Posted tagged ‘science writing’

For A Good Time In Cambridge…Tonight!c

November 3, 2015

So it’s here — Publication Day! The Hunt for Vulcan is now live.

There’s a bit of backstory on how the book came to be over at Gizmodo. Spoiler alert: Ta-Nehisi Coates bears part of the blame.

More backstory on Einstein’s role in all this here.

And last, tonight (in an hour and a half actually) this:

Levenson_BkTlk_flyer.REVISED

If that doesn’t read too well: I’ll be talking about the book with my colleague, the wonderful physicist and historian of science David Kaiser at 6 p.m. We’ll be at the MIT Museum — free and open to the public.

If you can’t make it, there will be alternatives.

And with that: shameless self promotion at least temporarily brought to a halt.

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The Best of Times (Good Reads Redux)

August 8, 2013

Fair warning:  What follows is ~3000 words on what a good time it is to find science fascinating.  Avoid if you’re not interested.

Given my day job teaching young writers about covering science, and given that we’re a month shy of the first day of classes for our next cohort of science-writing graduate students, I’ve been doing an informal survey of what’s out there as venues in which those folks will perform over the next few years.  And, as I suggested in this post, I came away with the somewhat unexpected sense that we are living in a genuinely great age for writing and the public engagement with science.

Science writers are fond of weeping in their cups* about the dire state of the traditional science media.  And they/we should.  MSM science writing is often said to have peaked in the so called “golden age” of the 80s.  That was when a whole new crop of science-technology-gee-whiz glossies appeared.  I think I listed a fair number of the new rags last time — Time Inc.’s Discover (my first real employer), Science 8X, Penthouse publication’s Omni** (founded 1978, actually) and others I’m blanking on, joining old stalwarts enjoying new interest — Scientific American, Popular Science, Science News,and others.  The end of the decade saw the birth of one of my all-time favorites, the short-lived, much missed Mondo 2000, and in the early 90s, you got Wired.

The NYT’s Science Times first appeared as a separate section on November 14, 1978.  It still exists, and is reasonably healthy — but diminished from its heydey.  Following the Grey Lady (no longer of) 43rd St., other newspapers built up their own dedicated science, technology and health desks.  There were lots of jobs to be had, a seemingly endless tally of stories to be written.

Juan_Gris_004

Part of the reason you saw such an expansion of science journalism was that the late 70s and onwards have been simply a fabulous time to be covering the beat.

Consider:

ITEM: You had the beginnings of the digital revolution ramping up into full scale insurrection over those years.  I didn’t grasp fully what it meant that I could haul my Kaypro C/PM driven, dual-disk drive machine down to the subway below the Time-Life Bldg., and then muscle it up to my fourth floor walk-up in Little Italy to pound away through the night — but I knew that this was a wholly different experience from the typewriter-and-carbons system I’d used just a year or two before to file from Manila and London.  I got the significance a little more when I first played with  the 300 baud modem I got with my TRS 100 (NEC clone, actually) notebook computer a couple of years later.***  But even if I was a little blase about this sudden appearance of computation in the nooks and crannies of my daily life, still, it was clear something big was in progress.

ITEM: Same for the molecular biology story.  As of 1980, it was still a huge deal to sequence a single gene, which meant that there was a lot of what looks from here to be dicey scientific claims and dicier stories about the “gene for (x)” — where x could be alcoholism or what have you.  But again, even if in those days both researchers and reporters leapt to conclusions actual biology would erode over time,**** it was clear that we were in the midst of transformative shift in the precision and levels of explanation — the understanding of causation — that biology could approach when it tackled life at the molecular level.  If we’ve learned that all the problems that seemed just one more DNA sequence short of solution are considerably more complicated than we might wish, still it’s not often you live through the kind of conceptual earthquake that occurred from the 70s to the 90s.  That it now seems obviously the necessary approach is just a measure of how powerful a wave it was then.

ITEM:  I could go on all day (and some might say I have).  The original Keck telescope saw first light with its complete 10 meter mirror on April 14, 1992 — an event that ended Mt. Palomar’s Hale telescope’s 45 year run as the world’s largest (high performance) optical telescope.*****  In the two decades since the Keck went live  — though I need to check this number — I believe more telescope observing area has been installed around the world than was used in the entire prior history of professional observing dating back to 1609.

Galileos_Moon

Throw in the Hubble, the other NASA “Great Observatories” — and the record of NASA’s other unmanned space-science missions — and you have a revolution in our knowledge of both the earth (remotely sensed from space) and our cosmic surroundings through incomprehensible ranges of space and time.  And then there’s…

…hell, you get the idea.  Oh Brave New World that has such knowledge in’t.

