Longreads Best of 2014: Science Stories

We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in specific categories. Here, the best in science writing.

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Virginia Hughes
Science reporter and soon-to-be science editor at BuzzFeed.

The Itch Nobody Can Scratch (Will Storr, Matter)

I’ve thought about this story (an excerpt from Storr’s book, The Unpersuadables) many, many times since reading it. It’s superficially about Morgellons, a disease in which people think that they’re infected with bugs or fibers. But it’s really about the nature of disease and diagnosis, evidence and belief. It’s creepy, fascinating, and profound. The best part about it is the way Storr describes these patients and their delusions. It would be easy to make them seem stupid or crazy or worse. But Storr’s writing creates empathy and understanding. The not-insignificant downside of this piece: it makes you feel itchy.

The End of Night (Rebecca Boyle, Aeon)

Boyle describes an environmental tragedy that most of us never think about: light pollution. Her essay is broad and rich, moving effortlessly from a Chilean desert to newly hatched sea turtles to circadian biology to cell phone screens. It’s an ambitious piece with many parts, but it doesn’t feel heavy. I think that’s partly because of Boyle’s light touch, her sentences that often surprise and delight:

“If aliens ever do drop by, this might be their first sign that someone is home.”
“We look at our glowing rectangles, and we opt out of that shared heritage.”
“As Stevens puts it, it was like a light bulb going on when he realised that, in fact, a light bulb going on might be a culprit.”

In short: It’s a beautiful piece of science writing with a poise and subtlety that I rarely see.

DIY Diagnosis (Ed Yong, Mosaic)

This is the story of a hero—a woman who’s diagnosed with two rare genetic diseases and becomes tech pioneer. I know what you’re thinking: another genetic disease story? But this one is far more plotty and exciting than most. I love how Yong manages to make the genetics come alive, and he did that with meticulous reporting about his hippie athlete-turned-scientist protagonist. We learn the science by following how she learned it, and get invested in it because we’re invested in her.

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Ed Yong
Science reporter and freelance journalist.

My Great-Great-Aunt Discovered Francium. And It Killed Her. (Veronique Greenwood, New York Times Magazine)

This story by Veronique Greenwood, about how her great-great-aunt discovered the element francium, is a story that starts off as a tale of tragic heroism but emerges as something far more surprising: It is a salve for our tendency to romanticise self-sacrifice without considering what that sacrifice means. It’s all of that, plus assured writing, and perfect structure.

Arrested Development (Virginia Hughes, Mosaic)

“Science is often too slow, and life too fast.” This is an amazing story about girls with Syndrome X, who seem stuck in permanent infancy, and a scientist’s quixotic (and possibly futile) quest to study them. With her characteristic eye for detail and flair for description, Virginia Hughes offers a textbook example of covering uncertain science, with a protagonist who is fascinatingly painted but never glorified as an iconoclast.

The Aftershocks (David Wolman, Matter)

When a catastrophic earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy killed thousands of people, seven of Italy’s top scientists were convicted of manslaughter for failing to communicate the risks to the populace. David Wolman covers the tragedy, the trial, and what this means about our ability to predict—and discuss—the unpredictable.

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Amy Harmon
New York Times reporter covering science and society.

We Are Entering the Age of Alzheimer’s (Kent Russell, The New Republic)

It’s a rare story that can issue an arresting call to arms without any actual exhortation. But this one is virtually all show, no tell, and the showing is done with refreshing, welcome, weirdness: it is part-memoir, part-reporting, and, most affectingly, part imagination. To bid us to reckon with Alzheimer’s, a degenerative brain disease likely to touch virtually everyone in coming years, Kent Russell does his best to inhabit his own father’s failing mind. (“Calm. Remaining calm is the thing to do here, the old man concludes, glancing around the jetliner’s cabin.”) The channeling carries an authority earned from Russell’s reporting, the caregiving he performs, not always graciously, for his father, and simply from being his son. It is both harrowing and heart-wrenching. We learn here what is known about the biology of dementia—one longs for more research—and about the debate over how best to care for the expanding population of the afflicted. But most provocatively, Russell asks what a disease that can rob both patients and caregivers of a sense of self means for our very conception of identity. “If you can’t hold onto what makes you you, and if other people can deny it, anyway—what’s left? What was there to begin with?”

How ‘Titanic’ Is Helping a South Pacific Tribe Understand Why Their Island Is Disappearing (Brooke Jarvis, Matter)

It’s hard not to keep reading a story that starts out with human bones brushing against the author’s legs as she wades along the shore of an island in the South Pacific. And Brooke Jarvis’s essay on the effect of climate change on people whose homes are actually sinking as a result of it gets only more intriguing as it goes on. The story is great for how it humanizes a topic often discussed in terms of dry data, but it’s even better for showing how the visit to Papua New Guinea affects Jarvis, a veteran climate reporter, herself. “No amount of climate journalism prepares you to explain the greenhouse effect to people fleeing their sinking homes,” she tweeted when the story came out. I won’t spoil it by revealing the details. You will want to read to the end.

Seeds of Doubt (Michael Specter, The New Yorker)

If you’re a journalist who wants to speak truth to power, Vandana Shiva, an Indian environmentalist who has been compared to Mother Teresa, called the “Gandhi of grain,’’ and whose opposition to genetically modified crops serves as an inspiration to food activists worldwide might not be the most obvious choice. Yet as Michael Specter shows in this devastating profile, Shiva’s influence and popularity have been built on positions that repeatedly fly in the face of facts, and that stand to have serious consequences for world hunger. I loved this piece particularly because Shiva’s claims are so routinely and sincerely invoked by the anti-GMO activists I have written about: it is precisely because of her reputation as a fierce champion for food justice that the she poses such a danger. Specter handles this by taking each claim seriously and methodically dismantling it. In doing so, he helps to facilitate a more rational debate on the use of biotechnology in agriculture. And more importantly, Shiva’s unraveling suggests that a simple standard—what is the evidence?—be applied to all claims, no matter how seemingly righteous, regarding the science and technology that increasingly shape how we live.

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Longreads Editor’s Pick (Mike Dang)

The New Face of Richard Norris (Jeanne Marie Laskas, GQ)

A 22-year-old man named Richard Norris accidentally shoots himself in the face, and becomes one of the first people to successfully received a full face transplant with the help of a Baltimore reconstructive facial surgeon named Eduardo Rodriguez. Rodriguez “likens the medically complex procedure to the Apollo moon landing.” These details alone could make for a very fascinating story, but Jeanne Marie Laskas takes a different approach, telling us about Norris’s life after the procedure and asking the question of whether or not these kinds of “life-enhancing” high-risk surgeries are even worth it.

“He’s not supposed to smoke,” his mom says. He can’t get sunburn. He can’t get a cold. He can’t drink. He can’t fall and risk injury. He can’t afford to tax his immune system at all. Even a cut could trigger rejection. It starts as a blotchy rash; it means his body is winning the fight to reject the transplant, and Richard has to be flown to the hospital to receive rounds of emergency drugs intravenously. Uncontrollable rejection would mean an almost certain death; the only things left of Richard’s old face are his eyes and the back of his throat. Everything else is now gone for good. “I have to keep watch that his face doesn’t go yellow,” his mom says. “He’s had two rejections so far.”

“I’ll leave you two talking,” Richard says, and he heads outside for a smoke.

It’s a story about a medical miracle, but one filled with complications, and Laskas tells it deftly.