Why a science journalist is like a seed crystal (and other thoughts)

When I think about what it means to be a science journalist, I think about chocolate.

I’m not kidding.

One night when I went to a talk about the science of food, and one of the presenters, a Harvard professor/master chef, started telling us about the difference between good and bad chocolate. “If you take a bar of good chocolate, like Ghiradelli, and break it in half, you hear a snap.”

“But if you take a bar of cheap chocolate, it’ll break, but you won’t heat the snap. And it may not break cleanly.”

This is very true, and, in fact, one of the main arguments I use when trying to convince my friends that we should use Ghirardelli chocolate to make s’mores. (They say, “We have to use Hershey’s. It’s not a s’more if you don’t use Hershey’s,” and I say, “But Ghiradelli tastes so much better. And the squares are exactly right size for melting onto a graham cracker. And when you put the dark chocolate ones with the mint-filling in a s’more, the result is amazing.”)

“The reason for that,” the chef/professor explained, “is that chocolate is made up of crystals.

Cocoa butter crystals, to be precise.

A crystal, by official scientific definition, is a solid where the molecules are lined up in repetitive geometric formations (as opposed to a less organized solid, where all the molecules are randomly strewn around and all cattywompus to each other). It’s not necessarily a rock.

So a cocoa butter crystal would be a structure made up of cocoa butter molecules lined up in straight lines. The only problem is that cocoa butter can form six different types of crystals, and it’s almost impossible to get every single cocoa butter molecule to line up the same way. So every chocolate bar is an imperfect crystal. But there is one particular type of crystal structure that pretty much everybody agrees tastes better and is easiest to work with. So if you want to make your chocolate better, you want to get more of the chocolate molecules to line themselves up in that particular crystal formation.

The way you do that is by “tempering” your chocolate or melting it down so the cocoa butter molecules leave their original crystal structure (When you are heating up the chocolate, you are adding energy to the solid molecules, so much that they begin to move faster and slide around. When they slide around so much that they can’t stay in their solid form, the solid becomes a liquid), and then you add something called a “seed crystal”.

A seed crystal is a small piece of the substance you’re working with that’s already in the crystal formation that you want. When you drop a a seed crystal of chocolate into a puddle of melted chocolate, the molecules around it will shift and fall into alignment with the seed crystal. And then the molecules around those molecules will fall into alignment. And so on until the whole puddle cools down and becomes a piece of tempered chocolate.

Why does this remind me of science communication?

Because science communication is too big of a job to be done by one person. There is so much misinformation out there, and there are so many people who want to silence science because they’re afraid of it, and even if every single person in the world sincerely wanted to become scientifically literate and had a couple of hours each day they could spend learning about the latest research, you would still need a ton of science writers.

There are so many topics under the science umbrella that no one person (or even a small posse of people) could cover all of those topics well. Science topics are big, they’re complicated, most laypeople are unfamiliar with them, and many of them have political & social implications that no one is prepared to handle.

It makes me feel overwhelmed sometimes a lot of the time.

However, my attitude has always been: “I know I can’t change everything. I can’t transform every member of the general public into a scientifically literate critical thinker overnight. But I can write pieces that will make people want to ask more questions, and I can write pieces that portray scientists as being fully rounded people, not just as talking lab coats. And I can share those pieces with my friends and try to share those pieces with a broader audience.”

I try to act like a seed crystal, to write about science in ways that promote thinking and emphasize the humans behind the scientific endeavor and hope that by reading my pieces, my audience will start asking more questions and considering the implications of scientific ideas more often/more carefully.

The only problem is: How do I do that?

What do I write about? How do I make it interesting? And how do I get this thought-provoking piece to an audience that’s bigger than just my circle of friends on Facebook? How do I earn enough money to feed myself by doing this?

My inner professional strategist tells me I should be pitching short articles about research papers that have just come out. But my inner editor tells me I shouldn’t pitch anything until I’m certain I have a solid grasp of the scientific content and an idea of why this particular paper would be important to other scientists in the field. That means reading the actual papers and talking to actual scientists about what’s happening in their field.

By the time I’m ready to pitch, I’ve done more prep work than I did for most of the papers I wrote in college. By the time I’ve learned what difference between a protein interaction network and an interactome is, I’ve read three Nature papers and transcribed two separate phone interviews. How can I pitch a story that I’ve already put that much work into understanding as a 300-word piece that will earn me somewhere between $50- $300 if I’m lucky? If I’m excited enough about an idea to spend 7-15 hours trying to learn more about it, don’t I owe it to myself to try and pitch it as a longer piece?

