Best Shortform Science Writing: July-September 2019
(A Highly Subjective Round-Up of Standout Science Writing)
Somehow, 2019 is already nearly over.
For SciShortform, it’s been a year of growth. Fueled by our growing audience and a Peggy Girshman Idea Grant from the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), we’ve branched out into publishing Q&As where science writers share the stories behind their work and have nearly doubled our roster of volunteers.
We’re also approaching the end of a decade marked by intensifying debate over climate, health, and technology policies. It’s a cliché at this point, but science writers have more to write about and more urgent reasons to reach new audiences than ever before.
The landscape of science writing itself has changed in the past decade, too. Dozens of science-focused webzines — such as Hakai, STAT, Quanta, Knowable, Aeon, SAPIENS, bioGraphic, Mosaic, Undark, The Revelator, NEO.LIFE, and many more — have launched just in the past 10 years and gone on to publish some of the highest caliber science writing around. Initiatives like ComSciCon and Massive Science have created fresh opportunities for scientists learn science writing through doing, and the indefatigable The Open Notebook has made a topnotch education in the craft and business of science writing freely available to everyone with an internet connection.
Watching the science writing community grow in the past few years has been a hell of a ride. Here at SciShortform, we’re just one small piece of vibrant community, but our goal has always been to curate lists of articles that reflect the range of voices, topics, styles, and venues that make up the science writing community.
At the risk of being cheesy, we’re thankful for you (our audience, most of whom are science writers) and the vital work of telling stories about climate, health, and scientific discovery that you continue to do.
Anyway, here are some of our favorite short science pieces that came out in July, August, and September of 2019!
We received 296 nominations this cycle and narrowed them down to the 49 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.
This edition’s editors include: science writer Nina Bai of UCSF; Anne Berlin, who is Senior Manager of Digital Experience & SEO at Kaplan Higher Education; science writing lecturer Jimmy Brancho, PhD, of University of Michigan; science writer and copy editor Michael Dhar of Future; life sciences researcher Kaberi Datta, PhD, of University of Calcutta; freelance science writer Natasha Gilbert; award-winning independent journalist Cheryl Katz; postdoc Aparna Kishor, MD, PhD; science writer Stephen Riffle, PhD; freelance science writer Caroline Seydel; graduate student Vanessa Vieites of Florida International University; and me (freelance science writer Diana Crow).
Special thanks to NYU SHERP graduate student Dani Leviss, who has been managing our social media. And to 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
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 October-December 2019 is here.
Anyone interested in our selection criteria can check out our rubric here.
SHORT SHORTS (under 600 words)
- “A New Old Way To Combat Toxic Algae: Float It Up, Then Skim It Off” by Greg Allen for NPR
- “Designer Protein Acts as a Switch for Cellular Circuitry” by Nicoletta Lanese for The Scientist
- “The Baltic Sea Is Nearly Free of (Some) Chernobyl Radiation” by Jessica Haapkylä for Hakai Magazine
- “Meteotsunami Spotted for the First Time in the Persian Gulf” by Katherine Kornei for Eos
- “Clumps of cells in the lab spontaneously formed brain waves” by Laura Sanders for Science News
- “What Nut-Eating Gorillas in Gabon Mean for Human Evolution” by Isaac Schultz for Atlas Obscura
- “A fungus makes a chemical that neutralizes the stench of skunk spray” by Carolyn Wilke for Science News
NEWS & TRENDS (601–1200 words)
- “Koalas might need fecal transplants to survive on our planet” by Jason Bittel for The Washington Post
- “To Make Two Black Holes Collide, Try Three” by Erika K. Carlson for Quanta Magazine
- “Mountain goat eradication is a high-flying balancing act in Olympic National Park” by Wudan Yan for High Country News
