(A Highly Subjective Round-up of Standout Science News)
[Photo above by Raúl Hernández González via Flickr & Creative Commons]
How short is a shortform piece of journalism? Under 250 words? Where does that leave all the pieces clocking in at 500, 700, or 1200 words? Those were the first questions that reared their heads when I decided to attempt to compile a list of “best” shortform science writing from the first quarter of this year.
Creating a taxonomy of short non-fiction seemed to be the way to go, but doing so proved tricky. National Geographic’s Phenomena bloggers write posts on the latest studies that are about the same length as newspaper pieces on healthcare policy, but stylistically, the two genres are quite different.
And although almost every print magazine sports a collection of short “front-of-book” stories (in its front pages, naturally), the lengths of front-of-book pieces vary wildly by outlet. The Atlantic’s front-of-books, for instance, are usually at least twice the length of Popular Science’s. Where to draw the line? And then what do you do with different styles of reporting?
Where does a riveting “As-told-to” like Ebony’s “I Survived a Heart Attack at 33” by Meliah Bowers Jefferson, as told to Tiffany Walden, fit into the science and health journalism landscape? How do we classify the blogs and listicles that increasingly are the public’s main sources of information about science, environment, health, and tech?
In the end, I decided on a taxonomy of six categories— characterized by length and to a lesser extent, reporting style– and a grab bag of interesting but overlength submissions called “Honorable Misfits”. The picks are necessarily arbitrary, but hopefully a solid sampling of stand-out science writing from 2016 so far.
This round-up would not have been possible without the editorial efforts of Sarah Lewin (staff writer at Space.com) and Jennifer Welsh (editor-in-chief of WonderHowTo), who each read through dozens of suggestions from the crowd-sourced Google Form.
Nor would it have been possible without dozens of suggestions from science writers and readers like you. Seriously. No one writer (or set of three writers) can peruse all of the science webzines, newspaper sections, and regional print outlets, looking for excellent science stuff. If you enjoy these pieces, please help out by joining the crowd and suggesting pieces for the April-June 2016 roundup. (Bonus points if you send us suggestions from an outlet not represented on this list!)
So without further ado, here are the inaugural “Best” Shortform Science Writing picks:
Short Shorts (Bite-sized stories that left an impression, under 350 words)
- “Your Ear Is a Tape Measure” by Geoffrey Giller for Scientific American
- “Warp Drives Don’t Exist…Yet” by Nick Stockton for Wired (part of a larger package on space travel)
- “A Cold New View of the Galaxy” by Monica Young for Sky & Telescope
- “NASA NOW HAS A DRONE THAT CAN SNIFF OUT DANGEROUS GAS LEAKS” by Kelsey D. Atherton for Popular Science
- “Japan Loses Contact With New Space Telescope” by Nadia Drake for National Geographic
- “Cluster Analysis” by The Economist
- “WHICH IS MORE POWERFUL: A GIANT MICROSCOPE OR A GIANT TELESCOPE?” By Daniel Engber for Popular Science
Short Shorts, Oversized (Still bite-sized but with a bit more narrative spin, 350-600 words)
- “What one snarky facial expression could teach us about the evolution of language” by Rachel Feltman for The Washington Post
- “Findings- January 2016” by Rafil Kroll-Zaidi for Harper’s
- “The Connection Was Electric” by Diana Kwon for Scientific American MIND
- “A Crushing Bite Gives Sea Otters Their Cute Mugs” by Brian Switek for National Geographic
- “7 Lessons Bindweed is Trying to Teach Me” by Nico Alvarado for Orion
- “WHY THIS PIECE OF PAPER ‘EXPLODED’ IN A HYDRAULIC PRESS” by Mary Beth Griggs for Popular Science
- “Why do Beluga Whales blow bubbles?” by Jennie Rothenberg Gritz for Smithsonian Magazine
- “Krill Seekers” by Wudan Yan for Hakai Magazine
News-length (Quick hits on science trends & breaking news, 501-850 words)
