Best Shortform Science Writing: April-June 2019
(A Highly Subjective Round-Up of Standout Science Writing)
At the 2018 Science Writers conference in Washington, DC, noted science journalist David Quammen shared an anecdote from his time as a columnist. His column’s beat was science, but it was science defined so broadly that “anything with a scientist, an animal, or a tree” counted as fair game.
This axiom remains one of my favorite definitions of science writing — though I’d probably add “anything about a molecule, a microbe, or subatomic particle” — and,as the lead editor on this project, it’s one I ponder a lot.
We frequently read pieces that lead us to wonder, “This is good, but is it sciencey enough for Best Shortform Science Writing?” Answering that question requires a shared definition for what “science” is.
For the purposes of this round-up, we usually define science pretty broadly, including health, environmental, and tech journalism, along with the occasional anthropology story — partly because the reporters covering these topics overlap with the “science writer” population and partly because we simply want to highlight the best short pieces we can find.
Below you’ll find our picks from a pool of nominated stories spanning April-June 2019. We hope you enjoy them!
We received 203 nominations this cycle and narrowed them down to the 55 pieces listed below.
The pieces that made the cut had to survive two rounds of selection and impress at least two (and usually three) SciShortform editors.
About Our Editors
This edition’s editors include: Anne Berlin; science writing lecturer Jimmy Brancho, PhD, of University of Michigan; Heriot-Watt University MPhil graduate student Jess Hudgins, who is currently working with Sharks and Rays Australia; postdoc Aparna Kishor, MD, PhD; freelance science writer Lynne Peskoe-Yang; science writer Stephen Riffle, PhD, of Helix; freelance science writer Caroline Seydel; graduate student Vanessa Vieites of Florida International University; and me (freelance science writer Diana Crow).
About the Round-Up Format
We sort the stories into “Top Picks” and “Honorable Mentions”. The stories are in alphabetical order by the author’s last name.
As always, our selection is driven by serendipity and whoever decides to send suggestions via our crowdsourced nomination/submission form. The form for July-September 2019 is here.
Anyone interested in our selection criteria can check out our rubric here.
If we’ve left out short pieces that you adored, please share them in the comments.
Short Shorts (under 600 words)
- “How aphids sacrifice themselves to fix their homes with fatty goo” by Susan Milius for Science News
- “Iron can catalyze metabolic reactions without enzyme” by Alla Katsnelson for Chemical & Engineering News
- “Tooth decay may result from immune response, not just bacterial plaque” by Sherry Eskander for The Varsity
- “How bacteria nearly killed by antibiotics can recover — and gain resistance” by Tina Hesman Saey for Science News
- “Algorithm predicts eventual Alzheimer’s diagnoses from brain scans” by Rod McCullom for Scientific American
- “Bacterial drug synergies hide in plain sight” by Laurel Oldach for ASBMB Today
- “European Rover To Probe The ‘Third Dimension’ Of Mars” by Bill Retherford for Forbes
News & Trends (601–1200 words)
- “The Midwestern Sand Mines Feeding the Fracking Industry” by Geoffrey Giller for Discover
- “Counting Seals for Conservation” by Liza Gross for PBS Nature NOW
- “You heard the all-female spacewalk was canceled. Here’s some context to better understand the last-minute flop.” by Joelle Renstrom for The Lily
- “Is the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why linked to suicide?” by Bethany Brookshire for Science News for Students
- “Workers won’t work as well in a very warm world” by Kathiann Kowalski for Science News for Students
- “How Scientists Use Climate Models to Predict Mosquito-Borne Disease Outbreaks” by Max Levy for Smithsonian
- “Researchers avoid ‘messy’ hormonal female mice. And that hurts women” by Deborah Netburn for The Los Angeles Times
- “Will Elon Musk’s Internet Project Ruin Astronomy?” by Cecelia Smith-Schoenwalder for US News & World Report
Single Study Deep Dives (601–1200 words)
- “How Do Mosquitos Taste DEET? Hint: It’s Not Their Mouthparts” by Jonathan Lambert for NPR