Science is still roaring along, of course, and  fundamental inquiry lands in technology with astonishing, daily-life-reworking speed.  I remember in 1983 taking a trip to the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, where a virtuoso microscopist showed me a video image of a segment of a neuron, saying “some think that’s where memory resides.”  This year I spent time at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Science, and talked to someone who was tracing in high resolution images of living brains thinking the development of specialized systems of thinking about other people.  We live in amazing times; flat-out gorgeous, exciting times.

Only, not so much for science writers trained up as I was, in an ecosystem dominated by a robust print advertising model.  The newspaper science sections are gone, mostly, hundreds of them between 2000 and now.  Magazines have folded, or eroded into shadows of their former selves.   There’s a fragmentation of the business; there are these things that every graduate student seems to write — I think they’re called blogs and….

… you know this drill too.

But here’s a funny thing.  I do not believe there has been a better time to be a science reader. Ever.

Again, in that earlier post, I focused on a couple of fine articles turning up in one of the new venues for long-form science writing, London-based Aeon Magazine.******  Aeon is in some ways simply a digital expression of a conventional media type.  It publishes essays and features, nicely illustrated with a bit of flat art, just like a magazine on dead trees. But even with that utterly familiar genre focus, there is still this crucial difference:  that Aeon  is an all-digital production means that it has no constraint either as to the overall length of  the pieces it publishes, or to a need to cram its pieces into set frames, one page in the magazine for a short, say, and five for a full length feature.  The news hole is what it wants to be for each and every article it chooses to put out into the world.    This sounds like a small thing, or maybe just an obvious one — but it sets up a radically different writing framework than the one that I and my friends and colleagues encountered (and still do, sometimes) when working to the constraints of cold type.   Stories get to be what they need to be, and not what the issue-budget that month dictates.

(One corollary:  this puts a premium on the one true constraint in this new golden age:  excellent editing.  Long doesn’t mean good, unless it’s actually good, and the only way to be sure of that is if someone with a brain, an ear and a sharp red pencil is available to go to work on one’s deathless prose.)

Merely digitizing words, thus, opens up venues and forms to writers who could never have hoped to try that sort of thing when only The New Yorker and a handful of other rags would let their chosen few rabbit on until they were done.  We hear more voices, younger voices, more from across the gender line and so on, and that’s a big change.  Thus the importance not just of Aeon,  but of  MatterByliner (not just a science-themed site, but  with a lot in that area), Nautilus, which is trying to enact a concept-album approach to popular science publication, and many more.  I sent out a query to some science writing buddies to survey the venues people in the business are pitching to, and the names came pouring out:  Quanta, Pacific Standard (formerly Miller McCune Magazine, and also not exlusively aimed at science)The Vergeand others that my colleagues are already writing for, despite the fact that they have yet to launch.  Older venues are shifting some resources this direction too — I’ve written once for The New Yorker’s new Elements strand, a daily feed of some commentary and some original science and technology reporting under that august brand.  Old warhorses like Popular Mechanics, Scientific Americanor Popular Science are putting good material out there, and so are places like the Nature New Service…and the list goes on.

The science blog world is enormously valuable as well, the more so (IMHO), as it professionalizes.  There’s the Scientific American blog network; National Geographic’s new Phenomena  salon, Wired.com’s stable and many others.  The New York Times may be dropping blogs — but in the science writing world, there’s no shortage, and increasingly, the old signal-noise problem of that blogosphere is resolving itself through a rather traditional gate-keeping/quality control editorial approach, updated for new media.

And then there is the penetration of science into culture and vice versa as documented at strands like Io9, or parts of the ArsTechnica site, BoingBoing, and dozens more that I know exist but one one-person/one-day-per-day life doesn’t permit me to read.  A torrent of words, of ideas, of engagement with science, its applications in technology and the useful arts, and its intellectual penetration into the realms of story, narrative, expression, art, all the good stuff.  Just digging through this first layer of links to write this essay has made me happy:  so much interesting, unexpected, important stuff out there, daily, for my private, personal edification.

