Good Reads

Consider this a shout out to some friends doing fine work that y’all might enjoy.

An aside — or not really:  the early to mid 1980s are sometimes referred (by a highly specialized group of folks, to be sure) as “the Golden Age” of American science writing.  By that we usually mean that there was, briefly, a robust and seemingly ever-expanding ecosytem of newspaper science desks and science magazines (Discover — my alma mater —Science 198x, Science News, Omni and so on) aimed a general audience that seemed to crave focused reporting on really just about anything to do with science.  The tech boom that followed a few years later, brought with it a second wave of venues, places riding the tech zeitgeist, like the much-missed Mondo 2000 and Wired, along with technically literate business rags like The Red Herring and many more.

Now look at us.  Discover is still with us, on its fourth or fifth owner since Time Inc. gave up on it.  Newspaper science sections have almost entirely disappeared, and hundreds of staff science reporting jobs are gone.  That’s what some people point to when bemoaning the state of public knowledge about climate change, for example, or vaccine denialism…and so on.

But while all that’s true —  there has been a collapse of venues (and employment) for science writers schooled, as I was, in the pre-digital journalism world — the reality is that right now is the best time I recall for readers of science writing. There is more available through more channels and conduits than anytime in my working life, and lots and lots of it is smart, literate, important. What’s more, new venues are appearing that offer spaces for both longer and more varied, more expansive kinds of writing — and some of them, at least, are trying hard to pay their writers enough to make this kind of work something that accumulates into careers.

For example — I’ve been loving the work they do at  Atavist and at Matter* too, not to mention an ebook by one of my former students published by The Atlantic (excerpt here),  or the Pulitzer Prize winning journalism by a team that included another one of the fabulous alumnae of the Graduate Program in Science Writing aat MIT [not bragging.  Not me] and I’m leaving out many others, one’s I’ll get back to as I do this kind of post again.

For now, let me  point you to a new kid on the block, Aeon Magazine, which, unlike Atavist or Matter, doesn’t charge for its pieces.  Aeon publishes a long-read every day, each somehow connected with science, and I’ve found it to be an insistent time-sink, really remarkably so for such a recently arrived party to the conversation.

For example, check out this.  Yesterday, Virginia Hughes put up one of the most impressive pieces I’ve read in a long time, a very thoughtful, emotionally rich, intellectually challenging piece on research into the effects on the kids involved of the horrific regimen they experienced and are experiencing now in Romanian orphanages.


Virginia made this piece significant, as opposed to merely affecting, through her carefully framed account of the ethics of running controlled studies on subjects in such straits.  That’s interwoven with  the science involved, and a deeply felt sense of the human cost of doing this kind of research for both subject and scholar.  Really a fine piece of writing.  Here’s a brief sample:

Nelson had warned me several times about the emotional toll of meeting these children. So I was surprised, during our debrief, to hear him say that our visit had upset him. Turns out it was the first time that he had been to an orphanage with older teenagers, not all that much younger than his own son. ‘I’m used to being really distressed when I see all the little babies, or the three- and four-year-olds,’ he said. ‘But here, I almost had to leave at one point, to get myself some air. Just the thought of these kids living like this, it was really depressing.’

How does he do this? I wondered.

Go read the rest.

Then marvel at the sheer elegance of ant society and the almost classical account of hubris and potential tragedy to be read in Ed Yong’s story,  “Ant Farm.”


Ed’s piece moves from a close-up look at an ant-borne plant disease and its implications for chocolate lovers to consider a globalized agricultural system that is vastly more vulnerable than most of us (certainly me) usually suspect.

Have a taste:

Indeed, scientists with Evans’s skills and mindset — the Yodas of plant pathology — are racing to extinction faster than the crops they study. Admittedly, ‘they’ve made a disastrous job of promoting themselves’, according to Hughes, but sexy modern sciences such as molecular biology have also drawn investment away from more traditional fields. In a recent audit, the British Society for Plant Pathology found that their subject is in free fall, relegated to a few lectures at a smattering of universities. Labs have halved in numbers, most scientists in the field are over 50, and new faces are rare. (The same is true across the pond.) ‘Molecular biology tells us what makes these pathogens tick, which is exciting,’ said Cooke. ‘But if we end up with a cadre of trained molecular biologists who can’t identify an oak tree, you have a problem.’