- “Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples Have Long United Against Deforestation” by Jill Langlois for Yes! Magazine
- “Google Is Promoting Climate Change Denialism On Its Apps And Mobile Homepage” by Zahra Hirji and Ryan Mac for Buzzfeed News
- “This young scientist studies wild animals. Bias against disability won’t stop her.” by Vicky Stein for PBS Newshour
- “Do You Really Need a Sunscreen With Blue Light Protection?” by Sarah Wells for Gizmodo
SINGLE STUDY DEEP DIVES (601–1200 words)
- “Bones pulled from the La Brea Tar Pits show the perils of being a picky eater” by Stephanie DeMarco for The Los Angeles Times
- “Tardigrades, the toughest animals on Earth, have crash-landed on the moon” by Brian Resnick for Vox
- “Now There are Genetic Counselors for Mental Illness” by Erika Stallings for Elemental
- “An Italian Volcano Turned Out to Be a Fraud” by Robin George Andrews for The Atlantic
- “This $30 Device Turns the Cold of Outer Space Into Renewable Energy” by Maddie Bender for Motherboard by VICE
- “This Bee Gets Punched by Flowers for Your Ice Cream” by Gabriela Quirós for KQED
- “Quivering bird eggs prep each other for predators before they hatch” by Katherine J. Wu for Nova Next
DATA OR INVESTIGATIVE (1400 words & under)
- “HOW OHIO’S CHAMBER OF COMMERCE KILLED AN ANTI-POLLUTION BILL OF RIGHTS” by H. Claire Brown for The Intercept
- “Should Black People Wear Sunscreen?” by Kendra Pierre-Louis for The New York Times
- “Influential US scientist under fire for Xinjiang links” by Charles Rollet for .coda
- “Can you spot the duplicates? Critics say these photos of lionfish point to fraud” by Martin Enserink for Science
- “Chinese scientists facing greater scrutiny by United States” by Deirdre Fernandes for the Boston Globe
- “Obesity Plagues Hispanics and Blacks In Colorado, Nation’s ‘Healthiest’ State” by Markian Hawryluk for Kaiser Health News
- “Drilling into the DEA’s pain pill database” by The Washington Post
COLUMNS, OP/EDS, AND BLOG POSTS (1200 words & under)
- “Failure to Condemn: A Global Health Crisis Targeting Women Affects Us Here” by Qanta Ahmed for Scientific American
- “No, Bringing Back Mental Institutions Won’t Stop Mass Shootings” by Maggie Koerth for FiveThirtyEight
- “Earth’s Hottest Month Lights a Fire for Progress” by John R. Platt for The Revelator
- “Was Ahab Truly “Lord of the Level Loadstone”?” by Dan Dorritie for Eos
- “Neurons and cancer cells are a dangerous duo” by Claudia Lopez-Lloreda for Massive Science
- “Satellite crashes will plague us unless we manage space traffic better” by Neel V. Patel for MIT Tech Review
ESSAYS & LITERARY (1400 words & under)
- “Shout out to the birds of my everyday epic” by Kimberly Ruffin for City Creatures blog from the Center for Humans and Nature
- “Dehorning the Rhino” by Daniel Hudon for The Revelator
- “Teaching My Daughter to Love Nature, One Bite at a Time” by Amanda Giracca for Sierra
- “Do Not Be Ashamed of Your Easy Tears” by Emma Marris for Last Word on Nothing
- “How a Student’s Panic Attack Changed My Approach to Teaching” by Roshini Ramachandran for Science
- “The Nihilistic Euphoria of the Fish Tube” by Rachel Riederer for The New Yorker
INSTITUTIONAL (1200 words & under)
- “A red oak live tweets climate change” by Nate Herpich for The Harvard Gazette
- “Massless particles can’t be stopped” by Madeleine O’Keefe for Symmetry
- “The 9 percent difference” by Jessica Atlee for Symmetry
- “This Smithsonian scientist is on a mission to make leeches less scary” by Erin I. Garcia de Jesus for Smithsonian Voices
- “How do you toast a gene therapy trial? With tea.” by Teresa Carey for NHGRI
- “Feral pigs are ruining ecosystems across 35 states and hunting is making it worse” by Ula Chrobak for Popular Science
- “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Greta Thunberg” by Osita Nwanevu for The New Republic
- “Waiting for an undersea robot in Antarctica to call home” by Jennifer Walsh for The Conversation
- “DNA reveals first look at enigmatic human relative” by Maya Wei-Haas for National Geographic
- “A cliff collapse. Three deaths. More bluff failures expected with rising seas” by Rosanna Xia for The Los Angeles Times