Longreads

Longreads Best of 2016: Science Writing

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

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Brendan Borrell
A freelance writer in Brooklyn.

The Amateur Cloud Society That (Sort of) Rattled the Scientific Community (Jon Mooallem, The New York Times Magazine)

Whenever one of Mooallem’s stories come out, I pretty much drop what I’m working on, kick back on my couch, and read it with a big, stupid grin. This delightful piece about a self-professed “idler” who discovers a new type of cloud is the perfect match between writer and subject matter. I guarantee that the moment you start reading, you, too, will float away from whatever it is you probably should be doing.

The Billion Dollar Ultimatum (Chris Hamby, BuzzFeed)

I was blown away by this investigation into a global super court that allows businesses to strip countries of their ability to enforce environmental regulations. “Known as investor-state dispute settlement, or ISDS, this legal system is written into a vast network of treaties that set the rules for international trade and investment,” Hamby writes. “Of all the ways in which ISDS is used, the most deeply hidden are the threats, uttered in private meetings or ominous letters, that invoke those courts.” This is the second part of Hamby’s series on the ISDS, and it focuses on an Australian company that was able to strip-mine inside a protected forest in Indonesia. Even though the company was complicit in the beating and, in one case, killing of protestors, the government was too cowed by the court to revoke the company’s permit.


Michelle Nijhuis
A science journalist based in the Pacific Northwest, and a contributor to National Geographic.

Austin, Indiana: The HIV Capital of Small-Town America (Jessica Wapner, Mosaic)

In December 2014, the single largest HIV outbreak in U.S. history began in Austin, Indiana, a town of 4,100 people on the southern end of the state. Though Austin’s struggles with drug addiction and poverty were reported at the time of the outbreak, freelance journalist Jessica Wapner takes a much deeper and more detailed look at the town and the source of its problems in this feature for Mosaic. I appreciated both her old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting — she found many of her sources in Austin by simply knocking on doors and gaining the trust of residents — and her analysis of the outbreak as part of a “syndemic,” a cluster of health and other problems that public-health experts say must be treated as a whole, not as isolated parts. Empathetic, smart, and important.

Seeding Doubt: How Self-Appointed Guardians of ‘Sound Science’ Tip the Scales Toward Industry (Liza Gross, The Intercept)

In this investigation, funded by the Food and Environment Reporting Network, Liza Gross digs into the history of Sense About Science, a London-based charity that presents itself as a neutral arbiter in public policy debates involving science. Gross found that Sense About Science and its US affiliate, Sense About Science USA, undertake some initiatives that serve the public’s interest. But the groups are far from neutral: the founder of the British organization worked with some of the architects of the tobacco industry’s disinformation campaign, and both groups have promoted results that favor industry interests over public health. At a time when even the concept of truth is debatable, and no fact can be taken for granted, such deep dives into the reliability of our public messengers are more essential than ever. Gross, like Wapner, is a freelance journalist; that they were able to report and execute these challenging stories without long-term institutional support is heartening, and raises the bar for the rest of us.


Deborah Halber
A journalist and author based in Boston.

Intersex: Seeking the Beauty in Difference (Martha Henriques, Mosaic)

I remember reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ expansive 2002 novel, “Middlesex,” with fascination and admiration. It tells the story of Callie, the daughter of an entrepreneurial Greek-American family who discovers at age 14 that she is a hermaphrodite, and decides to identify as a man after she learns the truth about her condition. More than a decade after “Middlesex,” we can watch “Transparent,” hear North Carolinians debate unisex bathrooms and follow Bruce Jenner’s transformation into Caitlyn, but the spectrum of intersex and transgender individuals still struggle with pervasive misinformation and misunderstanding. In Mosaic, Martha Henriques finds out what it’s like growing up intersex and meets those fighting to improve intersex rights.

If Animals Have Rights, Should Robots? (Nathan Heller, The New Yorker)

This is Nathan Heller, in The New Yorker, taking a fascinating look at how we tend up overplay the human characteristics in some entities (such as the hitchhiking robot hitchBOT, which made its way around a few cities before it was vandalized) and downplay them in others, such as animals, where a growing body of research seems to point to a wider range of experience than once thought possible. Can we give up the notion that we humans have cornered the market on a “magical” existence? Can we get our heads around what it’s actually like to be a gorilla, or a fish, or a mosquito? And how about robots? Our self-driving car is likely programmed to drive us into walls rather than mow down a row of pedestrians. If that happens, will we forgive it?


