Jo Marchant: How to Write (Long) About Science

Decoding the Heavens - Antikythera mechanism

This guest post comes from writer Jo Marchant, author of the excellent Decoding the Heavens, and describes some ground she, George Zarkadakis, Alok Jha and I covered in a panel session on literary storytelling at the World Conference of Science Journalists last week in Doha. Marchant usually keeps an excellent blog at Decoding the Heavens, but as it’s glitched up this week, I’m hosting this crossposting here. Her website still works, though, so pay a visit and check out her book.

How to write – long – about science

by Jo Marchant

One of my most inspiring experiences (and there are a few to choose from) at the recent World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha, Qatar, was taking part in a panel session on “literary storytelling”.

Most science journalists have experience of writing short news and feature articles, and understand the challenge of conveying complex technical concepts in a clear and engaging way. But attempting long-form features or books requires a whole different set of skills. The Guardian’s Alok Jha, who chaired the session, asked David Dobbs, novelist and science journalist George Zarkadakis, and me, to talk about taking readers with you over articles of 5000+ words.

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Lovers, Losses, Putts, Egypt, and Bruce – Neuron Culture’s Best from June

A smoke in the PBY gun blister.jpg

A little slow compiling last month’s best-of, as I was traveling first to the World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha, Qatar, and then to Cairo, where I helped with a science writing workshop and saw Egypt’s past (the Egyptian Museum) and future (Tahrir Square). More on those later. Meantime, a quick look back at June’s big hits.

Top hit, easily, was my post about My Mother’s Lover — my Atavist ebook story about a long-hidden affair my mother had in World War II. The story took off nicely, becoming the #1 Kindle Singles bestseller for much of June and a top 20 Kindle bestseller as well. Not too late! If in doubt, see the Amazon reviews, which get it nicely.Continue reading →

Switch Hitter v Switch Pitcher

This is splendid. Pitcher who can pitch both ways switches up on a hitter coming to bat — then the batter does same. Rules chaos ensues:

As far as I can discern, the batter is within his rights here to keep switching, and got screwed by the ump’s insistence that he stick to batting righty.

MLB rules state nothing specifically about switch-hitting. They do state (see 6.06) that the batter must remain in the batter’s box once the pitcher takes the ready position — with his foot on the rubber and his body set to pitch.

This means the batter can legally move from one box to another unless the pitcher is in that position. And a pitcher cannot legally change his glove hand once he’s in ready position, or he commits a balk. He therefore must step off the rubber to do so — and when he does so, he’s no longer in ready position, so the batter can then look to see what hand the glove is on and switch sides accordingly.

So it appears this batter got screwed. I wonder if the game was protested.

If you know otherwise, chime in. I feel sorry for the umps in this thing. But they made the wrong call.

I wish he’d gone yard on the guy.

Asa Gray Goes Postal


Asa Gray, who keeps coming up this blog lately, has been honored without place on one of the lovelier first-class stamps I have seen come out of the U.S. Postal Service lately. It’s good to see gray honored this way. As far as I know, he is the first scientist honored by a stamp for work that was vital to the theory of evolution.

For more, see:

How Charles Darwin Seduced Asa Gray, here at Neuron Culture

Gray gets stamp of approval, in Harvard Gazette

Re:Design, a drama about Darwin & Gray

Unveiling Middle East Science – A Reading List

June 26: See key additions at bottom.

For those heading to or curious about the World Conference of Science Journalists starting on Monday in Doha, here’s a reading list related to the “Unveiling Arab Science,” Monday’s opening plenary. (Mo and I plead guilty to use of reductive metaphor in that title; it’s really about science in the Middle East region, including non-Arab countries and cultures.) When Mo Costandi and I first conceived the plenary last year, this title carried two meanings: Unveiling a deep history of science in the region; and unveiling to the journalistic audience what distinguishes the region’s current science, scientific culture, and scientific journalism. Recent events have given the title a third meaning, as the ongoing social and political changes in the region raise the possibility of a re-invigoration of the region’s great and long scientific traditions and energies.

