Close Encounter with a Rattlesnake: The Science and Art of Science Writing
By Michelle Nijhuis / photos courtesy of Beth Maynor Young and Jeff Barbee
As a science writer, I've tagged along with researchers while they pursued puffins, bats, golden-mantled ground squirrels, freshwater mussels and the sperm of endangered Caribbean coral. (Ask me about that last one sometime.) But my career began with an uncomfortably close look at a rattlesnake.
Fifteen years ago, my brand-new college biology degree qualified me for a series of minimum-wage jobs looking for strange animals in strange places. The work was temporary, itinerant and, as soldiers say of war, alternately boring and excessively thrilling. But the scenery, however, was unbeatable.
During a stint with a university research project in the desert near Tucson, Arizona, I hiked through saguaro forests from dawn to sunset. Most of my co-workers, biologists all, lived for the sight of a tortoise scraping slowly over a granite boulder or a pack of javelinas snuffling peacefully as they napped in the shade. In the evenings, eager to see even more critters, my friends cruised empty back roads, looking for snakes that had slithered on to the asphalt for warmth.
I often rode along with them, and one night we came upon a diamondback rattlesnake, resting in a fat and perfect coil. My friends were thrilled, and they leapt out of their pickups to circle the snake like REI-clad matadors. I stood back, away from the headlight beams, and watched. The snake was gorgeous, even regal in its growing annoyance, but I found myself paying more attention to the scientists around it. What had brought them to this particular place and this very odd hobby? What inspired them to draw closer and closer to the snake, cameras poised, even as it raised its head to strike? The snake, I realized, was interesting. The people, dubious habits and all, were fascinating.
Science writing has a reputation for bloodlessness, but in many ways it is the most human of disciplines. Science, after all, is a quest, and it’s one of the oldest and most enduring stories we have.
It’s a story about searching for answers, struggling with setbacks, persevering through tedium and competing with colleagues all eager to put forth their own ideas about how the world works. Perhaps most of all, it’s about women and men possessed by curiosity, people who devote their lives to pursuits the rest of us find mystifying or terrifying—chasing viruses, finding undiscovered planets, dusting off dinosaurs or teasing venomous snakes.
As a science writer, I sometimes feel like I'm getting away with something. I get to enjoy, if vicariously, the thrill of the chase and the satisfaction of discovery, but I don't have to slog through the years of disappointment that often precede them. I get to hear a great story, share it, and move on to the next tale, while the scientists I interview are left to wrestle with new uncertainties. But I've come to think that both parties are playing to their strengths. Scientists are specialists, trained to dig deeply but narrowly in a few promising directions. Science writers are by inclination generalists, quick to learn new things and connect them to existing knowledge—and ordinary lives.
In its crudest form, science writing simply translates the latest results from the academy, turning multisyllabic jargon into something intelligible by Earthlings. Want a synonym for "anthropogenic climate forcing" or a metaphor for seismic activity in the Cascadia Subduction Zone? Ask a science writer. We're good at that stuff.
These translations are our daily headlines, the stories that inform us that coffee is healthy, bean sprouts are not, and our sex lives are much, much worse than we thought. (Or, alternatively, that coffee is bad for us, bean sprouts are not, and ... oh, never mind.) They're useful in their way—they do tell us, in plain English, about new findings—but they don't often tell us what to do with that knowledge.
Better science stories put new results in context, synthesizing and analyzing what came before, what might come next, and why we should care. They explain, in other words, whether we're better off drinking our morning coffee or not.
The most memorable science writing—and, I would argue, the most powerful— also puts humans back in the equation, introducing the reader to both the people behind the science and the people affected by it, for better and worse. It transcends the genre, becoming not just good science writing but just good writing, and as such it unlocks entire fields of research for the rest of us.
It’s what Richard Preston did for virology with the fast-paced drama of The Hot Zone, what Rebecca Skloot did for cell biology in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and what John McPhee did for geology in Annals of the Former World, a collection of books that spans a generation. It's what David Quammen did for island biogeography in The Song of the Dodo, and what Dan Fagin did for the science of cancer clusters in his Pulitzer-Prize-winning recent book Toms River.
It’s essentially what Dr. Watson does for Sherlock Holmes: By reacquainting the head with the heart, we science writers tell the story of the frustrations, false starts, triumphs and breakthroughs that lead to the solution—or, in many cases, to even more questions.
Which is not to say we science writers are sidekicks. Like the scientists we cover, we’re driven by curiosity, and we too are trained to observe and investigate. It’s our job to point out the fallibility of science—and scientists—as well as their fascinations. Science writers expose corruption and fraud among scientists and their funders as well as draw attention to under-researched diseases and environmental problems. They report on the distortion of scientific results by politicians and interest groups, and on the sausage-making that slowly turns science into policy.
While some scientists are themselves fine writers, science writers are seldom experts in the fields we write about. (In fact, many of us find that expertise is a disadvantage—it makes us poor translators.) Most of us have dabbled a bit in science ourselves, but we’re more or less professional amateurs, best at explaining complicated things with both maximum simplicity and maximum accuracy. “The goal is to show how some new discovery looks to an interested outsider, writing for other interested outsiders, using metaphor instead of mathematics,” writes George Johnson in A Shortcut Through Time.
Doing so is an absorbing puzzle, one whose solution is always just out of reach. There’s always more to learn about the science at hand, and there’s always a more graceful way to communicate it. And while science is a story, the tendency of questions to raise more questions means that the story never ends. Science has its moments of climax and catharsis, but it rarely yields complete resolution, and there's always another chapter worth telling.
That night in the Arizona desert, my friends eventually backed away from the rattlesnake, leaving it curled in peace on the pavement. They rolled down the road in search of their next cold-blooded quarry, still talking about the beauty of the diamondback. They felt they’d gotten a secret glimpse of a unique creature in its element, and they were elated. I felt the same way.
This essay was adapted from a post on The New York Times’ Draft blog.