Best Shortform Science Writing: January-March 2017
(A Highly Subjective Round-up of Standout Science News)
Late January 2017 saw a shift in science journalism so subtle that you probably wouldn’t notice it unless you make your living writing press releases. I happened to be interning in the press office of a prominent family of scientific journals that publishes basic research almost exclusively, so I felt it. And since our press office tracks the coverage of all studies from its journals, I saw data, too.
What we noticed is coverage of our papers in the first half of January 2017 looked a lot like the first half of January 2016. But on January 20, 2017, coverage of our journals’ papers saw a drop. Our February 2017 coverage stats were below our February 2016 numbers, both in terms of the percentage of studies covered and in the number of outlets that covered the popular studies. The numbers improved since then.
We’re biased, but we think it’s unlikely that our press releases suddenly got worse. The journal family is focused basic biology and chemistry (y’know–octopus RNA, flu-killing peptides in frog mucus, stuff like that), and it seems that science journalists, in aggregate, weren’t writing as many stories about basic research as they did in February-early March last year.
That’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing, and it may be the standard science journalism community response to a new administration, regardless of party. But in my mind, it raises the question: How do we decide what counts as “science writing”? Where do we draw the distinction between “health policy” stories and “science of health” stories? Is there a distinction to be drawn at all?
For instance, this Cara Giaimo piece–“Are We Knitting Too Many Tiny Sweaters for Animals?”–is well-written, charming, and includes lots of animals, which are certainly a topic in biology. But without scientists or peer-reviewed research in the foreground, is it still a science story?
Conversely, stories like Grace Wong’s report on a study about PTSD prevalence on the southside of Chicago are certainly based on peer-reviewed research, but the human interest facets of the story are what really shine. Can we still call it “best science” writing if the discussion of stats and studies doesn’t match the riveting descriptions of the people affected?
I loved both of those pieces, and both writers certainly deserve props for their work, but they make me wonder: Is the purpose of science writing to make people care about the subjects of science or about science itself?
These questions probably don’t matter much to general readers, but as the political landscape around science becomes increasingly partisan, perception of “sciencey-ness” can affect a reporter’s credibility. This methodologically questionable attempt at ranking science news outlets positions “ideology” as the opposite of “evidence”, although evidence and ideology certainly intersect in some stories.
Anyway, I don’t have answers to any of these questions, but I think they’re worth thinking about.
But onward to the standout stories! As always, our selection is highly subjective and driven by the whims of whoever decides to send suggestions via our crowdsourced nomination/submission form. The form for the April-June is here. (If you aren’t impressed with our picks, you’re always welcome to send us suggestions for future installments or post pieces you would have chosen in the comments below.) Anyone interested in our selection criteria can check out our rubric here.
The stories are grouped into “Top Picks” and “Honorable Mentions” but are not ranked within those groups. Instead, we put the stories in alphabetical order by the author’s last name.
We decided to rename the category formerly known as “News-Length” to “News-Style” and increase its word count limit to 1200. We had noticed that the difference between “news” and “deep dives” wasn’t so much length, as style and decided to make that official. This cycle, we ended up with almost exclusively “very serious health stories” in the news category, but inverted-pyramid stories on trends are all eligible, regardless of the gravity of the subject.
Welcome to our new editor Aparna Kishor, who currently works as a postdoc at NHLBI. Our returning editors are myself (Diana Crow, currently interning at Cell Press) Sarah Lewin of Space.com,Amanda Alvarez of the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan, and Atlanta-based freelancer Nola Taylor Redd.
Picks for January–March 2017 are below.