If things go well, the plenary will frame a conversation about these issues that will go on the rest of the conference and long afterwards. In the meantime, both attendees and those who won’t be joining us can get a view of some of these issues with this reading list. Load it up on instapaper and read it in transit or in situ.Continue reading →

Aglitter in the Net: Behavioral Immune Systems, Central Dogmas, and Other Bad News

Some recent sparkly things from the net:

That particularly confounding photo above is via Vaughn Bell at Mind Hacks:

An amazing picture from Jeff Arris that plays havoc with our face perception system – grabbed from Twitter and which lives on Flickr here.

I’m not quite sure what to make of this next item myself yet, but this take on the behavioral immune system at Scientific American’s Mind Matters is quite intriguing, mixing germs and in-group/outgroup dynamics. Continue reading →

Naked Innocence & the Voice of War: Making Story at The Atavist

One of the pleasures of writing My Mother’s Lover, my recent Atavist story about my mother’s reverberant World War II love affair, was discovering how much the enhanced eBook format could add to longform narrative. Knowing the story would come out in both a media-rich iPad/iPhone/iTouch version and simpler Kindle and Nook versions, I wrote My Mother’s Lover to stand on its own. While I was slaving away over words, the clever crew at The Atavist found video and audio, separately, that they put together to make a short film. It appears about halfway through the iOs version.

The video is from a training film of an operation of the 2d Emergency Rescue Squadron, or ERS, one of five such squadrons the US Army Air Forces created late in World War II to rescue airmen downed in combat. The voiceover comes from an oral history project that recorded a 2d ERS squadronmate of Angus, my mother’s lover in real life and in the story’s title. In the audio, Angus’s squadronmate tells, among other things, of a Japanese raid on the Iwo Jima airbase where he and Angus were stationed. His description of the bloody sword attack comes at a critical point in the story, when Angus is entering the war zone in earnest. It brings close the dangers he faces.

I find the film moving, partly because the video and audio came from different sources, which is something we worried would not work. It does. The video the rescue off the New Guinea coast* of a young P-38 pilot. He gets plucked from the water by an ERS crew in a Catalina PBY flying boat, climbs aboard, and chats amiably (and silently) with his mates rescuers while toweling himself off, relaxed and unclothed. This beautiful young man’s youth and confidence make him seem all the more vulnerable to the troubles being described, years later, by a man who has already lived through what this young man has yet to face — an echo of many of the tensions in the story surrounding this little film.

Hope you enjoy it.

*It’s possible this was a training mission, given the date and location, October 1944 off New Guinea, attributed at the video’s source. New Guinea was in U.S. hands by then, so saw relatively little action along its shores. On the other hand, P-38 pilots were flying out of New Guinea, and it wasn’t unusual for a fighter or bomber damaged on a mission, or suffering mechanical failure, to limp back to or near base and require rescue. In any case, if this is a training run (as I described it in the initial version of this post), I find the pilot’s innocence that much more touching, for he almost certainly will see worse in the months ahead.


You can order My Mother’s Lover on multiple eBook platforms at The Atavist, or sample a free excerpt at The Atlantic here. In the iPad/iPhone/iTouch version, you can choose to have me read it aloud to you.

Reef Madness 5: How Charles Darwin Seduced Asa Gray

I bring here the sixth entry in my partial serialization of my book Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral, which finds Louis Agassiz facing off against Asa Gray in a decisive argument over Darwin’s theory of evolution. I first ran this excerpt back on April 28, independently, before I began this serialization of Reef Madness. If it looks familiar, that’s probably why. This entry stands on its own, but if you want the run-up to it from Reef Madness, click the links at bottom of read in order the Introduction, Louis Agassiz, Creationist Magpie, The One Darwin Really DID Get Wrong: Rumble at Glen Roy,  Louis Agassiz, TED Wet Dream, Conquers America, and Reef Madness 5: Alexander Agassiz Comes of Age. More information on serialization experiment at bottom.

6. How Charles Darwin Seduced Asa Gray

from Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral
© David Dobbs, all rights reserved

After Darwin’s book came out in late 1859, Louis mounted an all-or-nothing attack on it. He waged his war on two fronts — one among peers, another in the popular press and lecture circuit. Louis actually won a draw on the popular front, at least in the United States, for most Americans chose the straddle mentioned earlier. Even 150 years later, over half of Americans continued to believe that God either created most species as is or somehow directs evolution.

