Best Shortform Science Writing: July-September 2018
(A Highly Subjective Round-up of Standout Science News)
It happens every cycle.
A piece comes in, and we love it. But when we move it from the “cattle call” spreadsheet to the “long list”, we’re not quite sure how to classify it.
Over time, our categories for stories have become less about length and more about how the stories make us feel. “News & Trends” pieces wow us with their ability to weave science, policy, and personal stories together. “Single Study Deep Dives” take us behind-the-scenes of the latest research. And so on…
But this time around, we had a whole cluster of excellent stories that looked at the back-and-forth behind recent papers and pre-prints. (Examples in this round-up include pieces by Shannon Hall, Dyna Rochmyaningsih, and Ramin Skibba. )
Such pieces reveal science for the lively yet paperwork-laden and highly subjective enterprise that it is. They incorporate elements of investigation, science explaining, and trend reporting. And they’re a vital part of covering science. But are they news? Are they investigative? Or are they a more critical form of the ubiquitous “Science Study of the Day” story?
I’d say they’re kind of all three.
Most standout pieces of science writing accomplish many things at once: the best essays both inform and move us. Trend stories update readers on the latest developments while also incorporating historical tidbits. “Science Study of the Day” stories do double duty as cute animal infotainment and science mystery story. This versatility is part of what makes science writing so compelling as a genre.
But it does make things more difficult when you need to sort stories.
So we’d like to ask you, our readers, for feedback on our category system: Which categories make sense to you and which don’t? Do we need a separate category for evergreen “Explainers” or for “What Went Wrong With This Study?” stories? Do we need categories at all?
Please share your thoughts in the comments!
We received 281 nominations this cycle and narrowed them down to the 50 pieces listed below. (For people counting, that’s a 17.8% acceptance rate.)
About Our Editors
This edition’s editors include: science writer and editor Alex Arreola; digital strategist and nonprofit consultant for MarTech Digital Anne Berlin; science writer Madeline Bodin; freelance writer, video maker, and USCG Licensed Captain Teresa Carey; science writer and copy editor Michael Dhar of Purch/Tech Media Network; 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; freelance science writer Malissa Stark-Rodenburg; and me (science writer Diana Crow).
About the Round-Up Format
The stories are grouped into “Top Picks” and “Honorable Mentions” but are not ranked within those groups. 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 October-December 2018 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.
You can follow the Best Shortform Science Writing Project at @SciShortform on Twitter and on Medium.
Onward to the standout stories!
SHORT SHORT (600 words & under)
- “Wake Up, Opportunity! Engineers Have an Awesome Playlist for NASA’s Sleeping Mars Rover” by Meghan Bartels for SPACE.com
- “There Might Be Shark In Your Sunscreen” by Annie Roth for National Geographic
- “What Dolphin Whistles Tell Us About Grief” by Katarina Zimmer for Hakai Magazine
- “Oldest Tools Outside Africa Found, Rewriting Human Story” by Michael Greshko for National Geographic
- “Astronomers Reveal Two New Candidates For Alien Life” by Bill Retherford for Forbes
- “Hurricanes fell silent as African dust clouded U.S. skies” by Brian K. Sullivan for Bloomberg via The Minneapolis Star Tribune
- “Ssssssssssservice Animals” by Lynne Warren for National Wildlife
NEWS & TRENDS (601–1200 words)
- “Native Tribes are Taking Fire Control Into Their Own Hands” by Mejs Hasan for WIRED
- “Waterkeepers Fight to Save Florida From Toxic Algae” by Rebecca Renner for Sierra
- “How Whale Poop Could Counter Calls to Resume Commercial Hunting” by Mike Shanahan for Scientific American
- “Hurricanes are getting more intense — but should we add a Category 6?” by Mary Beth Griggs for Popular Science
- “Polar Bears Appear Where They Never Were Before” by Cheryl Katz for National Geographic
- “His Longevity Pill Won’t Work For Her” by Karen Weintraub for NEO.LIFE
