20 SEPTEMBER, 2012
By: Maria Popova
A far more brilliant and necessary idea than it first appears.
At first, the idea of publishing some of the web’s finest journalism in a print book might seem counterintuitive, if not downright absurd — after all, half the beauty of online journalism is the magical Rube Goldberg machine of references, strung together via hyperlinks that offer riffs and context without the cumbersome expository bulk of text. So what happens when you strip the writing of its linked context, of the dynamism of hypertext, and confine it to the static printed page?
In The Best Science Writing Online 2012 (public library), editors Bora Zivkovic and Jennifer Ouellette demonstrate precisely what happens — and it’s something rather curious and whimsical.
Once you’re able to get past seemingly anachronistic footnotes awkwardly compensating for the linklessness, you find yourself immersed in the writing in a way that the web’s blinking, demanding, ad-infested pages never quite allow. But, most importantly, you begin to see connections between critical issues, to understand how things fit together and why, as Charles Eames once observed, “the quality of the connections is the key to quality per se.” And therein lies the magic of the anthology’s thoughtful curation — a potent mix of critical analyses, witty personal reflections, absorbing feature profiles, illuminating commentary on the intersection of science and social policy, and even long-form investigative journalism, covering everything from the last space shuttle launch to fluid dynamics to gender politics.
In “The Renaissance Man,” the inimitable Ed Yong shows us that rigorous science journalism and exquisite long-form feature profiles can coexist, and when they do, it’s a thing of beauty:
Aiden is a scientist, yes, but while most of his peers stay within a specific field — say, neuroscience or genetics — Aiden crosses them with almost casual abandon. His research has taken him across molecular biology, linguistics, physics, engineering and mathematics. He was the man behind last year’s ‘culturomics’ study, where he looked at the evolution of human culture through the lens of four per cent of all the books ever published. Before that, he solved the three-dimensional structure of the human genome, studied the mathematics of verbs, and invented an insole called the iShoe that can diagnose balance problems in elderly people. ‘I guess I just view myself as a scientist,’ he says.
His approach stands in stark contrast to the standard scientific career: find an area of interest and become increasingly knowledgeable about it. Instead of branching out from a central speciality, Aiden is interested in ‘interdisciplinary’ problems that cross the boundaries of different disciplines. His approach is nomadic. He moves about, searching for ideas that will pique his curiosity, extend his horizons, and hopefully make a big impact.
‘I don’t view myself as a practitioner of a particular skill or method,’ he says.
Aiden naturally gravitates to problems that he knows little about. ‘The reason is that most projects fail,’ he says. ‘If the project you know a lot about fails, you haven’t gained anything. If a project you know relatively little about fails, you potentially have a bunch of new and better ideas.’ And Aiden has a habit of using his failures as springboards for success.
In “On Beards, Biology, and Being a Real American,” molecular biologist Joe Hanson, everyone’s favorite Feynman of the Tumblr era, brings his signature blend of the personal and the universally insightful to explore the bacterial ecosystems that inhabit the token signifier of hipster street cred, painting, as he always does, science as as anything but boring. Amidst the fascinating microbiology, you also find such priceless sentences as:
Unsurprisingly, when a live chicken is rubbed across an unwashed beard containing a lethal titer of avian viral particles, then ground up in a blender and injected into fertilized eggs, the rates of survival are not good. Beard-wearing scientists must take care to ensure that they do not repeat this extremely precise and odd sequence of events, lest they ruin dozens of perfectly good eggs.
Vintage ad accompanying Christie Wilcox's original Scientific American article 'Why do women cry? Obviously, it’s so they don’t get laid'
But the anthology’s greatest curatorial feat is the purposefulness with which it debunks the myth that science is dry, passionless, objective, and devoid of emotional investment. Take, for instance, Scientific American’s Christie Wilcox, who in “Why do women cry? Obviously, it’s so they don’t get laid” takes MSNBC’s Brian Alexander’s appallingly sexist pseudoscience reportage head-on and brings to it with equal force the dual lenses of hard science and eloquent, unabashedly opinionated analysis:
Alexander’s reporting of the actual science was quick and simplistic, and couched in sexist commentary (like how powerful women’s tears are as manipulative devices). And to finish things off, he clearly states what he found to be the most important find of the study:
‘Bottom line, ladies? If you’re looking for arousal, don’t turn on the waterworks.’
It’s no wonder that the general public sometimes questions whether science is important. If that was truly the aim of this paper, I’d be concerned, too!
Of course, Brian Alexander missed the point. This paper wasn’t published as a part of a women’s how-to guide for getting laid. Instead, the authors sought to determine if the chemicals present in human tears might serve as chemosignals like they do for other animals — and they got some pretty interesting results.
She goes on to cite a number of studies that suggest alternative, more complex evolutionary explanations, then concludes:
Why do I care so much? It’s not just that they got it wrong. It’s that their interpretation of research isn’t labeled as opinion. It’s that the vast majority of people who have any interest in science news are going to read inaccurate (if not downright insulting) news articles and think studies like this one are either misogynistic or frivolous. It’s that journalists like Brian Alexander undermine good science for the sake of attention grabbing headlines. And as a scientist and a writer, I am doubly insulted.
The rest of The Best Science Writing Online 2012 is just as stirring and stimulating — do yourself a favor.