(A Highly Subjective Round-up of Standout Science News)
The online science news ecosystem teems with blog posts and videos about animals doing interesting things. And why not? Animals are fascinating, adorable, and beloved by the science nerds who frequent science news websites. Many of those stories are well-written. So when you’re sitting down to choose “standout” shortform science writing, how do you choose between them?
“News judgement”–the journalese terms for “ability to spot impactful stories”– was the subject of a lively Google Hangout debate amongst the Best Shortform Science Writing editors: Did we want to highlight the articles with the cutest and cleverest turns of phrase? Did we want to focus on the stories with the most potential to change readers’ minds? Or feature the ones that explain new developments with the most accuracy and nuance?
The hangout included returning editors Sarah Lewin (staff writer at Space.com) and Jennifer Caitlin Welsh (editor-in-chief of Wonderhowto.com), new recruit Amanda Alvarez (writer at RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan), and me (freelancer for hire). Collectively–along with fellow editors Shahla Farzan (UC Davis PhD student and reporter at KBBI Public Radio in Alaska) and Christine Scaduto (PhD student at Brown)–we’d gone over almost 200 short science stories from around the internet and were trying to narrow down a dense pack of “news-length” honorable mentions down to a select few.
“So this CRISPR mushroom story,” Jen began. “Does it really make you feel that the story’s important?”
“Hmm…Well, I’ve got a soft spot for fungi,” I said. And besides, gene editing policy is important.
However, covering an interesting topic isn’t the same as showing–rather than telling, or worse, assuming–the story’s impact, Jen countered. At the same time, judging based on practical impact crowds out a lot of well-written stories about studies that are just, y’know, interesting.
In the end, we decided to prioritize impactful stories–especially for the News, Investigations, and Opinion sections. But since Best Shortform Science Writing is a crowd-sourced project, our audience will ultimately drive the evolution of these round-ups. Send us the sorts of stories you want to see recognized via this submission form!
Also, if you’re interested in joining the project as an editor, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Enjoy our picks from April, May, and June:
Short Shorts (under 500 words)
[Still bite-sized but with a bit more narrative spin]
- “To find ET, look at who’s (maybe) looking at us” by Christopher Crockett for Science News
- “From autism to Chinese, a headset to help you with your language” by Anna Nowogrodski for New Scientist
- “Lemurs sing in sync — until one tries to go solo” by Helen Thompson for Science News
- “Your Dog Hates Hugs” by Melissa Dahl for Science of Us
- “Gone But Not Forgotten: Filipino Fishers Recount the Region’s Disappearing Species” by Jason G. Goldman for Hakai Magazine
- “Your Hippocampus Makes Maps of Social Spaces, Too” by Lauren Sanders for Science News
- “Do all trees snap at about 94 mph?“ By Tim Palucka for Scientific American
- Sarah’s Favorite: Talk about a question most wouldn’t think to ask! I love reading the short-shorts because their authors are forced to distill the essence of a finding, extracting impurities until they reach one small, shining story. In this case, that story goes through a whole scientific process: a strange observation; a scientific test, described in quick, vivid detail; conclusions and analysis; dissenting opinions; a path to greater clarity. Much like the researchers’ equation to describe tree-breaking, the story is simplified, but strives to catch its essential truth.
News-length (501-850 words)
[Quick hits on science trends & breaking news]
- Prepare for an Explosion of Gravitational Wave Detections by Eric Betz for Discover
- “Fentanyl: The Drug That’s Ravaging Sacramento” by Madeleine Thomas for Pacific Standard
- “What an AR-15 Can Do to a Human Body” by Sarah Zhang for Wired
- “Peru’s gold rush prompts public-health emergency” by Barbara Fraser for Nature News & Comment
- “Gelada monkeys know their linguistic math” by Cassie Martin for Science News
- “A Synthetic Replacement for Shrimp Made by Slaves” by Olga Khazan for The Atlantic
- “The alien world that’s being vaporised by a death ray” by Josh Sokol for New Scientist
- “The Eerie Glow of Blue Ghost Fireflies” by Chau Tu for NPR
Single-Study Deep Dives (700-1200 words)
[Explainers & behind-the-scenes riffs on nifty studies]
- “Second gravitational wave signal detected” by Emily Conover for Science News
- “Lost for Words” by Ed Yong for The Atlantic
- “Humans: The Hyperkeystone Species” by Ed Yong for The Atlantic
- Diana’s Favorite: When “Lost for Words” debuted in April, we all thought, “That’s it. Ed Yong has tear-jerker of April-thru-June locked down.” Three months later, this story came out, and my jaw hit the floor. Sometimes words like “ochre”, “ur-stone”, and “prise” (a word yours truly didn’t even know) can feel like overkill. In the case of this story, the topic–humans’ near-Cthulhu-level environment manipulation abilities–merits the grandeur. The article itself effortlessly glides from narrative science history into analysis of a recent paper, before finally revealing itself to be an obituary. And it’s a tear-jerker, too.