And wait!  There’s more.  I and a lot of the folks I talk to about the future of science communication talk often about Atavist.  The Atavist acts as both a publisher and a platform, and the secret sauce there is their system to produce multimedia reads:  texts augmented by computation to permit the use of a rich range of materials, moving images, sound, interactive graphics and so on.  You can turn on or off such add-ons, (and you can buy Atavist published work as plain e-books  for a bit less than the fully gadgetized texts if you choose).  But theirs is one of the most elegant solutions yet to the challenge and opportunity posed by what the digitization of words permits in the way of marrying text to all the rest of the ways to communicate with each other — both the ones we’ve had for a while and those now being created.  Other publishers are working on similar stuff, “books” that are actually apps.  In such work, you have something inconceivable when I started out in the business:  an account of something about science that can, at the reader’s command, reach through the first layer of words into (conceivably) anything that bears on the matter at hand that exists anywhere on the web.

All of which is to belabor the obvious:  this is a Gutenberg moment, a handful of years — decades at most — when the range of ideas about science and its connections to human experience can reach audiences that have never had such a wealth of information and interpretation so immediately available to them.  As someone for whom this stuff is the Greatest Story Ever Told — as a reader — I couldn’t be happier.

Rembrandt_-_A_Scholar_Seated_at_a_Desk

But as a writer and a teacher of those who would deliver this stuff into the great, gaping maw of the web?

There are problems, no doubt.  All those good staff jobs of a generation ago are gone, and there is no reason to expect them back anytime soon.  Take the current run on resume-writing software in a newsroom in DC as a material reminder of that reality.*******

The reality is that science writing of the sort that I’ve been discussing here — longer pieces, essays, attempts to dive beneath the surface of any single paper or finding — is largely a free-lance game.  Freelancing in the context of a mostly online publishing ecosystem is tricky; the dust is very far from settling in the transition from a centralized on-paper publishing model to the much more variegated evolutionary tree we’re seeing now.  I  get emails regularly from well-intentioned people who want me or my students to write for free “for exposure,” — and who are surprised when they are told that exposure don’t pay the rent.

Some of the new web-publications get this and are paying rates that are at least plausible, even if they don’t approach the five figure paydays one could aspire to with a major feature in a top glossy.  Some places — notably Atavist,  but others as well — are trying some new payment models that can reward writers very well indeed. Some are still stuck in the old couple-of-bucks-for-a-blog-post mindset, even as they seek the much more involved and deeply reported-and-thought pieces you now often see at the best blog venues. The writers I admire are making it (that’s a bit of circular logic, I guess; they wouldn’t be there to admire if they weren’t) but there’s no question that it is an uncertain, unpredictable game for newer writers trying to build a self-sustaining career.

But acknowledging that reality, this wealth of new venues implies an audience responding to these attempts to bring serious, sophisticated, complex, variegated stories of science to the public.  That, to me, is the most hopeful sign for a healthy, economically viable culture of science communication.  The argument made by the simple existence of a venue like Aeon or a platform like The Atavist is in direct contradiction to the daily-evident failure of those media institutions that have tried to chase a presumed ever shorter attention span and/or a hunger for one flavor or another of raw meat.  CNN isn’t imploding for lack of resources; it is, at least as I see it, dying of contempt for its audience.  So it is with many others…and so it isn’t with the best of what’s happening in the science writing-and-reading world.

Here endeth the lesson.

*Fond of their cups full stop, I might add.  Standard wisdom at the relevant conferences:  Don’t drink with the ocean folks.  Hangover city.¹  Trust me on this.)

1: Actually, puke till it leaks past your eyeballs city, but never mind.

**As I was working on this post, news has come that Omni is getting a reboot. Great news.  It really was a gonzo magazine, a great one when it played to the top of its game.  One of its strengths — killer fiction to go along with all the rest, works by folks like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling (who’ll be appearing in the reincarnation, it seems) and many others.  As I say through the rest of this post, this is a fine time to be a reader of smart stuff infused with ideas, science, technological imagination and all the rest.

***That Radio Shack box was truly revolutionary — the first really functional traveling computer, one that in some ways was never really replaced.  It weighed three pounds, ran on AA batteries (I repeat: it ran on double A’s!) and could do just a couple of things with its 8 lines by 40 character screen. But what it could do was great:  you could write, and using its on-board modem (an add on for my NEC) you could file over any phone line in the country.  Netbooks and earlier versions of ultralight computers could serve the same function, but what the Trash 100 (as it was affectionately known) had going for it was (a) extreme simplicity, (b) a go-anywhere capability made possible by the use of standard batteries, and (c) after a while, a pretty reasonable price.  I don’t know if this is just my impression, having been in a world — journalism — that really glommed onto the little beasts, but that one bit of kit seems in retrospect to be a true cultural harbinger.  YMMV.

