science writing

What genre most compels you to read? What genre have you not yet explored but might like to?

I’m not sure why I became more and more intrigued by science writing. Some instigation came from working at an engineering-heavy university. My attempt to bridge the campus chasm between engineering and liberal arts was to propose an honors seminar called Engineering Words: The Art of Writing Science.

I studied MIT’s graduate program in science writing. I browsed bloggers who wrote for Discover and National Geographic. I chose the reading list.

I admire writers who take complex events or ideas and explain them with a metaphor, analogy, or image that makes plain and clear what previously befuddled. Here’s Lisa Margonelli’s paragraph from Oil on the Brain on how a refinery works:

Refineries are molecular butchers, dissembling crude oil and shaping it into smaller, reusable components. Crude arrives as a stew of hydrocarbon chains — some as short and gassy as methane, which consists of 1 carbon atom and 4 hydrogen atoms, and some as long and heavily sludgy as the asphaltenes, which can have 150 carbon atoms surrounded by messy scrums of hydrogen atoms. Mixed in you’ll also find sulfur, salts, nitrogen, and metals. A refinery sorts these molecules by size and behavior and then cuts and re-forms as many as possible to make the 3- to 12-carbon molecular variety pack that is gasoline. (50)

Notice how Margonelli captures our attention with the image of a “molecular butcher” and then delineates the chemical components in what could be a stupefying list but which instead informs and delights with phrases like “short and gassy,” “surrounded by messy scrums,” and “molecular variety pack that is gasoline.”

Right now, I’m reading Edward Humes’ Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, and I appreciate how he introduces a novel concept (that we’re addicted to trash) by focusing first on the individual. Humes describes hoarders, and he begins with a recent example from 2010 of an elderly couple. In Chicago, Jesse and Thelma Gaston were rescued from their trash-filled home: “A broken refrigerator lay in the kitchen, half buried and resting on its side, as if buoyed up by the sea of bottles, cans, cartons and sacks engulfing it. No room in the house could be called usable or even safely navigable; the stairs were blocked, the furniture buried, the garage packed floor to ceiling” (2). Humes goes on to say that some experts would like this mental disorder codified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as “disposophobia” and then moves on to demonstrate how we have all become hoarders–trash addicts–even if we’re in denial.

In his first chapter, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” Humes introduces us to Big Mike, “who has helped build something unprecedented: the Puente Hills landfill, largest active municipal dump in the country” (19). Here’s one paragraph describing this landfill and how it is built:

The football-field-sized plot at the center of activity atop Puente Hills is called a “cell,” not in the prison-block sense, but more akin to the tiny biological unit, many thousands of which are needed to create a single, whole organism. As with living creatures, this cell, titanic as it is, represents a small building block for the modern landfill–the part that grows and reproduces each day. A dozen BOMAGs, bulldozers and graders swarm over this fresh fill every day, backing and turning and mashing and shaping, their warning gongs clanging and engines roaring in a controlled chaos, mammoth bees crawling atop the hive. (20-21)

I am not a scientist. My degree is in comparative literature. But I look to science writers to teach me science, to use language to hold my hand across the disciplinary divides, to make science literacy accessible and desirable. Good science writers read like accomplished novelists, in my book — they tell riveting stories, they offer conflict and rich characters, they practice their craft in clear, organized, and aesthetically memorable ways.

So what genre will you explore? I admit to never having read a western. I think it might be time.

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