- “How LSD Makes Your Brain One With the Universe” by Angus Chen for NPR
- “How Trees Help Solve Murders” by Cara Giaimo for Atlas Obscura
- “The Computer Virus That Haunted Early AIDS Researchers” by Kaveh Waddell for The Atlantic
Data & Investigative Quick-Hits (under 1200 words)
[Data journalism skews toward longer stories…except when it doesn’t.]
- “At least 18 million Americans were at risk of drinking lead-contaminated water last year. See if you were one of them.” by Sarah Frostenson for Vox
- Living With Sickle Cell: ‘I Don’t Know What It Means to Be Without Pain’ by Allison Keyes for The Root
- “Psychiatrists Can’t Tell Us What They Think About Trump” by Maggie Koerth-Baker for FiveThirtyEight
- “Why You Should Check Your Sunscreen Label Right Now” by Nathan Eagle for Honolulu Civil Beat
- “This Baltimore 20-year-old just won a huge international award for taking out a giant trash incinerator” by Darryl Fears for The Washington Post
- “No, Your Cell Phone Probably Isn’t Giving You Cancer” by Dan Vergano for Buzzfeed
Columns, Op-Eds, & Blog posts (under 1200 words)
[Opinion pieces too compelling to ignore]
- “The War on Drugs Isn’t Even Working in Prison” by Kenneth E. Hartman for The Marshall Project & Vice
- “Mining in Space Could Lead to Conflicts on Earth” by Ramin Skibba for Nautilus
- Amanda’s favorite: As if conflict for resources on Earth wasn’t problem enough, there is already a massive landgrab underway to commercially exploit space, specifically asteroids. Ramin Skibba says we should approach the brave new era of astropolitics with caution. His story ties together the government agencies, commercial interests and research goals involved in space mining, plus a bit of space law history, and he doesn’t shy away from bringing his own astrophysics background into the mix.
- “The Real Bias Built In at Facebook” by Zeynep Tufecki for The New York Times
- “What Hillary Clinton Says About Aliens Is Totally Misguided” by Nadia Drake for National Geographic
- “Dear Science: Why am I always cold indoors?” by Rachel Feltman & Sarah Kaplan for The Washington Post
- “Can Tylenol Help Heal a Broken Heart?” by Melissa Hill for The New York Times
[Suggestions sent to us that were too long, too old, and/or in a different language but hard to leave out, anyway.]
- “When Doctors Refuse to Treat LGBT Patients” by Emma Green for The Atlantic
- “Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others” by Daniel Engber for Slate
- “Why Do Boys Have Wieners?” by Maggie Koerth-Baker for FiveThirtyEight
- “My pop-pop was a groundbreaking black chemist — who helped create the atomic bomb” by Victoria M. Massie for Vox
- Spinning in Space by Elena Passarello for Oxford American
Note on Category Changes:
I briefly floated the idea of adding a “Mini-Feature” category for articles–like Peter Aldhous’s 2021-word “Science So White” piece for Buzzfeed or Emily Singer’s 1699-word “The Electricity Eaters” for Quanta–which fall solidly above our 1200-word cut-off but are still short enough that they’re unlikely to get their due in longform-loving anthologies like Best American Science and Nature Writing.
Some pieces in that bracket were almost physically painful to exclude (and you can find more examples in our “Honorable Misfits” category), but the other editors pointed out that we already have an awful lot of categories. So “Mini-features” got nixed, and two sizes of “Short Shorts” got merged into one category.
If you’ve got suggestions on how the BSSW roundups can be improved, leave a comment. (Or email me at email@example.com)
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 July-September 2016 and will debut in mid-October.
And if you know of any April through June stories we’ve missed, post ‘em in the comments below!