(I’ve never seen a science article that I actually wanted to cover that I couldn’t see being at least a 500-word piece. If it wasn’t interesting enough to merit a substantial piece, I wouldn’t bother reading up on it. But then again, all of my editorial experience happened in the charmed world of student publications, where you aren’t subject to advertisers’ whims and slave to your click-thru rates. Also, I tend to get excited about new science ideas more quickly than most people, so I could sincerely be overestimating how interesting my pet topics are to other people.)

Readers like to read short articles, but writers like to write long ones. And editors have to go with the readers, because the editor’s constituency is the publication’s audience, not the writers who want to get published.

Pitching gets even more daunting when you factor in the fact that all the major magazines have their own specific audiences and personalities. Each one is a little bit different, but in my head, I divide them into four major groups:

  • The “Dude, Awesome Science!” or the “Gee Whiz!” science magazines: which write to audiences of laypeople who like science. They don’t assume very much technical knowledge, but they do kind of assume that once the scientific terms have been explained, their readers will be like, “Dude! This science is awesome!
  • The Outside Observers of Science: Most science writers who work at major newspapers or the features section of non-science magazines fall into this category. The writers in these sections are clearly not scientists (although they may have a bit of background), and they are writing about “scientific breakthroughs” that are either “astounding” or will have “huge impacts on human health”.
  • The Science Critics: These are the pundits are who usually aren’t scientists but think “Scientists aren’t doing enough about [X]” or that “Scientists are trying to make themselves sound more certain than they actually are”. They’re usually folded into non-science publications, and they may not be science journalists per se, but people do read their pieces and soak up their opinions.
  • The magazines by scientists who are reaching out to us: Because people with PhDs know more about their fields than anyone else. That’s just a fact of life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But pieces from magazines do tend to take on an explanatory tone and operate on the assumption that “science is inherently good”.

Obviously, there are exceptions to these categories. (Aeon and Orion come to mind.) And no one science magazine stays in one of these modes all the time, but the vast majority of popular science writing I’ve read falls comfortably into one of these categories.

And I don’t.

I’m not a scientist, but to me, science is still an integral part of who I am. One of my parents is a scientist. I grew up reading books about science and hanging out with kids who wanted to be scientists. Words like “endemic”, “hypothesis”, and “recombination” aren’t words I “put on” to make myself “sound smarter”; they are embedded in my informally-acquired vocabulary. Science isn’t something I “worship” or “regurgitate”; it’s an integral part of my cultural heritage.

To me, science is never static. It’s an ongoing conversation between hundreds of thousands of experts in different fields who are constantly coming up with new ideas and finding new ways record events that no one can see with the naked eye. I think the idea of “science versus art & culture” is ridiculous, because science is inherently a cultural enterprise; science is all about sharing words and images with other people in order to make a bigger ideological point.

A lot of popular science writing omits the personal stories of scientists in order to “save space” and “focus on the research”. That’s fine for a lot of stories, but it’s not the way I like to write about science. I think that writing in this mode makes it harder to raise questions about “What does this result actually mean?” and “What are the ethics of applying this technique?” It also makes it a lot easier for laypeople to forget that scientists are complex people with busy lives.

That really bothers me.

It bothers me even more when people talk about science as if it’s one monolithic authority figure and say things like “Well, scientists always want to make everything about [X]” or “Science tells us that [Y] happens” or “Scientists are uncertain about [Z], so we shouldn’t listen to them until they’re completely certain.

In the first place, science is inherently uncertain. It’s all about ideas that scientists come up with to explain why their machines recorded the data they did and the probability that those ideas actually explain the difference. Science is all about questioning itself, and the idea that science is “absolutist” or “objective” actually erases a lot of the most interesting conversations going on within the science community.

Not to mention the fact that it reduces all of the large and diverse communities within science to one monolithic voice. (Whenever I hear “Science wants this” or “Science thinks that”, a little piece of me implodes. Engineers, medical doctors, research biologists, industrial chemists, theoretical physicists, applied mathematicians, lab techs, ecology students, psychiatrists, and high school science teachers all have radically different goals and opinions, and saying that there’s one “Science” that “wants things” on behalf of all those groups is reductive beyond all belief.)

So as a fledgling science journalist, how do I address that? How do I balance the need to write the straightforward stories that will pay my bills and my need to write more subversive stories that will challenge people’s misconceptions about science?

I don’t know. But I should probably get back to work on writing my pitches…

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