Best Shortform Science Writing: January-March 2019

A computer-generated portrait of the Opportunity Rover. Image by NASA/JPL-Solar System Visualization Team via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

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!

Statistics

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.

A SpaceX rocket takes flight amidst fire and smoke. Photo by 13ericralph31 via Flickr & Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Short Shorts (600 words & under)

Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

Flood damage after a bomb cyclone struck the Midwest could have a devastating effect on farms. Photo by Bill Luckey/USDA (public domain)

News & Trends (601–1200 words)

Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

The supernova remnant Simeis 147 lingers long after the death of a star. Image by Davide De Martin & the ESA/ESO/NASA Photoshop FITS Liberator via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

Single Study Deep Dives & Profiles (601–1200 words)

Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

The longest-ever U.S. government shutdown may have done lasting damage to Joshua Tree National Park. Photo by bmiller1710 via Flickr & Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Data or Investigative (under 1400 words)

Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

Artist Ron Miller’s evocative extraterrestrial scenes have graced many a NASA presentation and sparked many imaginations. Artwork by Ron Miller/NASAblueshift via Wikimedia Commons

Columns, Op/Eds, & Blog Posts (under 1200 words)

Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

A verdant scene from Malheur National Forest. Photo by US Forest Service-Pacific Northwest via Flickr (public domain)

Essays & Literary (under 1400 words)

Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

Two halves of the fungus Spongiform squarepantsii. The specimens were harvested from Lambir Hills National Parkl in Borneo, Malaysia. Photo by Tom Bruns via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-3.0)

Institutional (under 1200 words)

Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

Honeybees are facing a new threat from the pesticide dicamba. Photo by Joy 蝴蝶 via Flickr (CC BY-2.0)

Honorable Misfits (pieces that didn’t quite fit any of our categories)

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 diana@dianacrowscience.com.

Check back with us in early August for the next round-up!