Best Shortform Science Writing: January-March 2019
One of my favorite parts of being a science writer is watching live-tweets of rocket launches and space probe landings. It should get old, but it never does.
Major launches and landings are kind of like science writing’s Superbowls and World Cups. Even for those of us that cover other beats, key NASA press conferences are moments when we gather on Twitter, partake in snappy commentary, and marvel at what humans can accomplish (often with a few astute criticisms sprinkled in).
NASA missions tend to become landmarks in the collective science writing memory in a way that even Nobel-Prize-winning discoveries in other fields usually don’t. Both the beginnings and the endings of these missions stay with us.
I start on this note because the time span this round-up covers — January through March 2019 — includes the end of the era-defining Opportunity mission. The “little rover that could” surveyed the red planet for nearly 15 years and was a fixture of science news. The day NASA announced the mission’s end, my feeds flooded with bittersweet tweets from emotional science writers, many of whom had literally been covering Opportunity for their entire careers.
It got me thinking about this project and how, although our primary aim is to recognize outstanding science writing, these round-ups often double as time capsules.
Even though we only ended up including one Opportunity piece in the final round-up, I’ll always remember this round-up as the #RIPOppy one.
But, of course, we’ve got loads of great science stories to recommend. We hope you enjoy this edition of Best Shortform Science Writing!
We received 198 nominations this cycle and narrowed them down to the 50 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: science writer and editor Alex Arreola; science writer and copy editor Michael Dhar of Purch/Tech Media Network; life sciences researcher Kaberi Datta, PhD, of University of Calcutta; Heriot-Watt University MPhil graduate student Jess Hudgins, currently working with Sharks and Rays Australia; writer and digital strategist Lauren Hudgins, MFA; NIH postdoc Aparna Kishor, MD, PhD; science writer Stephen Riffle, PhD, of Helix; 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 April-June 2019 is here.
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.
Short Shorts (600 words & under)
- “Stopping Marine Roadkill” by Gemma Conroy for Hakai Magazine
- “First private mission to the moon is launched on SpaceX rocket” by Leah Crane for New Scientist
- “Overrun with cockroaches? Don’t bother with bug bombs” by Tien Nguyen for Chemical & Engineering News
- “And You Thought the Platypus Was Odd” by Nicholas St. Fleur for The New York Times
- “Floating seabirds provide a novel way to trace ocean currents” by Jeremy Rehm for Science News
- “What Happens to Fish After a Wildfire?” by Starre Vartan for Hakai Magazine
- “Quantum teleportation is real, but it’s not what you think” by Matthew R. Francis for Popular Science
News & Trends (601–1200 words)
- “In Florida, Doctors See Climate Change Hurting Their Most Vulnerable Patients” by Ian Stewart & Lulu Garcia-Navarro for NPR
- “Violent drug cartels stifle Mexican science” by Emiliano Rodriguez Mega for Nature News & Comment
- “Farmers in the MidWest Face Decades of Recovery as Flooding Strips Away Soil” by Brian Kahn for Earther
- “These people do not exist. Why websites are churning out fake images of people (and cats)” by Rachel Metz for CNN
- “Mixing it up in the web of life” by Rodrigo Pérez Ortega for Knowable Magazine
- “A fertility app bills itself as contraception, raising questions about marketing and efficacy” by Kate Sheridan for STAT News
- “Steam-powered spacecraft could jump-start asteroid exploration” by Erin Winick for MIT Technology Review
Single Study Deep Dives & Profiles (601–1200 words)
- “How Nearby Stellar Explosions Could Have Killed Off Large Animals” by Rebecca Boyle for Quanta Magazine
- “Here’s what happens when your body tissues turn to bone” by Jen Pinkowski for National Geographic