Hughes sees a deeper tragedy at play — the loss of a patient, contemplative approach to British natural history that allowed Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace to envision the theory of evolution by natural selection. ‘People like Harry [Evans] have spent 40 to 50 years working on groups of organisms, and know them deeply in the same way that Darwin or Wallace did,’ Hughes said. ‘We’re not replacing them, and that’s a lamentable shame.’

As the old guard retires sans apprentices, we lose the knowledge in their heads and we cripple our intellectual immune system. WhenPhytophthora ramorum started killing oak trees in the western US in the mid-1990s, it took a long time before anyone knew what it was, giving the disease a chance to establish a foothold. When ash dieback disease hit British trees in 2012, history repeated itself. ‘There were no taxonomists to identify the fungus,’ Evans said, ‘because we fired them all.’

Last, I’d like to point you again towards a book I’ve mentioned here before, Russ Rymer’s Paris Twilight.  Russ’s is, to my eyes at least, a simply wonderful novel.  Its science hook comes in the deep dive into both the techne and the psyche of anesthesia, beautifully plumbed by Russ through his lead character, an anaesthesiologist called to Paris to take part in a heart transplant operation that does not seem quite on the up-and-up.


The book investigates the themes of loss and distance and (usually) return through a number of different paths — the medicine, of course, and history, and what one might think of as either the battlefields or the courtrooms of memory in which love’s victors or culprits get called to account.  The central character is a compelling woman, and her supporting cast…well, when I finally put the book down I felt so deeply aggrieved that I couldn’t sit with them again tomorrow to hear the conversation we might have had next.

When I first read it, in draft, I thought that this was a book to win prizes.  I still believe that, rereading the finished text, so neatly dressed in its Sunday-go-to-church hard covers.  I’d quote here, but the text is so tightly  interleaved that I can’t easily pick out just a paragraph or to. It leads you on, you see.

Sadly, it’s hit the market in the summer doldrums, and so, in case you missed it last time I wrote (and talked with Russ) about it, then take this for as strong a recommendation as I can offer for words (and people) to keep you company on August holiday.

*One more example of one of my student’s work. Yes, it does make me happy to see folks we may have helped a little on the way do good in the world.  How not?

Images:  Max Liebermann, Amsterdam Orphan Girls 1881.

Pro Hart, The Big Ant, photo 2010.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Landscape at Sacre Coeur, c.1886


22 replies
  1. 1
    Botsplainer says:

    Clearly, the Anthony Weiner Sex Chat is a fine read (h/t mandalay).

  2. 2
    piratedan says:

    damn, I miss Omni, what a great mag that was, I subscribed to it as a teenager.

  3. 3
    I am not a kook says:

    Thank you, this is really timely for me, as I’m trying to unclutter my reading habits from click bait and trolldom. Aeon seems great, subscribed to their newsletter (ha! – but really yes).

    I also recommend John Timmer at Ars Technica. Emily Lakdawalla at is great at explaining the Solar System. Did you know that “we” took pictures of Earth and Moon from the opposite ends of the system on the same day? Cassini at Saturn got the most of the press, but check us out from Mercury orbit:

  4. 4
    Just Some Fuckhead says:

    @piratedan: Me too. In fact, we had about a dozen magazines coming into the house in any given month. Popular Mechanics, Fantasy & Science Fiction and my own favorite, Games Magazine quickly come to mind.

    Magazines were like the pre-internet Internet. I’d always start with LTE.

  5. 5
    The Moar You Know says:

    Tracy Kidder’s Soul of a New Machine came out then, great book. Agree about the era. Probably the apogee of not just science writing, but America’s opinion of science in general. That went to shit within a couple of years of Reagan’s election when the Jesustards started running everything.

    A lot of things went to shit at that point.

  6. 6
    aimai says:

    Thanks for the links, Tom. I’m bookmarking for when I have a bit more time.

  7. 7
    Tom Levenson says:

    @I am not a kook: John is great. Lots of good people working now, too many to follow it seems at times. But I was there then and I’m here now, and I would say that the 80s, exciting as they were, have nothing on the quality of work, thought, effort and literary ambition you see roaming through the ‘tubes now.

