Best Shortform Science Writing: July-December 2020
Putting together SciShortform round-ups often feels like packing a time capsule. The stories we include highlight emerging voices and unsung (or, at least, underappreciated) voices in science communication, but they also reflect the headlines and curiosities that continued to resonate with SciShortform’s volunteers when we read and re-read these pieces months after their initial publication.
Assembling a list of science news articles to represent a year defined by science news stories heightened the “time capsule” feeling.
I don’t know if we succeeded, but I do think this edition of SciShortform is one of the strongest round-ups to date. Please enjoy these stories, and please continue to celebrate the science writing community.
Altogether, we received 438 nominations for this cycle and narrowed them down to about 215 finalist pieces.
Overall, we faced one of the strongest pools of finalist pieces in SciShortform’s history, and, during our editorial deliberations, there were an unprecedented number of “brutal” and “painful” cuts as we whittled down the finalists to the 62 pieces below.
All of these pieces had to survive two rounds of selection and SciShortform editors.
If you submitted something that did not make the final cut, please continue submitting pieces for future cycles. The form for the 2021 January-June cycle is here!
This edition’s editors include: PhD Candidate Matthew de Gannes of University of Cincinnati; environmental writer Jennifer Junghans; postdoc Aparna Kishor, MD, PhD; Silke Kramprich of Laser Zentrum Hannover; science writer Andrew Meissen; freelance science writer Stephen Riffle, PhD; freelance science writer Caroline Seydel; science writer and retired teacher Elliot Richman, PhD; biology grad student Madhuri Srinivasan; 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 to freelance science writer Courtney Columbus and graduate student Kiran Gurung of University of Groningen, who have been assisting us in the preparation of grant applications and outreach to other organizations.
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 2021 January-June round-up here.
Anyone interested in our selection criteria can check out our rubric here.
Pandemic, Part 2 (1600 words & under)
This round-up coincided with the pandemic’s long, tortuous middle. Here were a few of the most memorable COVID-related pieces from July 2020 through December 2020.
- “What the Dippin’ Dots ‘cold chain’ can teach us about COVID-19 vaccines” by Maddie Bender for Popular Science
- “Why Covid-19 Patients Are Suffering From Distorted and Phantom Smells” by Stephanie Feuer for Smithsonian Magazine
- “Some Covid Survivors Have Antibodies That Attack the Body, not Virus” by Apoorva Mandavilli for The New York Times
- “California’s San Quentin prison declined free coronavirus tests and urgent advice — now it has a massive outbreak” by Amy Maxmen for Nature: News & Comment
- “Whipped by the ‘Long Tail’ of the Coronavirus” by Jodie Noel Vinson for The New York Times
- “What July 4th Means to a Sudanese Refugee and Paramedic on the Frontlines of Covid-19” by Rasha Abdallah for Ebony
- “How does Pfizer’s “90% effective” COVID-19 vaccine work?” by Brittney G. Borowiec for Massive Science
- “Coronavirus and the Flu: A Looming Double Threat” by Marla Broadfoot for Scientific American
- “Covid-19 death skepticism, explained by a cognitive scientist” by Alan Jern for Vox
- “C.D.C. Testing Guidance Was Published Against Scientists’ Objections” by Apoorva Mandavilli for The New York Times
Short Shorts (600 words & under)
Condensing scientific research into ultra-short blurbs poses a unique set of challenges. Here we recognize writers for their ability to concisely convey nuance, while also telling a good yarn. These picks are ordered alphabetically by the author’s last name.
- “Water beetles can live on after being eaten and excreted by a frog” by Jonathan Lambert for Science News
- “The Matador in Your Fish Tank” by Richard Sima for Scientific American
- “‘Worm and Ladders’ game cuts infection rate in kids” by Francis Kokutse for SciDevNet
- “This parasitic plant eavesdrops on its host to know when to flower” by Jonathan Lambert for Science News
- “Perpetual Fertility” by Stephenie Livingston for Scientific American
News, Investigative, or Data (601–1400 words)
We’ve merged our “News & Trends” and “Data or Investigative” categories into one category. Pieces in this category often synthesize information from many scientific reports, explore local issues through a science lens, use data or FOIA requests to substantiate their stories, and, above all, display serious reporting chops.
- “Math of the Penguins” by Susan D’Agostino for Quanta
- “What is a cytokine storm?” by Amber Dance for Knowable Magazine
- “He Was a Stick, She Was a Leaf; Together They Made History” by Sabrina Imbler for The New York Times
- “Psychology’s replication crisis inspires ecologists to push for more reliable research” by Cathleen O’Grady for Science
- “Why the ‘Super Weird’ Moons of Mars Fascinate Scientists” by Robin George Andrews for The New York Times
- “The Harmful Chemical Lurking in Your Children’s Toys” by Liza Gross for The New York Times
- “Kill Your Gas Stove” by Sabrina Imbler for The Atlantic
- “‘Apocalyptic’ fires are ravaging the world’s largest tropical wetland” by Emiliano Rodríguez Mega for Nature News & Comment
- “Protesters Say Tear Gas Caused Them to Get Their Period Multiple Times in a Month” by Cecilia Nowell for Teen Vogue
- “Sharks Wash Up on Beaches, Stabbed by Swordfish” by Josh Sokol for The New York Times
- “The Hawaiian Crow Is Once Again Extinct in the Wild” by Kim Steutermann Rogers for Audubon
- “Whales Get A Break As Pandemic Creates Quieter Oceans” by Lauren Sommer for NPR
- “The fragile state of contact languages” by John Wenz for Knowable Magazine
Single Study Deep Dives & Profiles (601–1200 words)
These reported stories zoom in on one study, one scientist, or one healthcare practitioner and bring their worlds to life with compelling prose and behind-the-scenes insight.
