Best Shortform Science Writing: January-June 2021
Reading the nominees for this edition of Best Shortform Science Writing, I was struck by how thoroughly remote reporting has come to dominate the landscape.
Some stories, like Payal Dhar’s “Social Media Becomes a Lifeline During India’s COVID Crisis” and Marion Renault’s “The Weird Comfort of Getting Vaccinated at an Abandoned JC Penney”, wear their digital origins more or less on their sleeves. Others featured elegant and astute descriptions of sources that left me unsure whether the writers conducted on-site reporting — or simply applied their “eye for detail” to a video call or livestream. A few stories, such as Rosanna Xia’s “Stunning DDT dump site off L.A. coast much bigger than scientists expected” and Max Kozlov’s “Deep-Sea Jelly Reignites Debate on Remote Species Identification,” included carefully-observed scenes of scientists reacting to remote telemetry.
My point here is that many of us have spent the last 18 months striving to follow a vast universe of events without leaving our homes, and this round-up includes a lot of success stories in that endeavor. (It includes stories with in-person reporting, too, but not as many as a typical year. ) Recording and sharing events that most people cannot bear witness to in-person is the core of both science and journalism.
Seeing so many scientists and writers apply their craft during a pandemic has been fascinating.
This edition’s editors include: Anne Berlin; writer and content creator Atula Gupta; graduate student Kiran Gurung of University of Groningen; postdoc Aparna Kishor, MD, PhD; digital marketer/writer Lauren Hudgins; Silke Kramprich of Laser Zentrum Hannover; undergraduate student Tejashree Murugan of IIT Madras; freelance science writer Stephen Riffle, PhD; chemist, medical/science writer/editor, and retired teacher Elliot Richman, PhD; and me (freelance science writer Diana Crow).
Special thanks to freelance science writer Dani Leviss (NYU SHERP ‘19), who has been managing our social media and who recently moved on to pursue other projects.
This project was funded in part by a grant from the National Association of Science Writers. Reference to any specific commercial product, process, or service does not necessarily constitute or imply its endorsement or recommendation by the National Association of Science Writers, and any views and opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the National Association of Science Writers.
About the Round-Up Format
Stories in each tier are in alphabetical order by the author’s last name.
There were a few outstanding pieces nominated for this cycle that were actually published in July, so we rolled them over to consideration for the July-December round-up. You can nominate pieces for the July-December 2021 round-up here.
Anyone interested in our selection criteria can check out our rubric here.
Pandemic, Part 3
- “It’s Not Vaccine Hesitancy. It’s COVID-19 Denialism.” by David A. Graham for The Atlantic
- “Why a Former Anti-Vax Influencer Got Her COVID-19 Shot” by Tara Haelle for Texas Monthly
- “The Weird Comfort of Getting Vaccinated at an Abandoned JC Penney” by Marion Renault for The New Republic
- “The COVID-19 Lab Leak Debate Shows How Experts Failed Us” by Maddie Bender for Motherboard (VICE)
- “Social Media Becomes a Lifeline During India’s COVID Crisis” by Payal Dhar for Yes! Magazine
- “People gave up on flu pandemic measures a century ago when they tired of them — and paid a price” by J. Alexander Navarro for The Conversation
Short Shorts (600 words & under)
- “New Technique Grows Realistic Bone in a Dish” by Anna Goshua for Scientific American
- “Did you know that birds use cigarette butts to fight parasites?” by Magdalena Kozielska-Reid
- “The Animal Viruses Most Likely to Jump into Humans” by Harini Barath for Scientific American
- “A sweet father-son bond inspires tasty new molecule models” by Carmen Drahl for Science News
- “Embryos appear to reverse their biological clock early in development” by Erin Garcia de Jesus for Science News
- “Erasing Women from Science? There’s a Name for That” by Jess Romeo for JSTOR Daily
- “All Quiet Under the Algal Bloom” by Lina Tran for Hakai Magazine
News, Data, or Investigative (601–1400 words)
- “Deep-Sea Jelly Reignites Debate on Remote Species Identification” by Max Kozlov for The Scientist
- “Are COVID-19 Lockdowns Really Causing Nature to Heal?” by Brian Owens for Hakai Magazine
- “Stunning DDT dump site off L.A. coast much bigger than scientists expected” by Rosanna Xia for The Los Angeles Times
- “Industrial Facilities Released Millions of Pounds of Illegal Pollution During the Winter Storm” by Amal Ahmed for The Texas Observer