  8. 8
    Yatsuno says:

    Something worth investigating: Siberian huskies have a way of changing their metabolism so their fat stores are reserved even after running long distances. AFAIK they are the only breed of dog that can do this.

  9. 9
    I am not a kook says:

    Damn you Mr. Levenson, I’m going to have to subscribe to Matter now, and maybe Atavist too. This format is interesting, they put out “singles” instead of “albums”. I’m glad somebody is doing new, interesting, constructive work on journalism in a format that suits today’s media.

    This is in relation to the floundering Old Media. I honestly tried to subscribe to The Atlantic again because I got their $20 offer but the first dead trees coming into my mailbox had the same sub-Slate concern trolling crap that made me stop my subscription several years ago. Just checked their site, this month’s magazine has articles with titles “How Junk Food Can End Obesity”, “Can Government Play Moneyball?”, “Is Franz Kafka Overrated?”, “How Shareholders Are Ruining American Business”. Next month, maybe they’ll go with “Five Weird Tricks to Enhance Your Sex Life”. Fuckit.

  10. 10
    JPL says:

    The article on the Romanian orphanages was interesting but heartbreaking. What a difficult subject and I understand Nelson’s need to detach in order to carry on his research but that has to be difficult. I went through a few tissues just reading the article. thank your for the link.

  11. 11
    Xecky Gilchrist says:

    @I am not a kook: It is indeed important when considering the state of dead-tree science writing these days to keep in mind that currently print media suck at everything.

  12. 12
    Cermet says:

    Don’t ever forget the fantastic amateur scientist section in Scientific American – topis on building all types of neat equipment for biology, optics, numerous lasers projects (CO2, organic (built both!). a nuclear proton accelerator (ditto!), low temper refrigerator systems (liquid air; also this one, too), rockets, plasma torches, ruling engine, Geiger counters earth quake equipment … the list is too long. The details and writers just in that section were amazing. I have a CD with every project from the 1920’s until it was stopped.

  13. 13
    I am not a kook says:

    @Xecky Gilchrist: Another way to judge low clue quotient in a dead tree publisher: they only offer digital versions on one platform, namely iDevices. This means the publisher has no tech sense inhouse, and they just went with some low bidder conslutant who sold them on a solution to eee-publish like the cool kids. I’m looking at you, Scientific American. Yeah, cutting off the largest mobile platform (Android) makes perfect business sense! Fine 2-3 years ago but today?

  14. 14
    chopper says:

    @The Moar You Know:

    Soul of a New Machine

    OT but also the title of an insanely great record by the Delta ’72.

  15. 15
    Commenting at Balloon Juice Since 1937 says:

    @piratedan: I second the Omni love as a teen.

  16. 16
    daverave says:

    That “Ant Farm” article in Aeon is fairly terrifying…

  17. 17
    Funkula says:

    I was born in ’81, so I don’t remember that firsthand, but we always had a bunch of old Discovers and Scientific Americans around (along with Smithsonian, another fantastic knowledge-oriented magazine). I got into Discover big-time in the early ’90s, and it was still really good then. In particular, its articles on cosmology and quantum phenomena got me interested in the more esoteric reaches of physics.

    I don’t remember exactly when it happened (I wanna say late ’90s) but the target audience got much, much dumber very suddenly. I remember exactly what made me quit reading it in disgust: an article about subatomic phenomena that began by analogizing the structure of an atom to an egg.

  18. 18

    Damn you, Tom. I had the article on Romanian orphanages in my queue and now I’ve read it. I will find some way to get even with you once I’ve sobered up.

    Charles Nelson, the neuroscientist Virginia profiled in this piece, was interviewed by the producers of a movie I hated (Stuck, a cherry-picked set of sad justifications for a system of intercountry adoption with even less attention to transparency than the lousy one we have now). His observations about conditions in congregate care were the most disturbing thing in a movie that was full of troubling assertions.

  19. 19
    smike says:

    Thanks for the referral to Aeon Magazine. Quite interesting.

  20. 20
    manyakitty says:

    Agreed about loving Omni–I’m guessing that was Bob Guccione’s gift to his wife. And, now I’ll be adding Aeon as a daily stop. If only they needed another writer/editor/proofreader…

  21. 21
    Elizabelle says:

    Thanks for the links, Tom. Look forward to reading, even the Romanian orphanage story which sounds haunting.

  22. 22

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