A sliver of a waxing moon has appeared briefly and then slipped below the western horizon, leaving the sky to blinking airplanes rising from La Guardia fifty miles to the south, to satellites gliding in low orbit, to Jupiter and its herd of moons and to the great river of the Milky Way beyond."

3. "Under Water" by Anne Fadiman (The New Yorker1999)
SummaryAnne Fadiman, 18, witnesses the tragic drowning death of a young boy on a canoeing trip. 

Why it's successful: This work was anthologized in a Best American Science and Nature Writing collection, and it is the only piece on my list that fits more neatly into creative-nonfiction-with-a-nature-theme than into science writing. But Fadiman's essay highlights the importance of a single, well-put (even unusual) image. The format of the line I've given below has become my mantra for creative description. Think: what does your subject look like if you stretch how you look at things? Once you have the image, keep it simple and punchy. 

Favorite excerpt: 
"I thought: He looks like the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew in the Sistine Chapel. As soon as I had the thought, I knew that it was dishonorable. ...I swallowed a small, sour piece of self-knowledge: I was the sort of person who, instead of weeping or shouting or praying during a crisis, thought about something from a textbook (H.W. Janson's History of Art, page 360). ...I could not stop the stream of images: Gary looked like a piece of seaweed, Gary looked like a waving handkerchief, Gary looked like a hula dancer. Each simile was a way to avoid thinking about what Gary was, a drowning boy." 

2. "An Error in the Code" by Richard Preston (The New Yorker, 2007)

SummaryLesch-Nyhan syndrome is a rare genetic condition that causes an uncontrollable compulsion to self-mutilate; many patients, for instance, are helpless to stop themselves from chewing their fingers and lips away. Richard Preston begins with the first diagnosis in 1962 and ends in 2007 at the bedsides of two adult Lesch-Nyhan patients.

Why it's successful: I love this piece because it begins as a good, but not great feature of a rare disease with interesting symptoms. The strength of it comes at the midway point, when Preston mentions in an interview with a doctor that he could not imagine what it would be like to live with the disease. "You could ask someone who has it," is the doctor's response. And with that, Preston transitions into a mix of first person narrative and contextual information. His essay manages to reach a place of empathy without losing its objectivity. 

Favorite excerpt 
"That day in Santa Cruz, Murphy stared at me out of the corners of his eyes, with his head involuntarily thrown back and turned away, braced against a headboard. His hands were stuffed into many pairs of white socks, and his chest heaved against a rubber strap that held him in place. He started throwing punches at me, and he kicked at me. He seemed to be enduring his disease like a man riding a wild horse."

1. "Dr. Daedalus" by Lauren Slater (Harper's2002)

SummaryDr. Joe Rosen is a talented, but eccentric plastic surgeon at the University of Dartmouth with a blueprint for human wings in his desk drawer. He wants to push the limits of what a human body can become with technology.

Why it's successful: Slater excels at the first-person journalistic essay. "Dr. Daedalus" is a truthful profile of both Rosen and Slater's own reactions to his work. She is immersed in Rosen's story, but the reader (I think) is glad for it. Slater may have the benefit of an eccentric character, but she does not skimp on wonderful language and sharp prose. At the end of the piece, the reader is left wondering not just about Rosen but about bioethics at large. 

Favorite excerpt
"Maybe it's because Rosen isn't just talking about everyday beauty and its utilitarian aspects. He is talking EXTREMES. When Rosen thinks of beauty, he thinks of the human form stretched on the red-hot rack of his imagination, which is mired in medieval texts and books on trumpeter swans. At its outermost limits, beauty becomes fantastical, perhaps absurd. Here is where Rosen rests. He dreamsof making wings for human beings. He has shown me blueprints, sketches of the scalpel scissoring into skin, stretching flaps of torso fat to fashion gliders piped with rib bone. When the arm stretches, the gliders unfold, and human floats on currents of air. Is he serious? At least partially."

Honorable Mentions (sadly, no doodles)

"Dirty Medicine" by Mariah Blake (Washington Monthly, 2010)
"One Brain at a Time" (series) by Tony Bartelme (The Post and Courier, 2010)
"Birdbrain" by Margaret Talbot (The New Yorker, 2009)

I encourage you to check out any or all of the essays, including the honorable mentions. What are your favorite science features/essays? Post them in the comments below!


  1. The piece that sticks with me the most is Atul Gawande's "Letting Go", on death and dying.

  2. Dr. Hersh, was that piece in this year's Best Science and Nature Writing? It certainly sticks with a person.

  3. It was... It's on our reading list for later in the semester, too...