- “Lasers, cannons, effigies: The surprising science of shooing vultures away” by Elizabeth Anne Brown for National Geographic
- “California’s Drought Is So Bad That Almond Farmers Are Ripping Out Trees” by Elizabeth Elkin for Bloomberg Green
- “A lack of humanity’: Hundreds of early-career researchers forced out by Mexico’s science agency” by Rodrigo Pérez Ortega & Inés Gutiérrez Jaber for Science
- “How a Frenzy for Echinoderms Exposed and Entrenched Inequities in a Fishing Community” by Kimberly Riskas for Hakai Magazine
- “How to Speak Cicada” by Nala Rogers for Inside Science
- “Neutrinos Rising from the Floor” by Michael Schirber for Physics
- “Why Does the Placebo Effect Work for Some People But Not Others?” by Allison Whitten for Discover
Single Study Deep Dives (601–1200 words)
- “Six Stars, Six Eclipses: ‘The Fact That It Exists Blows My Mind’” by Robin George Andrews for The New York Times
- “Octopus ‘Teachers’ Demonstrate They Feel Emotional Pain” by Anna Blaustein for Scientific American
- “How these fish — ‘tiny tanks of the Amazon’ — survive piranha bites” by Elizabeth Anne Brown for National Geographic
- “The Secret Mission To Unearth Part Of A 142-Year-Old Experiment” by Nell Greenfieldboyce for NPR
- “How Science Is Saving Van Gogh’s Flowers Before They Fade Away” by Stephanie DeMarco for Discover
- “Mammals Can Use Their Intestines to Breathe” by Abby Olena for The Scientist
- “What cats’ love of boxes and squares can tell us about their visual perception” by Jennifer Ouellette for Ars Technica
- “1st preserved dinosaur butthole is ‘perfect’ and ‘unique,’ paleontologist says” by Laura Geggel for Live Science
- “Invasive Brown Tree Snakes Stun Scientists With Amazing New Climbing Tactic” by Theresa Machemer for Smithsonian Magazine
- “These Lizards Have a Hot Trick to Escape Hungry Snakes” by Richard Sima for The New York Times
Essays, Op/Eds, & Blog Posts (1400 words & under)
- “Stop Trying to Out-Science Transphobes” by Riley Black for Slate
- “The Secret World of Owl Migration” by Alyssa J. Sargent for Current Conservation
- “Colonialism in Entomology: How a Historical Problem Persists Today” by Gavin Campbell, Rhema Uche-Dike, Kehinde Kemabonta, Sylvester Ogbogu, and Jessica Ware for Entomology Today
- “Life and Death On The Lighthouse of the Mediterranean” by Robin George Andrews for The New York Times
- “Dear Labby: Life Advice from Physics” by Sarah Charley for Symmetry Magazine
- “Quantum Enlightenment” by Ruth H. Hopkins for Atmos
- “A Donation from the Heart, and the Bladder” by Chelsea Wald for Last Word on Nothing
Institutional (1200 words & under)
- “Overdue? The future of large earthquakes in California” by Krystal Vasquez for Temblor
- “Engineering that tugs at the heartstrings” by Andy Freeberg for University of Washington Mechanical Engineering
- Medium matters: Making the case for middle-sized phytoplankton” by Abby Metzger for Oregon State University
- “Dark matter’s signature could be written in stone” by Mara Johnson-Groh for Symmetry
- “Bigger, faster, more powerful: SLAC’s new X-ray laser data system will process a million images a second” by Niba Audrey Nirmal for SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
- “Einstein’s garden: translating physics into Blackfoot” by Meredith Fore for Symmetry
- “Why we’re so bad at daydreaming, and how to fix it” by Alisson Clark for University of Florida News
- “Has the black hole information paradox evaporated?” by Nathan Collins for Symmetry
(Stories that were too long, too old, or too hard to classify…but we loved them anyway)
- “Four Crazy Stars Astronomers Think Might Really Exist” by Eric Betz for Discover Magazine
- “As World’s Deltas Sink, Rising Seas Are Far from Only Culprit” by Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar for Yale E360
- “The Botanist Who Defied Stalin” by Lee Alan Dugatkin for Nautilus
- “How Boise is Combating the Spread of Covid… With Poop” by Isaac Fishman for Boise Highlights
- “Climate Change Threatens Homes of Boston’s Most Vulnerable” by Ayurella Horn-Muller, Christopher Gloninger, and Ale Zimmermann for NBC 10 Boston
- “People have abandoned hundreds of cats on a deserted Brazilian island. Officials aren’t sure how to save them.” by Terrence McCoy for The Washington Post
- “The Unsung Scientist Behind the Building Blocks of DNA / Marie M. Daly” by Attabey Rodriguez Benitez for SciShow (video script)
- “Are Huge Tree Planting Projects More Hype than Solution?” by Adam Welz for Yale E360
And those are our picks for January through June 2021!
What pieces would you have included? Sound off in the responses!