(A Highly Subjective Round-up of Standout Science News)
[Image above by Silke Remmery via Flickr and CC 2.0 license]
After nine months of searching through short science stories with an eye out for some of the best that the genre has to offer, I’ve come to a conclusion: Investigative pieces under 1200 words are rare.
Since the investigative genre often hinges on journalists showing their work and offering evidence on top of evidence on top of evidence, the relative dearth of short-n-sweet investigative pieces makes sense from a logistics perspective. At the same time, most members of the general public encounter science not through investigative reports but through brief segments on TV news shows and by the short but (hopefully) informative articles that crop up in Facebook news feeds.
And then we wonder why the public seems unable to effectively question science and why science journalists have a reputation for being less critical than their colleagues in business and political reporting…
Anyway, if you see any standout investigative or data pieces in the next few months, I hope you’ll share them with the editors of Best Shortform Science Writing. You can nominate stories via this Google form or simply by tagging us at @SciShortform on Twitter. (Be sure to include a link to the piece you’re nominating in your tweet!)
Special thanks to our editorial team’s new recruits– Dyani Lewis, a freelancer based in Hobart, Australia and Nola Taylor Redd, a freelancer based in Atlanta, Georgia– as well as our returning editors Sarah Lewin of Space.com and Amanda Alvarez of the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan.
During this cycle, the editors collectively read and rated almost 200 candidates for the shortform round-up, and the number of pieces submitted keeps growing. We’re in the market for 1-2 more editors, so if interested, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here are some of the shortform science writing highlights from July through September:
Short Shorts (under 600 words)
[succinct, focused, clear, cool]
- “First Evidence That Synaesthesia Gives Colour to Sign Language” by Jessica Hamzelou for New Scientist
- “Check out this unbelievable photo of the southern California Wildfire” by Jason Mark for Sierra magazine
- “Unusual bird-human partnership runs even deeper than scientists thought” by Elizabeth Pennisi for Science
- “Why a Goat May Stare at You With Puppy Dog Eyes” by Nsikan Akpan for PBS Newshour
- “Can We Learn How to Forget?” By Bahar Gholipour for Scientific American
- “Nuclear physicists may have just invented a ‘zero-knowledge’ warhead inspection system” by Ben Panko for Science
News-length (601-1000 words)
[topical, informative, newspaper-style]
- “Police asked this 3D printing lab to recreate a dead man’s fingers to unlock his phone” by Rose Eveleth for Fusion
- “Where your recyclables end up may surprise you” by Christine Van Dusen for Atlanta Magazine
- “Huge, once-hated fish now seen as weapon against Asian carp” by Tammy Webber for The AP via The Washington Post
- “Black Market Caviar Threatens California’s Giant Fish” by Rachel Becker for National Geographic
- “Hey Sorry Everyone But You Should Probably Keep Flossing” by Matt Simon for Wired
- “Don’t Fear the Jellygeddon” by Christie Wilcox for Hakai
- “Mars contamination fear could divert Curiosity rover” by Alexandra Witze for Nature News & Comment
Single-Study Deep Dives & Profiles (700-1200 words)
[Insightful, humanizing, focuses on 1 study or 1 scientist]
- “Growing Organs on Apples” by Jessa Gamble for The Atlantic
- “His Brain Can’t Make New Memories — So He Built An App To Store Them Instead” by Nidhi Sabbaraman for Buzzfeed
- Diana’s favorite: Too often, stories about apps–and stories about science and technology in general–are impersonal. This story creates a personal connection between the reader and the inventor of the app (who also happens to be an avid user) and slips in a fair amount of neuroscience details to support the stories. What could have come across as disability “inspiration porn” is instead informative and affecting.”
- “A Quasicrystal’s Shocking Origin” by Natalie Wolchover for Quanta
- “Will Embryonic Stem Cells Ever Cure Anything?” by Aleszu Bajak for MIT Technology Review
- “Malaria drug causes brain damage that mimics PTSD: case study” Patricia Kime for Military Times
- “Mysterious, ice-buried Cold War military base may be unearthed by climate change” by Julia Rosen for Science
- “Why are these 1000-year-old dogs buried under the Lima zoo?” by Lizzie Wade for Science
Data & Investigative Quick-Hits (under 1200 words)
[probing, original, rigorous, bonus points for visuals]
- “New and Deadly Drug-Resistant Yeast Emerges Globally” by Maryn McKenna for National Geographic
- “A Timeline of Earth’s Average Temperature” via xkcd
- “Are Bidets Better for You Than Toilet Paper?” by Shannon Palus for The Sweethome
- “They carry disease and live among us so why do we know so little about them?” by Bridie Smith for The Age
- “Oceans Are Absorbing Almost All of the Globe’s Excess Heat” by Tim Wallace for The New York Times
Columns, Op-Eds, & Blog posts (under 1200 words)
[strong opinion angle, informed, possibly critical, possibly 1st person]
- “Why Hyper-Masculine Women Are Scary, but Fish-Like Men Aren’t” by Olga Khazan for The Atlantic
- “How Big is a Fart? Somewhere Between A Bottle Of Nail Polish And A Can Of Soda” by Maggie Koerth-Baker for FiveThirtyEight
- Amanda’s favorite: The simplest or quirkiest questions can lead to the best science (see: IgNobel), and the best stories. Who hasn’t pondered the intricacies of bodily functions? This piece goes beyond fart jokes, quoting data and experts, while keeping the tone light. “Science questions from a toddler”, the jumping off point, can lead to answers that, far from dumbing down, inform, teach and amuse, all at once.
- “El Feroz Dinosaurio y los Científicos Invisibles” by Federico Kukso for Undark (In English: “The Ferocious Dinosaur and the Invisible Scientists” translated by Jane Roberts)
- “I PROPOSED WITH A DIAMOND GROWN IN A LAB” by Charles Q. Choi for Popular Science
- “Stop Sharing Those Feel-Good Cochlear Implant Videos” by Morgan Leahy for The Establishment
- “Giant ‘Arrows’ Seen From Space Point to a Vanished World” by Paul Salopek for National Geographic
[Suggestions sent to us that were too long, too old, and/or in a different language but hard to leave out, anyway.]
- “In Deforestation’s Wake, Wild Animals Turn Troublesome” by Sophie Chao for Sapiens
- “The Birds and the Bombs” by Ben Goldfarb for bioGraphic
- Nola’s Favorite: Well written and vividly told, I thought it did a good job of setting the scene. I like the juxtaposition of the government land used for both military (practical) and environmental purposes.
- “Inside a frontline hospital in Afghanistan” by Karishma Vyas for Al Jazeera
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 October-December 2016 and will debut in mid-January 2017.
And if you know of any July through September stories we’ve missed, post ‘em in the comments below!