This happy stance ignores, of course, the philosophical implications that haunted Darwin, and it overlooks the underlying disagreement about how one should seek answers. Louis’s idealist logic and Darwin’s empirical method clashed as violently as did their creationist and mechanistic conclusions. For scientists of the era — a time when science was self-consciously moving toward an empirical stance — this argument about method mattered as much as whether we arose from God or monkey. It was this methodological debate that Louis so decisively lost.

A debate, of course, requires an opponent, and even Darwin couldn’t argue effectively from across the Atlantic. He didn’t much like arguing anyway, preferring to sway through his writing while friends did the knifework. In England, Thomas Huxley, self-anointed as “Darwin’s bulldog,” did the bloodiest of it. Huxley won an early and instantly famous debate over Darwinism even though his opponent, the former Oxford debater Archbishop Wilberforce, fired the most memorable salvo of the entire long war: In June 1860, before an excited crowd at Oxford, Wilberforce wrapped up his creationist attack on Origin by asking Huxley whether it was through his grandfather or grandmother that he descended from a monkey. The agnostic Huxley, murmuring to a friend that “The Lord hath delivered him unto my hands,” rose, rubbing those hands together, and dismantled the archbishop’s argument. He finished by declaring that if given the choice between kinship to a smelly ape or to a man willing to use his intelligence and privilege to twist the truth, he would choose the ape. The packed hall erupted in shouting; one woman reportedly fainted.

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The Arabick Roots of Science, and Their Fruit to Come

Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius (1611-1687) using a telescope fitted with a quadrant. Hevelius was one of several European astronomers who drew heavily on work of Persian and Arabic astronomers.

If asked to trace the roots of modern Western science, most educated Westerners will point to the scientific revolution that flowered in Europe following the Renaissance, with Copernicus’s 1543 “On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres” the main marker. There and then, it is thought, science began asserting an account of nature separate from that of religion. Study up a bit more, though, and as Arabick Roots, a fine new exhibit at the Royal Society, describes, you’ll find those empirical roots snaking back into the Middle East, where Arabic, Persian, and other pre-Renaissance cultures planted seeds that Western scientists have been harvesting ever since. Copernicus, for instance, relied partly on observations made by Muhammed al-Battani (858-929), who had figured out the year is 365 days (and a bit more) long. Chemist Robert Boyle cribbed heavily from work done by 13th-century Muslim chemist Al-Iraqi. Royal Society physicians learned about inoculation from doctors in Constantinople and Aleppo.

How does this entwined history play out today? I’ll be moderating a panel next week at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha, Qatar,  that gathers journalists and scientists to look at this question. “Unveiling Arab Science,” the opening plenary, ably co-produced by my friend and fellow writer Mo Costandi, will include Rim Turkmani, the Syrian-born astrophysicist who curated the Royal Society exhibit, journalists Ehsan Masood and Waleed Al-Shobakky, and neuroscientist and writer Homayoun Kheyri. We’ll look at how Middle Eastern has given rise to modern science, how the entwined but different histories of the regions and their cultures shows itself today, and how ongoing changes in the Middle East may change science and scientific culture there.

I feel lucky to be moderating this panel. Continue reading →

With An Especially Emotional Jungleland, Clarence Clemons Bids Adieu

An especially spirited 1978 performance in Passaic; these were the shows that made Bruce such a legend. The Big Man rips a particularly majestic solo starting at around 4:05.

This is pretty much the lithe and kinetic young Bruce I first saw in 1972 or 3 in a small venue in Houston called Liberty Hall — gone now, alas — that held perhaps 400-500 people. Same band as here except the keyboardist, all on a stage so small Bruce had little room to roam. So, born to run, Bruce in his excitement that night ran literally in circles in the middle of the small stage. You see some of that ebullient motion in this vid as well. My best friend, David Gee, and I had gone to the concert on the strength of the photo on a poster advertising the show — Bruce looking skyward, bending a note on his Tele — and neither David nor I nor anyone else there could quite believe what we were seeing. The hall could barely contain Bruce, much less the crowd, which he drove into a frenzy. When they did Rosalita I thought the place would burn down. Clarence, standing tall, held the whole place down.

Stick around for Bruce’s delivery of the last verse and cry.