****(not that we’ve altogether shed that particular error)

*****A Soviet era telescope with a mirror 6 meters in diameter went into operation in the north Caucasus mountains in 1977.  In the context of the Cold War, the instrument took direct aim at the 5 meter Hale for the title of the largest optical telescope in the world.  A series of issues with the mirror and the siting and design of the observatory itself significantly limited its effectiveness, and it never out-resolved the Hale.  Hence, most western histories of optical astronomy ignore it, perhaps, unfairly.

******As of this writing (August 7, 2013) the top-of-the-feed post is another good one, an essay on privacy in the context of Snowden and Facebook.  I take some issue with its dependence on that most studied of all human groups, 18-22 year old, at least relatively well-to-do American college students, but I found provocative the notion that while we retain a desire and/or need for privacy, the fact that, as writer Ian Leslie puts it, “we don’t really believe in the internet,” puts us in a position where there is a mismatch between the technology of communication and our expectations of it.  There’s a bit of a “get off of my lawn, kids” feel to that argument, but I don’t think it’s all wrong.  And here I’m making my point:  the piece is making me argue with it and myself, which is a marker of useful writing.

*******Not intended to be a factual statement.

Images:  Juan Gris, Still Life with a Guitar, a Book, and a Newspaper, c.1919.

Galileo’s sketch of the moon from Sidereus Nuncius, 1610, with a photograph of the same view.

Rembrandt van Rijn, A Scholar Seated at a Desk1634.

Good Reads

July 30, 2013

Consider this a shout out to some friends doing fine work that y’all might enjoy.

An aside — or not really:  the early to mid 1980s are sometimes referred (by a highly specialized group of folks, to be sure) as “the Golden Age” of American science writing.  By that we usually mean that there was, briefly, a robust and seemingly ever-expanding ecosytem of newspaper science desks and science magazines (Discover — my alma mater —Science 198x, Science News, Omni and so on) aimed a general audience that seemed to crave focused reporting on really just about anything to do with science.  The tech boom that followed a few years later, brought with it a second wave of venues, places riding the tech zeitgeist, like the much-missed Mondo 2000 and Wired, along with technically literate business rags like The Red Herring and many more.

Now look at us.  Discover is still with us, on its fourth or fifth owner since Time Inc. gave up on it.  Newspaper science sections have almost entirely disappeared, and hundreds of staff science reporting jobs are gone.  That’s what some people point to when bemoaning the state of public knowledge about climate change, for example, or vaccine denialism…and so on.

But while all that’s true —  there has been a collapse of venues (and employment) for science writers schooled, as I was, in the pre-digital journalism world — the reality is that right now is the best time I recall for readers of science writing. There is more available through more channels and conduits than anytime in my working life, and lots and lots of it is smart, literate, important. What’s more, new venues are appearing that offer spaces for both longer and more varied, more expansive kinds of writing — and some of them, at least, are trying hard to pay their writers enough to make this kind of work something that accumulates into careers.

For example — I’ve been loving the work they do at  Atavist and at Matter* too, not to mention an ebook by one of my former students published by The Atlantic (excerpt here),  or the Pulitzer Prize winning journalism by a team that included another one of the fabulous alumnae of the Graduate Program in Science Writing aat MIT [not bragging.  Not me] and I’m leaving out many others, one’s I’ll get back to as I do this kind of post again.

For now, let me  point you to a new kid on the block, Aeon Magazine, which, unlike Atavist or Matter, doesn’t charge for its pieces.  Aeon publishes a long-read every day, each somehow connected with science, and I’ve found it to be an insistent time-sink, really remarkably so for such a recently arrived party to the conversation.

For example, check out this.  Yesterday, Virginia Hughes put up one of the most impressive pieces I’ve read in a long time, a very thoughtful, emotionally rich, intellectually challenging piece on research into the effects on the kids involved of the horrific regimen they experienced and are experiencing now in Romanian orphanages.

Max_Liebermann_Waisenhaus_Amsterdam_1876

Virginia made this piece significant, as opposed to merely affecting, through her carefully framed account of the ethics of running controlled studies on subjects in such straits.  That’s interwoven with  the science involved, and a deeply felt sense of the human cost of doing this kind of research for both subject and scholar.  Really a fine piece of writing.  Here’s a brief sample:

Nelson had warned me several times about the emotional toll of meeting these children. So I was surprised, during our debrief, to hear him say that our visit had upset him. Turns out it was the first time that he had been to an orphanage with older teenagers, not all that much younger than his own son. ‘I’m used to being really distressed when I see all the little babies, or the three- and four-year-olds,’ he said. ‘But here, I almost had to leave at one point, to get myself some air. Just the thought of these kids living like this, it was really depressing.’