Elizabeth Lopatto
Science editor for The Verge

You Want a Description of Hell? Oxycontin’s 12-Hour Problem (Harriet Ryan, Lisa Girion And Scott Glover, The Los Angeles Times)

This explosive series traces the origins of the opioid epidemic. I can’t think of a clearer explanation of how drug marketing matters to patients. It’s an astonishing feat of investigative reporting, which helps explain a current event — a great example for young journalists. Explaining how Oxycontin’s “higher highs and lower lows” made it possible for addiction to more easily take root in pain patients was vital; the story of how its dosing could accelerate addiction helps explain why the opioid epidemic happened.

Addicts For Sale (Cat Ferguson, BuzzFeed News)

Again, astonishing investigative reporting that shows how predatory rehab clinics are able to take advantage of addicts. Defending the vulnerable is an important function of journalism, and this Buzzfeed report is an excellent example of how to do this and why it matters. The “junkie hunters” who profiteer from addicts and their health insurance suggest that if we wish to take addiction seriously in this society, we must rethink how we are handling rehabilitation.

My Sister Made Her End-of-Life Wishes Clear. Then Dementia Took Hold. (Judith Graham, Stat News)

A powerful first-person essay on what it’s like to watch a loved one slowly disappear in front of you. The crux of the essay lies in deciding when to remove Deborah’s feeding tube, and how to honor who Deborah was before dementia as well as who she had become. Too often, writing about dementia is impersonal — it’s rare to see how it affects families, and the unique difficulties that come with this particular kind of illness.

Katharine Hayhoe, a Climate Explainer Who Stays Above the Storm (John Schwartz, The New York Times)

Too often scientists find themselves lecturing. Most people do not want to be lectured. In some cases, this can lead to a standoff. This profile of Hayhoe not only explains how scientists can speak to ordinary, it provides an example of how scientists can learn to listen. Often, it seems scientists live in their own parallel world; this Hayhoe is firmly of this one.


Ross Andersen
Senior Editor at The Atlantic. Formerly Deputy Editor of Aeon .

Gravitational Waves Exist: The Inside Story of How Scientists Finally Found Them (Nicola Twilley, The New Yorker)

It’s fitting that the year’s most impressive science longread would be about the year’s most impressive scientific discovery. This one would have topped my year-end list even if it ended after the lede, which features a long, lyrical description of a distant black hole collision, and the invisible gravity wave that rolled out of its center more than one billion years ago. Late last year, that wave finally reached Earth, where it was intercepted by a sensitive set of instruments built specially for the purpose, over the course of four decades. The scientists behind this epochal observation will almost certainly win a Nobel Prize for their efforts. Twilley tells their very human story beautifully.

Learning to Let the Wild Be Wild in Yellowstone (David Quammen, National Geographic)

This piece is a true longread. It spans an entire issue. (Check out the gorgeous cover.) Quammen has long been among the world’s finest science writers, and he’s at his highest and best here, weaving together a complex narrative about the century-long expansion of Yellowstone, and what it means for the surrounding towns and ranches, and the planet at large. National parks are often described as “America’s best idea,” but for many they are only a down payment on a more ambitious conservation agenda, a network of interconnected wilderness reserves that would cover half of Earth’s surface. Quammen’s piece is a good first look at the challenges those future conservationists might face. It may become one of their essential texts.


Kara Platoni
A science reporter from Oakland, California, who teaches at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and is the author of We Have the Technology, a book about biohacking.

Speak, Memory (Casey Newton, The Verge)

When her friend suddenly dies, Eugenia Kuyda builds a chat bot using thousands of his text messages, which allows his loved ones to ask “him” questions and get a remarkably apt response. The result is part digital memorial, part ethereal therapist, part Magic 8-Ball—and all bittersweet. (“How are you there?” one person asks the bot in the chat logs included with the story. “I’m OK. A little down. I hope you aren’t doing anything interesting without me?” the bot responds.) The article is alternately a reminder that we already live in the sci-fi future (remember the Finn from William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, who builds an artificial intelligence “construct” of himself that communicates from beyond the grave?), a meditation on the nature of what it means to grieve in the online age, and, ultimately, a think piece on how humans are creatures that make personalities out of words.

