Northeastern University

The story in the science

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Photo by Hellmy via Flickr.

Every year the National Association of Science Writers picks a city upon which to descend. This year that city is Raleigh and on Friday, nearly 500 science writers congregated in the Research Triangle Park area of North Carolina to talk shop. My plan coming into the conference was to blog each day, but that proved to be an over-ambitious pursuit, as I’m only now coming up for air.

Saturday offered writing-focused talks on everything ranging from the changing landscape of science journalism to covering health and science during the election. Sunday and Monday we got down and dirty with the science itself, with talks on dark matter, election forecasting and the effects of air pollution on the developing brain, to name a few. Tomorrow I’m going to visit the lemurs at Duke University.

While I’ve taken thousands of words worth of notes, I think I’ll spare you the gory details and focus here on one session that I found particularly compelling.

In “Unearthing Narrative,” four writers and an editor discussed their strategies for finding stories where stories can be sometimes hard to find. George Johnson, the author of 9 books and co-director of the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop, kicked it off by saying that, as with all good nonfiction, good science writing must at its heart be motivated by story telling. David Quammen, author of the recent book Spillover and a science journalist, who, as he puts it, lacks training in both science and journalism, said that writers need to write about people because readers want to read about people. So, in the case of Johnson’s “unauthorized biography” of physicist Murray Gell-Mann, that was perhaps not so difficult. Gell-Mann was an eccentric, somewhat abrasive character who easily lent himself to story, said Johnson, if not interviews.

But sometimes we’re not blessed with such graceful story arcs as the life of a nutty physicist. In such cases, said Eric Powell, senior editor at Discover Magazine, we must sometimes turn to unexpected characters. He gave the example of a story he edited about the state of meso-american chocolate research. The story came to him lacking “connective tissue,” looking more like an encyclopedia of recent research finding, he said. It turned out, after some significant hair pulling, that the main character had been in front of them the whole time. The cacao tree is the protagonist, he said, whose pseudo-domestication is influencing the culture of the area in a variety of ways. “It’s a dramatic arc ending with the cacao tree dominating the world.” Sounds like a good read to me.

Freelance science journalist Christine Aschwanden noted that sometimes the story you end up telling isn’t the one you had intended to tell, using her recent Smithsonian article about sports doping as an example. Aschwanden is herself an athlete and had originally wanted to show how doping ultimately hurts athletes and the community. She wanted to set up a narrative in which the young, aspiring athlete is somehow impeded from reaching her dreams due to the poor decisions of her predecessors. The only problem, Aschwanden said, was that because of the very nature of the problem, she could never really be certain that the young aspiring athletes she was interviewing were truly clean. That fact ended up as the focal point around which the rest of the story orbited: doping harms the entire athletic community because everyone becomes a suspect.

But the best case scenario is one that fits into Quammen’s four point plan for unearthing narrative:

  1. Be a Human Listener: When you’re the reporter, do your best to transcend the journalist-scientist relationship, get beyond the telephone or  the office appointment. If your source asks you to go to McDonald’s with him, go to McDonald’s with your source.
  2. Don’t Write About Famous People: It’s more fun to write (and read) about the grad student or post doc who isn’t’t famous yet but should be. Make people famous because you wrote about them.
  3. Get Into the Field: When you call up that source and you’re talking about their work, ask if you can go with them into the field. If your source asks you to go to Borneo, go to Borneo with your source.
  4. Engineer Serendipity: Serendipity is where human narrative comes from; be ready in the field, and hope that you will experience some kind of non-lethal disaster, for it is in these moments that human character is revealed.

While each of the 500 writers I mentioned earlier probably did not attend this session, it felt like they did. The place was standing room only, and for good reason. The science writing community has a variety of responsibilities: some of us are PIOs, some are journalists; some of us need to communicate research to the general public, others need to target the researchers themselves. But regardless of our specific trade, we all must be thinking of ways to turn topics into stories. I’m sure there’s research about this somewhere, but I’m happy speaking from anecdotal evidence when I say that stories, just like science, help us understand our world.


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