How does he do this? I wondered.

Go read the rest.

Then marvel at the sheer elegance of ant society and the almost classical account of hubris and potential tragedy to be read in Ed Yong’s story,  “Ant Farm.”

Big_Ant

Ed’s piece moves from a close-up look at an ant-borne plant disease and its implications for chocolate lovers to consider a globalized agricultural system that is vastly more vulnerable than most of us (certainly me) usually suspect.

Have a taste:

Indeed, scientists with Evans’s skills and mindset — the Yodas of plant pathology — are racing to extinction faster than the crops they study. Admittedly, ‘they’ve made a disastrous job of promoting themselves’, according to Hughes, but sexy modern sciences such as molecular biology have also drawn investment away from more traditional fields. In a recent audit, the British Society for Plant Pathology found that their subject is in free fall, relegated to a few lectures at a smattering of universities. Labs have halved in numbers, most scientists in the field are over 50, and new faces are rare. (The same is true across the pond.) ‘Molecular biology tells us what makes these pathogens tick, which is exciting,’ said Cooke. ‘But if we end up with a cadre of trained molecular biologists who can’t identify an oak tree, you have a problem.’

Hughes sees a deeper tragedy at play — the loss of a patient, contemplative approach to British natural history that allowed Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace to envision the theory of evolution by natural selection. ‘People like Harry [Evans] have spent 40 to 50 years working on groups of organisms, and know them deeply in the same way that Darwin or Wallace did,’ Hughes said. ‘We’re not replacing them, and that’s a lamentable shame.’

As the old guard retires sans apprentices, we lose the knowledge in their heads and we cripple our intellectual immune system. WhenPhytophthora ramorum started killing oak trees in the western US in the mid-1990s, it took a long time before anyone knew what it was, giving the disease a chance to establish a foothold. When ash dieback disease hit British trees in 2012, history repeated itself. ‘There were no taxonomists to identify the fungus,’ Evans said, ‘because we fired them all.’

Last, I’d like to point you again towards a book I’ve mentioned here before, Russ Rymer’s Paris Twilight.  Russ’s is, to my eyes at least, a simply wonderful novel.  Its science hook comes in the deep dive into both the techne and the psyche of anesthesia, beautifully plumbed by Russ through his lead character, an anaesthesiologist called to Paris to take part in a heart transplant operation that does not seem quite on the up-and-up.

Pierre-Auguste_Renoir_063

The book investigates the themes of loss and distance and (usually) return through a number of different paths — the medicine, of course, and history, and what one might think of as either the battlefields or the courtrooms of memory in which love’s victors or culprits get called to account.  The central character is a compelling woman, and her supporting cast…well, when I finally put the book down I felt so deeply aggrieved that I couldn’t sit with them again tomorrow to hear the conversation we might have had next.

When I first read it, in draft, I thought that this was a book to win prizes.  I still believe that, rereading the finished text, so neatly dressed in its Sunday-go-to-church hard covers.  I’d quote here, but the text is so tightly  interleaved that I can’t easily pick out just a paragraph or to. It leads you on, you see.

Sadly, it’s hit the market in the summer doldrums, and so, in case you missed it last time I wrote (and talked with Russ) about it, then take this for as strong a recommendation as I can offer for words (and people) to keep you company on August holiday.

*One more example of one of my student’s work. Yes, it does make me happy to see folks we may have helped a little on the way do good in the world.  How not?

Images:  Max Liebermann, Amsterdam Orphan Girls 1881.

Pro Hart, The Big Ant, photo 2010.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Landscape at Sacre Coeur, c.1886

The Higgs Boson is a Liberal Conspiracy To Get The Government More Involved In Mass*

June 24, 2012

We await news of the Higgs boson, with a major announcement in the offing** (perhaps as early as July 4).  Some rumors have already started to percolate, suggesting that the hints of a Standard Model Higgs appearing at a particular energy level compatible with established theory may be approaching confirmation.

If the rumors are true, and the near-confirmation does get announced next month, and if that result then holds to the point where everyone competent to have a view concurs that the Higgs has actually been identified, then that’s a very big deal, though in some ways a disappointing one.  It’s a big deal because it will mean the attempt to understand one of the fundamental phenomena of the universe, the existence of the Higgs field, will be able to proceed with actual data.

It would also confirm (again) that the basic theoretical ideas that have governed particle physics for some time are still on the job.