Short Shorts (under 600 words)
[succinct, focused, clear, cool]
- “The Chemical Engineer Who’ll School You on Coffee” by Gregory Barber for Wired
- “A Lucky Lab Accident Results in Bucketloads of Graphene” by Glenn McDonald for Seeker
- “Spinning toy reinvented as low-tech centrifuge” by Devin Powell for Nature News & Comment
- “Cooling to absolute zero mathematically outlawed after a century” by Leah Crane for New Scientist
- “Light ‘sonic boom’ filmed in a single shot for first time” by Angus Bezzina for Cosmos
- “Under a Flashlight, a Eureka Moment About Frogs” by JoAnna Klein for The New York Times
News-style (601–1200 words)
[topical, informative, newspaper-style]
- “A Nevada woman dies of a superbug resistant to every available antibiotic in the US” by Helen Branswell for STAT
- “Buffeted by snow, MBTA workers found a new way forward” by Nicole Dungca for The Boston Globe
- “Zika virus is here to stay. Here’s how California is preparing for that new reality” by Soumya Karlamangla for LA Times
- “A Silent War: The Battle Between Black Women and Fibroids” by Tomika Anderson for Ebony
- “Three patients blinded by stem cell procedure, physicians say” by Sharon Begley for STAT
- “PTSD in black women needs attention, study of South Side group says” by Grace Wong for The Chicago Tribune
Single-Study Deep Dives & Profiles (700–1200 words)
[Insightful, humanizing, focuses on 1 study or 1 scientist]
- “Born Lucky: The Genetics of the Four-Leaf Clover” by Meghan Bartels for Nautilus
- “Scientists are building an animal fart database” by Jason Bittel for The Washington Post
- “This Crab Clones Its Allies by Ripping Them in Half” by Ed Yong for The Atlantic
- “Are We Knitting Too Many Tiny Sweaters for Animals?” by Cara Giaimo for Atlas Obscura
- “Beware Emotional Robots” by Matthew Hutson for Science
- “How listening to the ocean can help reveal environmental damage” by Roberta Kwok for Ensia
- “Maybe Dark Matter Didn’t Kill The Dinosaurs After All” by Ramin Skibba for Now.Space
Data & Investigative Quick-Hits (under 1400 words)
[probing, original, rigorous, bonus points for visuals]
- “From the California Sky, Measuring All That Snow” by Mike McPhate, Derek Watkins, and Jim Wilson for The New York Times
- “USDA removed animal welfare reports from its site. A showhorse lawsuit may be why.” by Karin Brulliard for The Washington Post
- “Earth’s Orbiting Junkyard is Threatening the Space Economy” by Justin Bachman for Bloomberg News
- “Dramatic new discoveries illuminate the lost Indus civilization” by Annalee Newitz for Ars Technica
Columns, Op-Eds, & Blog posts (under 1200 words)
[strong opinion angle, informed, possibly critical, possibly 1st person]
- “‘Girls in STEM’ culture is failing both girls and STEM” by Cleoniki Kesidis for The Toronto Star
- “Remember the People America’s Healthcare System Has Already Killed” by Jason Koebler for Vice Motherboard
- “Can We Trust Science?” by Alva Noë for NPR
- “Leigh Ann Henion Goes Paleo-Tech at the country’s largest primitive skills gathering” by Leigh Ann Henion for Sierra
- “The Legacies of Carrie Fisher and Vera Rubin for Women in Science” by Risa Wechsler for Teen Vogue
[Suggestions sent to us that were too long, too old, and/or in a different language but hard to leave out, anyway.]
- “Meet Diego, the Centenarian Whose Sex Drive Saved His Species” by Nicholas Casey for The New York Times
- “Science is Political” by Maki Naro & Matthew Francis for The Nib
- “Is It Okay to Enjoy the Warm Winters of Climate Change?” by Robinson Meyer for The Atlantic
- “Race, History, and the #ScienceMarch” by Christopher Petrella for Black Perspectives
- “I Work in the Restaurant Industry. Obamacare Saved My Family’s Life” by Allison Robicelli for Eater
- “Why Scientists Are Worried About a Landslide That No One Saw or Heard” by Kit Stoltz for Atlas Obscura
Help Find the Next Batch of Best Shortform Science Writing!
If you liked this list (or if you think that we snubbed a deserving outlet or writer), please send suggestions for the next quarterly “Best” Shortform Science Writing. That post will cover April-June 2017 and will debut in mid-July 2017.
And if you know of any January through March stories we’ve missed, post ’em in the comments below!