Best Shortform Science Writing: January-March 2018
(A Highly Subjective Round-Up of Standout Science Writing)
After nearly a year away, the Best Shortform Science Writing Project is back with a new round-up of stand-out science stories.
Why return now? The simple fact is: I missed putting together the @SciShortform list. Daily news stories, front-of-book infographics, and blog posts remain among the most prevalent forms of science writing, and I missed having a forum dedicated to discussing them.
Assembling this list entailed a lot of spirited discussion about what makes an article excellent. Most would agree that reporting, narrative structure, readability, choice of topic and angle, fact checking, and writing flair are all important, but how much weight should each of those factors carry in choosing a list of stand-outs?
There’s no right answer to that question, but hearing different people’s answers is always interesting. (We hope you’ll share your take in the comments.)
This cycle’s editors read through about 250(!) pieces and narrowed them down to the thirty-odd pieces included here.
This edition’s editors include: science writer Jimmy Brancho, PhD, of University of Michigan; graduate student Jess Hudgins, currently working with Sharks and Rays Australia; writer, newsletter editor, and digital strategist Lauren Hudgins, MFA; NIH postdoc Aparna Kishor, MD, PhD; Center for Cancer Research Fellow Christina Ross, PhD; Massive Science contributor and Carnegie Mellon postdoc Dan Samorodnitsky, PhD; science writer and editor Beth Skwarecki of Lifehacker; science writer Rachel K. Spurrier; and me (science writer Diana Crow).
As always, our selection is highly subjective and driven by serendipity and whoever decides to send suggestions via our crowdsourced nomination/submission form. The form for the April-June is here.
The stories are grouped into “Top Picks” and “Honorable Mentions” but are not ranked within those groups. Instead, the stories are in alphabetical order by the author’s last name.
Anyone interested in our selection criteria can check out our rubric here.
If we’ve left out short piece that you adored, please share them in the comments.
You can follow the Best Shortform Science Writing Project at @SciShortform on Twitter and on Medium.
Onward to the standout stories!
Best Shortform Science Writing: January-March 2018
Short Shorts (600 words & under)
- “Arctic Birds Carry Signs of an “Atlantifying” Ocean” by Cheryl Katz for Hakai
- “Climate Change Is Good for These Crabs’ Genitals” by Amorina Kingdon by Hakai (Lauren’s Favorite: “I adored “Climate Change Is Good for These Crabs’ Genitals” by Amorina Kingdon. Who could resist a title about crustacean sexy bits and unexpected “benefits” of climate change? Kingdon uses the topic of crabs having genital parasites (or rather no longer having those parasites as the ocean warms) as a lead in to the bigger picture of climate change research. While food-web collapse is a common area of study, Kingdon highlights the necessity of exploring the overlooked effect of climate change on parasite/host relationships. Brilliant leveraging of audience attention.”)
- “Casting a $20 Million Mirror for the World’s Largest Telescope” by Celia Gorman for IEEE Spectrum
- “Why Scientists Should Do It in the Dark” by Amorina Kingdon for Hakai
- “A biotech CEO explains why he injected himself with a DIY herpes treatment on Facebook Live” by Emily Mullin for MIT Tech Review
- “Dawn Spacecraft Shines Light On Shrouded Dwarf Planet” by Bill Retherford for Forbes
News & Trends (601–1200 words)
- “There Have Been a Lot of Earthquakes Lately. Don’t Panic.” by Jacqueline Ronson for The Daily Beast
- “Olympic Big Air Snowboarders Use Physics to Their Advantage” by Ramin Skibba for Scientific American
- “So You Might Actually Not Be Allergic to Penicillin” by Jeanette Beebe for The Daily Beast
- “Puerto Rico is taking a big step toward revamping how it gets power — and it could be a model for the rest of the US” by Erin Brodwin for Business Insider
- “Does “Raw Water” Provide Probiotic Health Benefits?” by Alex Kasprak for Snopes
- “The Surprising Ways Tigers Benefit Farmers and Livestock Owners” by John R. Platt for The Revelator
Single Study Deep Dives & Profiles (700–1200 words)
- “Universe’s First Stars Detected? Get the Facts.” by Nadia Drake for National Geographic
- “How to Survive Being Swallowed by Another Animal” by Ed Yong for The Atlantic
- Correction: Because we initially misread the date, Marina Koren’s “Why Women Weren’t Allowed to Be Astronauts” has been moved to the Honorable Misfits. We apologize for the error.
- “Explore the Cave Where Mysterious Human Ancestor Homo Naledi Was Discovered in Live Broadcasts From South Africa” by Meghan Bartels for Newsweek
- “Sooty Feathers Tell the History of Pollution in American Cities” by Alex Furuya for Audubon
- “Will There Ever Be an Anglerfish Emoji?” by Cara Giaimo for Atlas Obscura
- “At an Underground Harvard Lizard Colony, Scientists Study Speciation” by Geoffrey Giller for Atlas Obscura
Columns, Op/Eds, and Blog posts (601–1200 words)
- “Firefly Forest” by Vanessa Gregory for Orion
- “Will America yield its position as the world’s leader in science and technology?” by Eric Lander for The Boston Globe
- “New lungs could help my patient live. She also needed people to surround her.” by Daniela Lamas for STAT
- “Retrosynthesis: Here It Comes” by Derek Lowe for Science
- “Don’t fear germs — at least not too much” by Jennifer Tsang for Massive Science
Data & Investigative (601–1400 words, uses infographics and/or investigative techniques)
- “Anyone Can Now Take This Breast Cancer Gene Test, But It Probably Won’t Tell You Much” by Christie Aschwanden for FiveThirtyEight
- “Billions of birds migrate. Where do they go?” By Marshall Iliff, Rachel Shea, Brian T. Jacobs, Lauren E. James, et al. for National Geographic (Diana’s Favorite: “Wow! An enormous amount of work went into assembling this gorgeous and informative interactive, and it really shows. The slideshows that show where the birds were spotted on each date work especially well. The prose isn’t flashy, it’s worth noting that writing so clearly in so few words is quite difficult…Pieces like this one are the reason we have this category.”)
- “Gone With A Shot? Hopeful New Signs Of Relief For Migraine Sufferers” by Lauren Gravitz for NPR
- “Sex harassment can make victims physically sick, studies reveal” by William Wan for The Washington Post
Honorable Misfits/ Not Sure
[for pieces we loved that were over our word count cut-offs, published outside the time window, in a foreign language, or just hard to classify]
- “Can AI solve the internet’s fake news problem? A fact-checker investigates.” by Brooke Borel for Popular Science
- “No Happy Ending for the Vaquita” by Sarah Gilman for Hakai (Jess’ Favorite: “A wonderful investigation into the last ditch attempts to save one of the world’s smallest cetaceans. Professionally detached and yet it remains an emotionally challenging read.”)
- “This ancient catastrophe is our best clue about Earth’s future” by Sarah Kaplan for The Washington Post
- “Why Women Weren’t Allowed to Be Astronauts” by Marina Koren for The Atlantic
- “Meet the Woman Who Guides NASA’s Juno Probe Through Jupiter’s Killer Radiation” by Ryan Mandelbaum for Gizmodo
- “Medicine’s Long Thin Supply Chain” by Maryn McKenna for WIRED
- “A startup is pitching a mind-uploading service that is ‘100 percent fatal’” by Antonio Regalado for MIT Tech Review