- “Gassy cows are bad for the planet; could seaweed diet help?” by Patrick Whittle for the Associated Press
SINGLE STUDY DEEP DIVES (601–1200 words)
- “Greenland’s Polar Bear Hunters Face a Climate of Change” by Cheryl Katz for Hakai Magazine
- “A Superconductor Scandal? Scientists Question a Nobel Prize–Worthy Claim” by Shannon Hall for Scientific American
- “The Wonder Plant That Could Slash Fertilizer Use” by Ed Yong for The Atlantic
- “Some of the Pacific Northwest’s Wolves Have Coastal Genes” by Rebecca Heisman for Hakai Magazine
- “To hone its collaborative skills, this AI is taking on the world’s top video game players” by Matthew Hutson for Science
- “When This Rat Went Extinct, So Did a Flea” by John R. Platt for The Revelator
- “Oddball Galaxy Puts Dark Matter Theory to the Test” by Ramin Skibba for Scientific American
INVESTIGATIVE OR DATA QUICK HITS (1400 words & under)
- “Did a study of Indonesian people who spend most of their days under water violate ethical rules?” by Dyna Rochmyaningsih for Science
- “These pits are deadly to birds. But feds won’t penalize oil companies” by Elizabeth Shogren for Reveal News
- “Implicit gender, racial biases may hinder effectiveness of conservation science, experts warn” by Basten Gokkon for Mongabay
- “Here’s How America Uses Its Land” by Dave Merill and Lauren Leatherby for Bloomberg
- “Florence Floodwaters Breach Coal Ash Pond and Imperil Other Toxic Sites” by Kendra Pierre-Louis, Nadja Popovich and Hiroko Tabuchi for The New York Times
- “The EPA Just Put A Top Official On Leave. She Says They’re Trying To “Disappear” A Children’s Health Program.” by Nidhi Subbaraman and Zahra Hirji for Buzzfeed News
COLUMN, OP/ED, OR BLOG POST (1200 words & under)
- “US wildfires: smoke billows and we’re stuck indoors — this is how we live now” by Emma Maris for The Guardian
- “Conservation isn’t winning. Extinction is.” by Erik Vance for The Washington Post
- “Your DNA is Not Your Culture” by Sarah Zhang for The Atlantic
- “Spiders, Poison, and Boiling Water: The Best (and Worst) Ways to Kill Cockroaches” by Jessica Boddy for Gizmodo
- “The science of thunderstorms — thunder, lightning, and chemical reactions” by Andy Brunning for Compound Interest
- “VOCs are in the air” by Chloé Schmidt for Pineapples and Whales
ESSAYS & LITERARY SCIENCE WRITING (1600 words & under)
- “A Queer Love Story at the Bottom of the Sea” by Sabrina Imbler for Catapult
- “A Total Solar Eclipse Is Visible from Any Given Point on Earth Once Every 375 Years, on Average” by Catherine Pierce for River Teeth
- “Dear Cassini: Why the Saturn Spacecraft Brings Me to Tears” by Shannon Stirone for National Geographic
- “How the Immortal Jellyfish Helps Me Rewrite My Queer Childhood” by Sabrina Imbler for Catapult
- “Downpour in a dry land” by Krista Langlois for Last Word on Nothing
- “Confessions of an accidental job destroyer” by Erin Winick for MIT Technology Review
INSTITUTIONAL (1200 words & under)
- “The LHC’s computing revolution” by Sarah Charley for Symmetry
- “Nature and Knowledge at Our Doorstep” by Elaina Hancock for UConn
- “Mapping the ocean with marine robots” by Jacob Williamson-Rea for Penn Today
- “To Improve Auto Coatings, New Tests Do More Than Scratch the Surface” by Michael E. Newman for NIST
- “National parks bear the brunt of climate change” by Kara Manke for Berkeley News
- “Lawnmower injuries are serious and costly” by Chanapa Tantibanchachai for Johns Hopkins via Futurity
HONORABLE MISFITS (over-length, in a different language, or just plain hard to classify)
- “The War on Soy Milk” by Emily Atkin for The New Republic
- “Seeking a scientific explanation for trans identity could do more harm than good” by Alex Barasch for The Washington Post
- “European Union debates controversial plans to limit cadmium in fertilizer” by Natasha Gilbert for ScienceInsider
- “Beavers Are the Ultimate Ecosystem Engineers” by Ben Goldfarb for Sierra
- “Cracked River” by Paul Salopek for National Geographic
And those are our picks for July-September 2018!
If you have stories you would like to nominate for the October-December 2018 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 for the October-December cycle, contact Diana at email@example.com.
Check back with us in January for the next round-up!