- “‘Talking’ seals mimic sounds from human speech, and validate a Boston legend” by Katherine J. Wu for NOVA Next
- “Chatty Birds Might Put Their Friends at Risk of Colliding with Buildings” by Katherine J. Wu for NOVA Next
- “This Ink Is Made From Air Pollution” by Rachel Lallensack for Smithsonian
- “Explore the haunting remains of an Antarctic whaling boomtown” by Vicky Stein for PBS Newshour
- “Huge mystery blob found under the moon’s far side” by Maya Wei-Haas for National Geographic
- “Tiger sharks feast on migratory birds that fall out of the sky” by Sarah Zielinski for Science News
Data or Investigative (1400 words & under)
- “Smartphone Privacy Is Under Threat at the Border” by Ramin Skibba for Medium
- “Is the EPA Stifling Science on Chemical Toxicity Reports?” by Jim Daley for Scientific American
- “A wave of graduate programs drops the GRE application requirement” by Kate Langin for Science Careers
- “This Horrifying App Undresses a Photo of Any Woman With a Single Click” by Samantha Cole for Vice
- “Five Things We Found In The FDA’s Hidden Device Database” by Sydney Lupkin for Kaiser Health News
- “Mining opponents operate in ‘environment of fear’” by Andiswa Matikinca for Oxpeckers Center for Investigative Environmental Journalism
Columns, Op/Eds, & Blog Posts (1200 words & under)
- “With New Trump Policy, Is the Moon for the Taking?” by Ramin Skibba for Undark
- “Happy Birthday to Dorothy Garrod, One of the First Women Archaeologists” by Sarah Wells for Gizmodo
- “What scientists can expect when dabbling in science writing” by Brittney Borowiec for Nature Careers
- “This cave in the Philippines has over 2 million bats. And it needs to get bigger.” by Tristan Mañalac for Flip Science
- “If We Commodify Space, Who’s In Charge Of The Cosmos?” by Joelle Renstrom for Cognoscenti (WBUR)
Essays & Literary (1400 words & under)
- “YouTube, persuasion and genetically engineered children” by George Estreich for The Corvallis Gazette-Times
- “Dear Chandra: How x-rays became the bright spot in my sky” by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein for National Geographic
- “Life’s a blur — but we don’t see it that way” by Tim Vernimmen for Knowable Magazine
- “We Were Poor, But the Beach Was Ours” by Kaitlyn Greenidge for Sierra
- “London’s Got A Wild Side” by Richa Malhotra for National Geographic Traveller India
- “A quantum origin for spacetime” by Tom Siegfried for Knowable Magazine
- “Apollo 11: The Fight For The First Footprint” by David Whitehouse for The Guardian/Observer
Institutional (1200 words & under)
- “Scientists discover thermoelectric properties in promising class of materials” by Kristen Coyne for National High Magnetic Field Laboratory
- “Sleepovers reduce stress in shelter dogs” by Kimberlee D’Ardenne for ASU Now
- “Black Hole Image Makes History; NASA Telescopes Coordinated Observations” by Elizabeth Landau for NASA
- “Researchers use facial quirks to unmask ‘deepfakes’” by Kara Manke for Berkeley News
- “Healthy, stress-busting fat found hidden in dirt” by Lisa Marshall for CU Boulder Today
- “Features that make lizards sexy are resilient to stress” by Gail McCormick for Penn State
- “We’re gonna need a bigger boat: Gentle giants return to Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary” by Pike Spector for the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries
- “How Black Pharmacists Are Closing The Cultural Gap In Health Care” by Cara Anthony for Kaiser Health News
- “My Tae Kwon Do Black Belt Changed My Life as an Autistic Woman” by Jen Malia for SELF
- “Running After Melanoma” by Katie O’Reilly for Outside
- “The Pitfalls of Searching for Alien Life” by Diane Peters for Undark
- “He Almost Died from a Deadly Superbug. A Virus Saved Him.” by Bob Roehr for Leaps Magazine
- “Super Kamiokande” by Jake Sturmer, Yumi Asada, Ben Spraggon and Colin Gourlay for ABC Story Lab
- “Citizen sleuths exposed pollution from a century-old Michigan factory, with nationwide implications” by Sara Talpos for Science
- “A Dying Teenager’s Recovery Started in the Dirt” by Ed Yong for The Atlantic
And those are our picks for April-June 2019!
We’re also recruiting a number of new volunteers and readers. For details on open positions, check out this post. If you’re interested in joining the team, contact Diana at email@example.com. (Please include SciShortform in your subject line!)