The Case for Leaving City Rats Alone (Becca Cudmore, Nautilus)

This story neatly does what the very best science writing should: It starts with a far-out proposition that makes you do a head snap, and then piles on surprising tidbit after tidbit until you arrive at a conclusion you never thought you’d hold. In this case, the author rides along with a veterinary pathology student who is part of a project tracking the rats of Vancouver, BC. She creates a portrait of rat society that is sophisticated and remarkably familiar (They live on the same block as their families! They have turf wars over immigration!) as well as of a rat digestive system that is freakishly good at hybridizing bacteria from different spaces and species to create superbugs. (“The rat gut acts as a mixing bowl,” says the scientist overseeing the project.) When you exterminate rats, you scatter their families, pushing them into new turf where they fight with the neighbors, swapping blood and bacteria that might combine to create something new. So maybe, the argument goes, it’s better to leave rats where they are, keeping local germs … well, local.


A.N. Devers
Critic, writer, and contributing editor at Longreads and A Public Space, who lives in London, England for the time being.

Digging for Glory (Paige Williams, The New Yorker)

An illuminating profile on a star paleoanthropologist Dr. Lee Berger, who has touted a remarkable number of major discoveries in his career including controversial and hotly debated announcements of new species that some paleoanthropologist’s argue are contributing to “species inflation” and an overly complicated evolutionary picture for homo sapiens. What emerges from Williams keen look at her subject, is that Berger is not just a scientist, but a master of the stage, a showman who announces his discoveries with the flourish and skill of a great magician’s slight of hand. Beneath Williams story are questions she doesn’t directly ask, but emerge from her work. What of Berger’s research is actually groundbreaking? What is overstatement? What is inaccurate? What role does narrative play in promoting science? After Nature has rejected twelve of his papers including those on a discovery of a species he named “Homo naledi, or Star Man” Berger is quoted at a talk openly embracing Facebook as a valid scientific platform: “A paragraph on Facebook may be as powerful as a paper in Nature,” he says. It may be more powerful, as we have recently watched fake news dominate and steer the 2016 presidential election, but what’s most worrisome about Williams statement, is that it demonstrates at least one expert scientist choosing the platform over a peer-reviewed path that is slow and meticulous in search of truth, and truth and power are two completely different things.

NASA’s ‘Hidden Figures’ (Margot Shetterly, Al-Jazeera)

Writer Margot Shetterly’s bestselling first book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race uncovers the forgotten history and under-acknowledged contribution of Nasa’s black female scientists in launching America’s space program who worked in a blacks-only wing at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia. In this excerpt from Al-Jeezera’s The Stream, Shetterley describes how as a daughter of an engineer she grew up surrounded by so many African-Americans with careers in science that she believed it was “just what black folks did,” to watching their contributions be lost, underplayed, and undervalued. Shetterley’s history of black women at NASA is an important work correcting the historical record. If the scientific community wants to attract people from all walks of life and gain trust in its findings, then they must start by demonstrating and applauding the value non-white, non-male contributors.


Ben Huberman
Editor, WordPress.com / Automattic

The Empty Brain (Robert Epstein, Aeon)

Who doesn’t like a juicy scientific polemic? Epstein’s piece attacks — with panache, one might add — a common rhetorical strategy to speak about the human brain as an information-processing machine: a computer. He patiently unpacks the problems with that metaphor, and its nefarious effects on brain research (and its funding). The article has been widely shared, and generated a lively discussion — including numerous thoughtful dissents. I’m happily under-qualified to say whether or not my brain is computer-like, but I learned a lot from this piece. And as a poetry lover, it’s heartening to see that metaphors — metaphors! — play such an important role in the way we arrange and construct scientific knowledge.


Sari Botton
Writer, contributing editor to Longreads, editorial director of the non-profit TMI Project, and owner of Kingston Writers’ Studio.

Breast-Feeding the Microbiome (Ed Yong, The New Yorker)

This excerpt of London-based science writer Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life is fascinating–perhaps particularly to a person with a crummy immune system, who wasn’t breastfed. It points to many of breast milk’s nutritional superior qualities, most importantly its apparent ability to fortify the body’s microbiome by feeding it with a variety of protective human milk oligosaccharides, or H.M.O.s, thus strengthening the immune system.


See more from our Best of 2016 series

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