- Not Exactly Rocket Science
My top 12 longreads of 2011
The wonderful site Longreads is collating people’s picks of the best long features of the year. Some say that the internet is triggering a renaissance for long-form writing and I very much agree. Over the past 12 days, I’ve been tweeting my picks and the full list should be up soon. Here it is:
The world of science offers great opportunities for journalists to flex their writing muscles by fusing rich storytelling and reporting with deft explanatory skill. After all, what could make for better stories than intelligent people trying to understand how the world works?
Here are my top dozen stories from the year, originally tweeted as daily treats in the run-up to Christmas. Yes, I know everyone else has picked five, but we bloggers hate word restrictions – I’ll pick my Top 67 of 2011 and you’ll like it. Each of these features left a firm impression so, taking my lead from Jodi Ettenberg, each choice comes with a note about where I was when I read it.
Here they are, in no particular order:
The Mystery of the Canadian Whiskey Fungus by Adam Rogers (Wired; read at my desk during an uneventful work day)
This is a superb whodunit featuring James Scott, the Sherlock Holmes of fungus – an old-school scientist in the modern world, trying to solve the mystery of the “angel’s share”. It’s packaged with confident wit and vivid, sensory prose (check out that lede), and Rogers finds space to take in a brief history of distillation and a look at the dying art of mycology. The best piece about fungus you’ll likely ever read.
Could Conjoined Twins Share a Mind? by Susan Dominus (New York Times, read in a Lake District cottage)
Tatiana and Kristina Hogan are four-year-old twins, joined at the head. Over the course of five days spent with their family, Dominus asks whether they share their thoughts and senses. It’s a moving and thoughtful piece about neuroscientists struggling to explain a bizarre phenomenon, and a family raising their unique members. It is also, of course, a portrait of two extraordinary girls. By the end of the piece, you feel privileged to have met them, if only in words.
A man-made world, by Oliver Morton (Economist; read in an Islington cafe)
There is a staggering density of ideas in this piece about humanity’s impact on our world. In sentences, Morton encapsulates issues that other writers could dwell on for entire books.
The Possibilian by Burkhard Bilger (New Yorker, read on a Boston subway train)
Bilger tells the story of time-lord David Eagleman, a man who collects jokes and anecdotes, chucks volunteers off tall buildings, counts Brian Eno as a research collaborator, and studies how our brain perceives the passage of time. It is a nigh-perfect blend of solid protagonist, fascinating science, and rich, biographical reporting,
The Mouse Trap, by Daniel Engber (Slate, read on a plane to Cairo)
To write one great feature about laboratory rats may be regarded as skill; to write two looks like vanity; to write three looks like genius. In this trinity of long-reads, Engber discusses why our reliance on fat, lazy rats might be holding back medical progress, how a strain known as Black-6 came to dominate research, and how a blind naked “anti-mouse” could be our secret weapon against cancer.
Number One with a Bullet by Rowan Jacobsen (Outside, read in Heathrow airport)
In India’s lush Kaziranga National Park, a new policy allows rangers to shoot wildlife poachers on sight. As a result, rhinos and tigers are thriving. Jacobsen introduces us to guards, conservationists and poachers to find deeper stories beyond a simple heroes-versus-villains narrative. This is essentially a superlative piece of war reporting, but with tigers.
Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult World by Amy Harmon (New York Times, read in Heathrow airport, immediately after Jacobsen’s piece)
Autism gets a lot of column inches, but usually in the context of silly controversies and far-off medical promises, none of which tell you anything about people with autism themselves. For that reason, Harmon’s take on Justin Canha, a young autistic man trying to find his place in the world, is wonderfully refreshing. It’s eye-opening, compassionate, and features a masterful use of dialogue. It took a year to report, which shows.
E.O.Wilson’s Theory of Everything by Howard French (Atlantic, read on the Victoria Line between Vauxhall and King’s Cross)
How do you write a worthy profile of E.O.Wilson, a man whose work spans decades and whose own writing is tinged with greatness? Apparently, you ask Howard French. Controversies over Wilson’s latest theories notwithstanding, French crafts a portrait of an inspirational figure, entranced by nature at the age of 82 as a boy would be at the age of 8. It also has the year’s best final line.
Deep Intellect: Inside the mind of the octopus by Sy Montgomery (Orion; read in bed)
Octopuses must be some of the easiest animals to write about captivatingly. They have acute intelligence, alien physique and a wondrous array of superpowers. But Montgomery does much more with this piece, which invites you to consider what life must be like with an utterly different mind and body. She is less narrating a natural history programme as inviting you to meet a friend. By the end, you get the feeling that Montgomery has slightly fallen in love with the octopus and that it’s really quite okay if you have too.
The Human Lake by Carl Zimmer (Loom, read on a bus heading for Waterloo)
The best science writers can see their beat through wide-angle lenses, finding common themes that run through seemingly disparate areas. This is a prime example of that skill – a long-form blog post that goes from the residents of a Connecticut lake to those within human intestines, told in Zimmer’s trademark simple-but-beautiful brand of storytelling.
Beautiful brains by David Dobbs (National Geographic, read on my sofa)
Starting with a great lede where his boy-racer son gets thrown in jail, Dobbs unpicks the impulsive, maddening teenage brain in his standard mix of pithy explanations and colloquial flourishes. You’re not reading a piece in National Geographic; you’re sitting by a campfire while a professor tells you a story.
What Made This University Researcher Snap? by Amy Wallace (Wired, read in a burrito joint)
In 2010, scientist Amy Bishop gunned down six of her colleagues at the University of Alabama. Just over a year later, Amy Wallace explores what made her snap. It is consistently gripping, often chilling, and frankly impossible to stop reading after the segment about her brother. It’s also the type of piece that is so intensely reported that it almost hurts to think about the rest of the iceberg.