Best Shortform Science Writing October-December 2016
(A Highly Subjective Round-up of Standout Science News)
[Above: A fish-eyed view of a newsstand in Paris. Photo by Mark Mitchell via Flickr & Creative Commons 2.0 License]
Science writing at its best doesn’t just impart facts; it has the potential to change the way we think about issues and phenomena. And yet, the vast majority of pieces on science writing–especially the short news stories designed to be consumed on a daily basis–simply focus on telling stories to people who are already interested in science.
The shortforms–the daily news briefs, front-of-book blurbs, and succinct blog posts– are the training grounds for emerging science writing writers, but they’re also underused as a place for experimenting with new ways to convey science, environment, and health stories to the public.
So my writing New Year’s Resolution is to experiment more, both in my blogging and in the sorts of stories I nominate for the 2017 @SciShortform round-ups. I hope you’ll join me by carrying out some experiments of your own and sharing them with the shortform editors.
Our editors in this round of Best Shortform Science Writing include new recruit Ellen Airhart, who is currently a student at NYU’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program, as well as returning editors Sarah Lewin of Space.com; Amanda Alvarez of the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Tokyo; Hobart, Australia-based freelancer Dyani Lewis; Atlanta-based freelancer Nola Taylor Redd; and me (Diana Crow), the newly installed intern at Cell Press’s media relations office.
In this cycle, we finally cracked 200 candidate articles for the round-up and anticipate at least that many nominated stories for January-March 2017. If you’re interested in joining our editorial team, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here are some of the shortform science writing highlights from October through December. The pieces are not ranked, aside from the “Top Pick” and “Honorable Mention” groupings; instead, the pieces are listed by author’s last name alphabetically:
Short Shorts (under 600 words)
[succinct, focused, clear, cool]
- “Bacteria, Methane, and Other Dangers Within Siberia’s Melting Permafrost” by Chelsea Leu for Wired
- “This ‘Frozen Zoo’ Could Bring Extinct Animals Back To Life” by Hannah Pointdexter for OMGFacts
- “Elephant Footprints Teem with Life” by John R. Platt for Scientific American
- “Seabirds’ Death-Defying Dives” by Josh Gabbatiss for Hakai
- “Silkworms Spin Super-Silk after Eating Carbon Nanotubes and Graphene” by Prachi Patel for Chemical & Engineering News
- “Which Plants and Animals Will Survive Climate Change?” by Kate Wheeling for Pacific Standard
News-length (601-1000 words)
[topical, informative, newspaper-style]
- “Biased Tide Gauges Mean We’ve Been Systematically Underestimating Sea Level Rise” by Rebecca Boyle for Hakai
- “Skeptics Question The Value Of Hydration Therapy For The Healthy” by Taunya English for NPR
- “The Love Song of Jeremy the Left-Coiled Snail” by Veronique Greenwood for The Atlantic
- “Smallest sliver of time yet measured sees electrons fleeing atom” by Rebecca Boyle for New Scientist
- “More than half of U.S. kids don’t get dental sealants, and the CDC wants schools to change that” by Karen Kaplan for The Los Angeles Times
- “Fingernail absolves lead poisoning in death of Arctic explorer” by Alexandra Witze for Nature News & Comment
Single-Study Deep Dives & Profiles (700-1200 words)
[Insightful, humanizing, focuses on 1 study or 1 scientist]
- “What radiation-resistant space fungus can do for drug discovery” by Shayla Love for STAT
- “Meet The Spleen, The Strange Little Organ That Can Multiply” by Erin Ross for NPR
- “GUILLEM ANGLADA-ESCUDÉ: Planet hunter”, part of “Nature’s 10: Ten People Who Mattered This Year” by Alexandra Witze for Nature News & Comment
- “Studying the Building Blocks of Life in Stereo Sound” by Joanna Klein for The New York Times
- “Why Winemakers are Turning to the Ancient Sport of Falconry to Tackle Pests” by Jennifer Nalewicki for Smithsonian
- “GUUS VELDERS: Cooling agent”, part of “Nature’s 10: Ten People Who Mattered This Year” by Jeff Tollefson for Nature News & Comment
Data & Investigative Quick-Hits (under 1400 words)
[probing, original, rigorous, bonus points for visuals]
- “The US Has Run Out Of Injectable Estrogen For Trans Women — Again” by Azeen Ghorayshi for Buzzfeed
- “Samsung Isn’t the Only One with Lithium Ion Battery Problems. Just Ask NASA” by Sarah Scoles for Wired
- “The West Is Burning, And Climate Change Is Partly To Blame” by Cally Carswell for FiveThirtyEight
- “Could an astronaut’s corpse bring new life to another world?” by William Herkewitz for Astronomy Magazine
- “Apple’s recycling robot wants your old iPhone. Don’t give it to him.” by Amelia Urry for Grist
Columns, Op-Eds, & Blog posts (under 1200 words)
[strong opinion angle, informed, possibly critical, possibly 1st person]
- “Dreams of Science and Progress Haunt Shuttered Lab” by Jeremy Berlin for National Geographic
- “The Laboratory of Our Future” by Philip Connors for n+1
- “No, enjoying a gin and tonic doesn’t mean you’re a psychopath” by Megan Willis for The Conversation
- “Your Brain on Sexual Assault” by Craig Childs for Last Word on Nothing
- “What’s So Special About Special Relativity?” by Ethan Siegal for Forbes
- “People are wildly misinterpreting a ‘heartwarming video’ of a polar bear playing with a dog” by Ali Wunderman for Quartz
[Suggestions sent to us that were too long, too old, and/or in a different language but hard to leave out, anyway.]
- “Ketchup Physics 101” by Lucas Adams for Cook’s Science
- “Our world is awash in bullshit health claims. These scientists want to train kids to spot them.” by Julia Belluz for Vox
- “DEEPWATER HORIZON OIL DISASTER EXTENDS ITS TOXIC REACH” by Linda Marsa for Newsweek
- “A New Sperm Bank for Honeybees Could Save Agriculture” by Taryn Phaneuf for Civil Eats
- “The Perfect Gift? It’s the One They Asked For” by John Tierney for The New York Times
- “Year Without a Summer: The climate event that helped create Frankenstein and the bicycle.” by Chris Townsend for The Paris Review
- Amanda’s favorite: “When we are faced with climate change, we are forced to think about our collective future, and we are forced to invent”, writes Chris Townsend. tl;dr version: A massive volcanic eruption 200 years ago gave us fixies and the first biohacking horror story, but the necessities imposed on humanity in the present-day by rising sea levels and temperatures are also being reflected in modern dystopian fiction, technological solutions and (hopefully sooner rather than later) a re-thinking of our relationship with nature.
Help Find the Next Batch of Best Shortform Science Writing!
If you liked this list (or if you think that we snubbed a deserving outlet or writer), please send suggestions for the next quarterly “Best” Shortform Science Writing. That post will cover January-March 2017 and will debut in mid-April 2017.
And if you know of any October through December stories we’ve missed, post ‘em in the comments below!