- “Rebuilding Louisiana’s Disappearing Delta” by Aleszu Bajak for Undark
- “The Sour Side of Serotonin” by Bethany Brookshire for Science News
- “Science can help explain why too little sleep makes us so emotional” by Princess Ojiaku for Quartz
- “How Drug Ad Narrators Take the Scariness Out of Side Effects” by Megan Thielking for STAT
- “CRISPR-like ‘immune’ system discovered in giant virus” by Ewen Callaway for Nature News & Comment
- “The Weed Wackers” by Sara Anne Donelly for DownEast
- “A Sacrifice for the Catalina Foxes” by Jason G. Goldman for Hakai Magazine
- “Fastest Light Pulses Show Electrons Are Sluggish”by Alexander Hellemans for IEEE Spectrum
- “These Gorgeous Water Maps Are Helping Identify Fake Scotch and Murder Victims” by Julia Rosen for Nautilus
- “Should We Develop Drugs that Make Exercise Feel Easier?” By Bradley Strulberg for Outside Magazine
Single-Study Deep Dives (Explainers & behind-the-scenes riffs on nifty studies, 700-1200 words)
- “Last Week, I Went to Space” by Nadia Drake for National Geographic
- “I’ve Seen the Greatest A.I. Minds of My Generation Destroyed by Twitter” by Anthony Lydgate for The New Yorker
- “Why Watching Comb Jellies Poop Has Stunned Evolutionary Biologists” by Amy Maxmen for Science
- “The Nameless Mouse Behind the Largest-Ever Neural Network” by Katie Palmer for Wired
- “Beating Back the Crazy Ants” by Joshua Rapp Learn for Hakai Magazine
- “You’re Probably Not Mostly Microbes” by Ed Yong for The Atlantic
- “Obviously Don’t Set Off Nukes to Do Cool Science. Obviously” by Sarah Zhang for Wired
- “Astronomers Discover a New Kind of Radio Blast From Space” by Nadia Drake for National Geographic
- “Flies Could Falsely Place Someone at a Crime Scene” by Erika Engelhaupt for National Geographic
- “A virus is taming Australia’s bunny menace, and giving endangered species new life” by Ben Goldfarb for Science
- “People will follow a robot in an emergency – even if it’s wrong” by Aviva Rutkin for New Scientist
- “Solving the Tully Monster’s Cold Case” by Nicholas St. Fleur for The New York Times
Data & Investigative Quick-Hits (under 1200 words)
- “Donald Trump Vs. Sea Level Rise” by Peter Aldhous for Buzzfeed News
- “T-Cell Pioneer Carl June Acknowledged Key Ingredient Wasn’t His” by Antonio Regalado for MIT Tech Review
- “Do probiotics cure asthma? Don’t believe the hype” by Emma Bryce for Wired
- “The Incredible World of Period Underwear Patents” by Rose Eveleth for Last Word on Nothing/Atlas Obscura
- “A New Study Suggests Even the Toughest Pesticide Regulations Aren’t Nearly Tough Enough” by Liza Gross for The Nation
Columns, Op-Eds, & Blog posts (under 1200 words)
- “Outmoded Diseases: An X-File for Osteomyelitis” by Craig Childs for Last Word on Nothing
- “She Wanted to Do Her Research; He Wanted to Talk ‘Feelings’” by Hope Jahren for The New York Times“
- Homeopathy Part One: Rebels of Medicine” by Erik Vance for Last Word on Nothing
- “Abuse” by Pamela Gay for Star Stryder (blog)
- “5 Key Lessons from Black Tech Leaders” by Lynne D. Johnson for Ebony
- “BDSM Online: Community and Safety in the Age of 50 Shades” by Michelle Ofiwe for Model View Culture
- “Missing From CDC’s Advice for Women: Advice for Men” by Alexis Sobel Fitts for Undark
Honorable Misfits (Suggestions sent to us that were too long, too old, and/or in a different language but hard to leave out, anyway)
- “Raptors and Rat Poison” by Cathy Bell for Living Bird Magazine
- “The Surprisingly Sticky Tale of the Hadza and the Honeyguide Bird” by Cara Giaimo for Atlas Obscura
- “20 Years in the Making, Great Bear Agreement Protects World’s Largest Temperate Rainforest” by Valerie Schloredt for Yes! Magazine
- “DNA Under the Scope and Forensic Tool Under a Cloud” by Carl Zimmer for The New York Times
Help make this round-up a recurring event!
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 April-June 2016 will debut in mid-July.
Until then, cheers!
(Slash, it would be really lovely if y’all came back more often to read Diana’s weekly blog posts. But yeah, 3 months until the next big round-up.)