That, in a way, is the bad news.  Divergence from the standard model would require new physics, and suggest that there are new intellectual continents to discover.  One more chip on the stack of winnings the SM has already racked up?  Impressive, but not as much fun as the kind of intellectual adventure that would result if the field had to accommodate something other than the simplest answer to the question of how the cosmos manages to confer mass on its stuff like quarks and electrons (the “job” of the Higgs field.)

Still — for those of you interested in the leading edge of the now c. 8 decades of high energy physics inquiry into basic properties of nature, we’ll know something exciting, one way or the other, in a few weeks.

In the above, I’ve linked a couple of times to blog posts by my friend, Matt Strassler.  He’s a very good guide on these kind of things, writing from a theoretician’s point of view.  But while I agree with Matt on lots of stuff, and have learned much more than that from him, there’s one aspect of this latest story on which he and I disagree.  Or perhaps more accurately, on which our perspectives differ

That would be the view he takes that early speculation on the results of the two experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider amounts to subversion of the scientific process.  Jon Butterworth, a researcher on one of those experiments, strongly agrees.

In the comment thread Matt tangles with Peter Woit, proprietor of the blog Not Even Wrong, who in this post noted that  “reliable rumors”  suggest “the experiments are seeing much the same thing as last year in this year’s new data: strong hints of a Higgs around 125 GeV. ” –i.e. the step toward confirmation described above.

Matt’s and Butterworth’s argument is simple:  it is crucial for Higgs data analysis that those assessing the data from each experiment not know what the folks doing the same on the other experiment are seeing — or might be glimpsing, or think they might be getting to see.  Each group needs to be blind to the other to avoid the risk of contaminating the validation process with any expectation of what they “ought” to find, given what they know (or think they do) about the other folks’ results.  Publishing rumors — even reliable ones, from folks who shouldn’t be discussing preliminary data, but do anyway — damages the ability of those on the front line to do their work in a pristine intellectual environment, and that’s bad.

That’s an entirely valid view.  But the question is whether or not people who are not engaged in that work should publish what they learn.  And here, as a science writer and not a scientist, this is the thing:  science is an enterprise to be covered; it is not simply a cultural value to be defended and advanced (though science writers do so, in a number of implicit and explicit ways).

The Higgs is news.  It is so for several reasons, both intellectual and instrumental.  The intellectual — perhaps the aesthetic — ones are those hinted at above:  whatever form the understanding of Higgs processes may take, it will form an essential part of the picture we have of the nature of reality.  The instrumental ones are the same as those which led to the heinous labeling of the Higgs boson as “the God Particle.”  Cultivation of excitement around the Higgs is part of the case for supporting large and expensive social commitments to all the apparatus needed to do high-energy physics.  As Chad Orzel points out,

Dude, this means you’ve won.”

I mean, it’s not an accident that there’s a lot of excitement about the maybe-sorta-kinda discovery of the Higgs. This is the product of years of relentless hype from the particle physics community. They’ve been talking about this goddamn particle for longer than I’ve been running this blog, and it’s finally percolated out into the general public consciousness enough that buzz about it can trend on Twitter. Complaining that your persistent effort to get people to care about particle physics esoterica has led to people being excited about particle physics esoterica seems more than a little churlish.

More than churlish, in fact:  self defeating.  Either science is enough of a vital part of being a citizen and a thoughtful person that what happens as it unfolds is part of our common culture; or it is an esoteric pursuit, and hence more on the fringe than any scientist I know (and me!) would accept.  If science does take that central  a role, then properly reported stories from within experiments are fair game.  It’s not the writer’s fault if the scientists involved are troubled by (accurate, contextually-rich, honest…) coverage.  The fault, if any, is not with Peter Woit; it is with whoever leaked rumors.

Put this another way:  imagine the story is one of an investigation of fraud at a major experiment.  Would it seem right to enjoin a science writer from writing about that fraud investigation before it was complete?  Even if it impeded the investigation?  It seems to me that the answer is, mostly, “no.”  (I say mostly, because I can imagine being told that publication right now might kill some specific vital step in the inquiry. But even there, the constraint would have to be, from where I see it, narrowly constructed and limited:  I wouldn’t hold off publishing what I know for long.)

That is:  science journalists deal in accounts of what they have found out that are of interest to them and to their readers.  They have real obligations: their stories must be accurate, must hold validity within the larger context of work in which particular incidents take place, must not violate any agreements the writer may have entered into with her or his sources, and so on.  But in my view, the writer does not have the duty of policing the process of science itself.  She or he is rather engaged in a conversation with the audience — whose interests, like those of the writer, overlap with but are not necessarily identical to those of the scientists themselves.

