The story in the science

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.