- “Around the world, miles of rock are missing. Could ‘Snowball Earth’ be the culprit?” by Julia Rosen for the Los Angeles Times
- “This Woman Can Smell Parkinson’s. It Might Help Lead To Earlier Treatment” by Anna Groves for Discover
- “What’s Up With the Weird Mouths of These Finch Chicks?” by Shweta Karikehalli for Audubon
- “Dogs Detect the Scent of Seizures” by Emily Willingham for Scientific American
Data or Investigative (under 1400 words)
- “Baltimore launches live map of sewage pollution — and temporarily stops alerting the public to contamination” by Scott Dance for The Baltimore Sun
- “The shutdown is over. Can Joshua Tree recover?” by Katharine Gammon for The Guardian
- “Sports Science Is Finally Talking About Its Methodology Problems” by Christie Aschwanden for FiveThirtyEight
- “FDA Kept Hundreds of Thousands of Breast Implant Incidents Hidden From Public” by Sasha Chavkin for International Consortium of Investigative Journalists
- “Colonialists are Coming for Blood — Literally” by Maryn McKenna for WIRED
- “Genetic tests reveal that the ancestry of some cancer cell lines is misclassified” by Tien Nguyen for Chemical & Engineering News
- “As shutdown drags on, scientists scramble to keep insects, plants and microbes alive” by Julia Rosen for the Los Angeles Times
Columns, Op/Eds, & Blog Posts (under 1200 words)
- Why Good Politics And Good Climate Science Don’t Mix” by Maggie Koerth-Baker for FiveThirtyEight
- “Alien Worlds, Extraterrestrial Life: Space Artist Sketches The Cosmos” by Bill Retherford for Forbes
- “The Subtle Seduction of the ‘Warm’ in Global Warming” by Julia Sklar for Undark Magazine
- “Science Gear Doesn’t Fit Women on Earth, Either” by Shannon Palus for Slate
- “The Shutdown Is Proof: Everyone Thinks Their Dog Is Special” by Heather Smith for Sierra
Essays & Literary (under 1400 words)
- “Strawberries in the blast zone” by Sarah Gilman for Last Word on Nothing
- “In Oregon, a mysterious tree grove conjures a colder time” (aka “Arboreal Erratic”) by Sarah Gilman for High Country News
- “A Gathering of Elk” by Melissa L. Sevigny for the City Creatures blog (Center for Humans & Nature)
- “Fracking Sacred Ground” by Elizabeth Miller for Orion
- “They show sea life on the seashore” by Richa Malhotra for Mongabay
Institutional (under 1200 words)
- “Blowing the Doors Off the Microbial World” by Lisa Marshall for Coloradan Alumni Magazine
- “Science Up-Close: Developing a Cookbook for Efficient Fusion Energy” by Shannon Brescher Shea for U.S. Department of Energy
- “The farmer physicist” by Sarah Charley for Symmetry
- “The Namesmith” by Patrick Monahan for SF State News
- “Illinois study identifies a key to soybean cyst nematode growth” by Lauren Quinn for University of Illinois via EurekAlert
Honorable Misfits (pieces that didn’t quite fit any of our categories)
- “Opportunity did not answer NASA’s final call, and it’s now lost to us” by Eric Berger for Ars Technica
- “Why the Future of Life Insurance May Depend on Your Online Presence” by Angela Chen for The Verge
- “A Trip Back In Time” by Vivien Cumming for Up Here
- “Bees face yet another lethal threat in dicamba, a drift-prone pesticide” by Liza Gross for Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting
- Gliders Reveal Tango Between Hurricanes and the Gulf Stream” by Evan Lubofsky for Oceanus Magazine (WHOI)
- “Ten Years Later: The Cosmos Remembers Brian the Bat” by Ian O’Neill for AstroEngine News
- “Oil and Water” by Elizabeth Whitman for Harper’s
- “Lonely George the tree snail dies, and a species goes extinct” by Christie Wilcox for National Geographic
And those are our picks for January-March 2019!
If you have stories you would like to nominate for the April-June 2019 round-up, you can do through this form or by tagging @SciShortform on Twitter with a link to the piece.
We are currently looking for 2–3 new editors to join us. If interested, contact Diana at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check back with us in early August for the next round-up!