And thus this sermon endeth.  May your day be highly energetic.

*Tweet by old friend @drskyskull (who blogs at Skulls in the Stars.

**Link to TPM, ‘coz that’s where first I saw what has become widely discussed.  But could we please lay off the “God Particle” nonsense?  Leon Lederman has long since done whatever penance he ought for that bit of nonsense.

Images:  Alfred Bierstadt, Buffalo Head,c. 1879.

Alfred Bierstadt, Trapped, before 1902.

A quickie Saturday post with a brief answer to the question: how do I become a (better) science writer?

February 6, 2010

It’s reasonable, I guess.  My day job has me running what I can confidentyl say is one of the best science writing programs in the country.* So I often take part in some version of this email conversation I had recently with a graduate student in one of the physical sciences.

This student told me that “Though I am currently studying experimental science, one career path I am interested in is science writing or journalism.”

To which I said, in effect, “Great!”  We need good science writers more than ever, and someone committing to the field from a base of advanced training as a bench scientist is a clear win, from where I stand.**

The next question is the one they always ask…beyond or until they can sign up for a class or a program, “If you have any other advice as to how I could learn more about this field I would greatly appreciate it.”

So, just in case anyone out there may also wonder, here is what I wrote back, the short form of a theme on which I expand (as my students can certainly tell you) at much greater length when I have a captive audience:

The most immediate way to learn about writing about science for the public is to read a lot of it.  I’d go to the “Best American” series of science writing — there are actually two, Best American Science Writing and Best American Science and Nature Writing, published every year. While one can argue about some of the selections, the worst of the pieces there are not bad, and some are superlative.

Read like a pro — don’t just focus on the content, what you are learning — but try to analyze how the pieces are written. What’s the structure involved.  How do the different writers use sentence length and rhythm; what kind of voices do different writers employ.  How present are they in the piece — how present do they demand their audiences be — and so on.

You could pick up a copy of A Field Guide For Science Writers, edited by Deborah Blum, Mary Knudson, and Robin Marantz Henig.  That gives you a  good overview of the field and some basic techniques.  Though it is a bit long in the tooth, I like Elise Hancock’s Ideas Into Words. Follow the Knight Science Journalism Tracke, http://ksjtracker.mit.edu/ — a good aggregator blog that offers some commentary on good and bad science writing.

I’d add that there a bunch of excellent science blogs out there on which one can see others honing their craft (and talking a ton of science).  But actually, I think blogs are better to read as you write one, or are working on traditional articles.  I’d say that for someone first trying to get one’s ear and eye in on the forms and styles of good writing about science it’s better to read pieces crafted with a view towards a longer life than a blog piece.  Perhaps this is just projection, for though I do spend quite a bit of time on much of my writing for this blog, I also know that I don’t work the prose the way I do when I’m writing a book or an article intended to stand on its own, without the fabric of the ongoing conversation of the blog to sustain it.

But in any event, the core message is to read and read and read — but always like a pro.  There’s an old joke:  Q: What do writers talk about when they converse among themselves?  A: Money.  What else?

Within that truth, this one — writers as writers don’t read for pleasure.  They read to learn, to steal.  If you want to be one, in any genre, start taking apart your pleasure.  It will be less short-run fun to open a book, but much long-term gain to come.

And now, off to drink a very nice bottle of wine with a couple of very smart Harvard Med types…and talk a little science.

*Actually, of course, I’m sure it is the best, full stop — just as I know my son is the most wonderful boy in the world and that my cat is a prince among felines.  These are beings under my care, and if my connection to them is more immediate than that of an institutional responsibility, still, the same emotional logic applies.

**Though some of you know from my exchanges with Bora among others that I don’t think that such advanced training is a requirement for science writers.  This is a long conversation, but the gist is that whether you enter this field as a turn from the bench or towards it, there are distinctive strenghts you bring with you, and particular weaknesses as well.

Image:  Gerald Dou, “Portrait of an old woman reading (also, Rembrandt’s mother reading),” c.1630.

Some self-indulgent keening: Publishing is a mug’s game department

December 3, 2008

Friends of the blog may have noticed a slackening of posts over the last couple of days.  It’s because I’ve been in a funk, a publishing induced malaise.

That is:  as I’ve trumpeted a number of times here (and will again, more than once), I’ve a book in the works on Isaac Newton in his role as cop and prosecutor.  It’s called Newton and the Counterfeiter and it will be coming out in June. That’s the good news.

