Literary Science Writing

Given that two-thirds of the mandate we set for ourselves here at Lofty Ambitions is Science and Writing (as a couple), it will come as little surprise that we hold science writing in particularly high esteem. In each of our lives, books about science have either confirmed that we were doing the right things with our lives—in our educations and our careers—or these books have spurred us on to investigate new or adjacent paths.

For Doug, reading Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb as an undergraduate proved to be a foundational experience. The first third of the book provided a compelling narrative of the development of early twentieth-century physics, a story that both confirmed his choice of physics as an undergraduate major and shifted his interest from artifacts to personalities so that he began to understand history as interwoven narratives. As Doug has worked on his novel about the Manhattan Project, Richard Rhodes’s book has been one of his go-to references.

Later, while Doug was employed at the NASA Center for AeroSpace Information, he read James Gleick’s Chaos and Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine. These texts played an important part in persuading him to examine computers and computer science. While he was in graduate school, reading Matt Ridley’s Genome nearly convinced Doug to switch to computational biology and genomics.

Steven Johnson

Anna, too, has latched onto several books about science, some of which have shifted her thinking about what she does as a poet and as a teacher. Recently, as we’ve written at Lofty Ambitions, Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From captured our imaginations—and offered some ways to explain how imagination and creative thinking work. That book made for interesting connections with other books that Anna had read on cognitive science, including Nancy Andreasen’s The Creating Brain, Alice Flaherty’s The Midnight Disease, and Lennard Davis’s Obsession.

Both of us also read Steven Johnson’s earlier book Emergence. It’s a fascinating exploration of collaboration, complexity, and the whole becoming more than the sum of its parts. Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s Linked gives a different take on the same subject; it offers more of the nitty-gritty explanation, but doesn’t get as swept up with the story. There exist a dozen other good books on this broad topic of networks. And Malcolm Gladwell tackles somewhat related subjects in Blink and Outliers, mixing science with its cultural context. We rather like those books that have the feel of storytelling, without sacrificing the science—and as writers ourselves, we admire such an achievement.

As we mentioned in last week’s post, at the most recent Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, Doug attended a panel on science writing, “Literary Science Writing: Don’t Be Scared,” moderated by David Everett (also a colleague of our novel-writing friend Leslie Pietrzyk) and featuring Nancy Shute, James Shreeve, and Christopher Joyce. Because of our own reading preferences, we latched onto one of the panel’s takeaway ideas: the best science writing isn’t as much about science as it is about people.

The first panelist to speak was James Shreeve, author of The Genome War, The Neandertal Enigma, and (with Donald Johanson, discoverer of the first Australopithecus afarensis, Lucy) Lucy’s Child. Shreeve’s experience in researching and writing Lucy’s Child and The Neandertal Enigma likely led to the panel’s best literature-themed one-liner: “In science, paleoanthropology is as close as you can get to FICTION [writing].” He followed up with a quip to amplify his point about how a detail becomes a story: “Look, a tooth! Must have been a tool-user.”

Creative Commons
James Watson, 2003

Shreeve talked of his own reading preferences and influences at the begging of his career as a science writer: James Watson’s Double Helix and Horace Freeland Judson’s The Eighth Day of Creation. Even now, he holds David Quammen’s “Strawberries under Ice” in particularly high regard. Along with reading, what jump-started Shreeve’s career was his willingness to knock on doors and say, “What are you doing?” The answers to that question led to much of his own writing over the years. No wonder that he emphasized that great science writing is focused on people and that, in his words, “Science writing’s great advantage over literary fiction: there’s always something to write about.”

Nancy Shute, president of the National Association of Science Writers and a blogger for U.S. News and World Report, spoke next. Shute thought enough of Jonathon Weiner’s Time, Love, Memory—which discusses the life of Seymour Benzer, a physicist who became a molecular biologist, and his work on Drosophila melanogaster (the common fruit fly)—to make special mention of it. Shute also offered the following perspective on writing about science: “Science gives us a way to grapple with how the world works—and how the world works on US.”

Charles Darwin

The final panelist was Christopher Joyce, a science correspondent for National Public Radio and author of Witnesses from the Grave. A touchstone for which people often reach when discussing the intersection of Literature (with a capital “L”) and science writing is Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Joyce indicated that, as an exemplar of literary writing, Darwin doesn’t make the cut, but that E. O. Wilson does a better job.  (Anna quibbles with Wilson’s overarching approach in Consilience, because it privileges science over the arts, but we do appreciate his style.) Joyce described that his own goal as a radio correspondent was to make “a little movie in your head.”

Writing and doing science, as distinct endeavors, have much in common; both activities seek to make sense of some aspect of the world: observed, experienced directly, or imagined. As the “Literary Science Writing: Don’t Be Scared” panel made clear (and as our own reading experiences have shown us), when the activities merge in the form of writing about doing science, the outcome spans the gamut from turgid recitations of facts and figures to narratives that speak deeply to the human condition. One of the happiest outcomes of attending the recent panel was coming away with a reinvigorated reading list. We always welcome suggestions of good science books to read.


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