- “A Disturbing Twinkie That Has, So Far, Defied Science” by Nell Greenfieldboyce for NPR
- “Who Will Save the Slender Yoke Moss?” by Sabrina Imbler for Hakai Magazine
- “This Moss Uses Quartz as a Parasol” by Sabrina Imbler for The New York Times
- “When the Otters Vanished, Everything Else Started to Crumble” by Katherine J. Wu for The New York Times
- “Ancient people may have survived desert droughts by melting ice in lava tubes” by Rachel Fritts for Science News
- “How Do Stressed-Out Corals Smell?” by Jessica Leigh Hester for Atlas Obscura
- “Rachana’s pursuit of the oldest stars in the universe” by Debdutta Paul for The Life of Science
- “Glistening Glass Sculptures in the Desert Explore Bird Molt and Gender Transition” by Hellen Santoro for Audubon
- “Invasive keyhole wasp builds nests in aircraft instruments, may pose ‘significant risk’ to air safety” by Belinda Smith for ABC Science (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
- “Why Are Pandas Covering Themselves With Horse Manure?” by Katherine J. Wu for The New York Times
- “How the Ultimate Live-in Boyfriend Evolved His Way Around Rejection” by Katherine J. Wu for The New York Times
Columns, Essays, Blog Posts, and Editorials (1400 words & under)
We’ve merged the “Columns, Op/Eds, and Blogs” with the “Essays and Literary” to create one category, full of compelling arguments and evocative personal narratives.
- “Why Do Some Mathematicians Think They’re Poets?” by Susan D’Agostino for Literary Hub
- “Encountering an Alien on a Point Reyes Beach” by Elyse DeFranco for Bay Nature Magazine
- “Trans. Visible. Unapologetic.” by Teddy G. Goetz for Sister
- “A Pandemic, a Cancer Diagnosis, and a Year List Like No Other” by Rebecca Heisman for Audubon
- “Why I’ve struggled with the pressure to assimilate when teaching” by Montrai Spikes for Science Careers
- “In Bolivia, a Model for Indigenous Groups Grappling With Covid-19” by Allessandra DiCorato for Undark
- “Physics in a second language” by Meredith Fore for Symmetry
- “Climate Change Erasing the Face of the North” by Cheryl Katz (Essay is on pg. 12–13)
- “How Getting Vaccinated Will (and Won’t) Change My Behavior” by Dhruv Khullar for The New Yorker
- “Walking Sharks: What a New Scientific Discovery Means — and What It Doesn’t Mean” by David Shiffman for Scuba Diving
- “Escaping through a predator’s butt is a common strategy for prey” by Sahana Sitaraman for Massive Science
Institutional (1200 words & under)
This category recognizes stories by science writers who work for institutions, such as Public Information Officers (PIOs) and contributors to university magazines. It can also include pieces written for official outreach blogs and for scientific journals.
- “The Smellicopter is an obstacle-avoiding drone that uses a live moth antenna to seek out smells” by Sarah McQuate for UW News
- “Parking the LHC proton train” by Zack Savitsky for Symmetry Magazine
- “Fishing for data: Sensors on crab pots find dead zones in near real-time” by Nancy Steinberg for Oregon Stater
- “Arctic Animals’ Movement Patterns are Shifting in Different Ways as the Climate Changes” by Sofie Bates for NASA
- “Lubricating the Path Toward Space Exploration” by Shi En Kim for MSU Scicomm Voices Blog
- “Why the Brain Loves Stories” by Calli McMurray for Society for Neuroscience
This is the category where we put pieces we loved that were either a little bit too long, too old, or hard to directly compare to other stories. Regardless, we loved these pieces. Enjoy!
- “There’s little evidence showing which police reforms work” by Sujata Gupta for Science News
- “Energy from (almost) nothing: a review of polymer-based nanogenerator technology” by Pip Knight for BlueSci
- “Yes, the Coronavirus Is in the Air” by Linsey C. Marr for The New York Times
- “The origin of mud” by Laura Poppick for Knowable Magazine
- “Despite what the logging industry says, cutting down trees isn’t stopping catastrophic wildfires” by Tony Shick & Jes Burns for Oregon Public Broadcasting
- “COVID-19 case clusters offer lessons and warnings for reopening” by Helen Thompson for Science News
And those are our picks for July through December 2020!
What pieces would you have included? Sound off in the responses!