Here’s the rub:  the book was initially acquired by Rebecca Saletan, then of Harcourt-as-was, and followed her after the merger/acquisition of Harcourt by Houghton Mifflin.  Becky won the top job in the combined company, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt — head of adult trade publishing — and everything looked sweet…

Until the leverage required by the acquiring Irish software/private equity firm that put the two publishers together did what too much debt usually does in bad times.  So last week we learned that HMH had decided — temporarily they say and I hope — to stop acquiring books, and this week Becky came to the conclusion that trying to run a publishing house that wasn’t planning on publishing much — if at all — was a thankless task.

Which means I’ve got a book — a good one I think, and early readers agree — that is due to come out in a few months that will be missing its editor (and believe me, Becky was/is as good as you can get in the business), and from a house that may be leaving the business. Not a combination that propels work into the public eye; I’ve seen similarly orphaned books before.

(Anyone remember Richard Preston’s excellent second book, American Steel?  I didn’t think so.  It was the lead book of a house bought just before publication by Simon and Schuster who just released the title and let it sink or swim on its own.  It sank.)

I musn’t grumble.  There’s six months to go before publication.  HMH has not in fact disappeared, and there is plenty of publishing talent still hanging in there.  I’m being handed on to a first-rate editor, and while no one is as strong an advocate for your book in a house as the person who bought it in the first place, it’s not as if the project or its new guardians are unknown quantities.  There are rumors that the trade operations of HMH will be sold, which could be good news or bad — who knows? — and there are plenty of actions I can and will take to get the word out as we approach publication. I’ll certainly be calling on all you reading this for help on that score.

More than that — no one died. I’m pre-emptively bewailing the fate of a book, not a person.  I’ve got a decent day job, so no one in my house will be wanting shoes if the book doesn’t sell.  I can’t read the news, or hear the reports from someone I know very well who spent two hours the morning of Thanksgiving Friday trying to get their unemployment claim handled, and see the outcome for my story about strange doings at the heart of the scientific revolution as hugely consequential.

And yet, though I do know that and believe it, I’ve been living with my man Isaac for three years (actually much longer).  I’ve tried to craft words and sentences and whole passages that can carry readers into a sense of the daily experience of the world Newton inhabited and did so much to transform.  It does gravel me to think that that work might not find its audience.  I fully understand that this is a small pang amidst the various miseries of the world, but it’s mine.

That said, “might” is not the same as “will”, and so, with my gall thus vented, let me (mixing images with the best of them) allow the fickle finger of fate, having written, to write on.

Real blogging to commence….

Now.

Image:  William Blades, “Cherubs on a book” from Pentateuch of Printing with a Chapter on Judges, 1891.

Quote for the Day: Jacob Burckhardt hearts him some science writing dept.

November 25, 2008

Jacob Burckhardt is hardly a household name anymore, outside certain rather specialized houses, but it would be not too great an exaggeration to say that he “discovered” the Italian Renaissance, establishing the notion of a distinct period, a time and place in which fundamental changes took place that rung out the end of the ideas and culture of the middle ages, laying the foundations of for habits of mind and the concrete history of that time we think of as modern.

Perhaps most significantly, he was an early historian, perhaps the seminal one, who focused on the history of art in particular and “culture” more generally as essential approachs to “history,” full stop.  That attitude led him to think about the history of science in the Renaissance as something other than simply a chain of discoveries that form individual sequences within particular disciplines…which in turn led him to just about the earliest praise of science writing I’ve been able to find.

If it is a little back-handed, Burkhardt’s compliment still captures what I think of as a critical truth:  science is not self-contained;  it is an expression of culture, and its survival as a living human enterprise depends on culture at large remaining aware of its claim on the public’s understanding and emotion alike.  In his landmark work, The Civilization of the Renaissance, Burkhardt writes:

Even the simple dilletante of a science — if in the present case we should assign to Aeneas Sylvius so low a rank — can diffuse just that sort of general interest in the subject which prepares for new pioneers the indispensable groundwork of a favourable predisposition in the public mind.  True discoveres in any science know well what they owe to such mediation.

(Part Four.  The translation above comes from the Penguin Classics edition of 1990.)

I’d argue that science writing and science writers have more ambition than simply acting as cultural diffusers.  The ones I admire most think of themselves as writers whose subject is science, and not simply science writers; that is they (and I, in the privacy of my own thoughts) are trying to use language to the limits of capacity for expression, to move readers and not simply to inform them.  That said, Burkhardt is right:  a civilized culture, a civilized time manages to communicate some version of its most sophisticated thinking to every interested citizen.

Image:  Studies of Embryos by Leonardo da Vinci (Pen over red chalk 1510-1513).