Top Science Longreads of 2012

Ignore the tedious pundits bloviating about shrunken attention spans. There has never been a better time to immerse yourself in long, deep, rich science reporting. Here’s a list of my 12 top pieces of the year, a list that was so hard to compile that I added a 13th. In no particular order:

(Update: Following a complaint in the comments, I hereby warn you that 1, 7 and 8 require money to read. For the uninitiated, money is a thing that people occasionally trade for goods and services, like writing.)

1) The Electric Mind, by Jessica Benko  (Atavist). A stunning story about Cathy Hutchinson, a woman otherwise known as S3, who commandeered a robotic limb with her imprisoned mind.

“The first thing Cathy Hutchinson became aware of upon waking from three weeks in the quiet of a coma was the rhythmic alternation of surge then draw: whoosh, hiss, whoosh, hiss. As the contours of a room began to resolve before her eyes, she discovered the source of the sounds—a ventilator machine beside her bed.”

2) King of the Cosmos, by Carl Zimmer (Playboy; link goes to Zimmer’s own site). A masterful profile of the legendary Neil deGrasse Tyson, with a kicker that still makes me well up a bit.

“The voice is deep and loud–not loud from shouting, but from some strange acoustic property that gives it a conversational boom. It comes from a man who looms in the dark at the edge of the crowd.”

3) The Perfect Milk Machine: How Big Data Transformed the Dairy Industry, by Alexis Madrigal (The Atlantic). An opus to the science behind Big Dairy, featuring  a cow called Badger-Bluff Fanny Freddie.

“He is, for all intents and purposes except for his own, genetic material that comes in the handy form of semen.”

4) Prehistoric Proteins: Raising the Dead, by Helen Pearson (Nature). Few writers can so deftly combine descriptions of complex science with vivid, scenes that plunge you deeply into a person’s life and character.

“Of the seven friends and colleagues of Thornton’s who spoke to Nature, six called him intense. The seventh described him as “beyond intense”.”

5) The Vanishing Groves, by Ross Andersen (Aeon). A poignant, poetic piece about the bristlecone pines – the world’s oldest trees, and harbingers of climate changes to come.

“Trees and forests are repositories of time; to destroy them is to destroy an irreplaceable record of the Earth’s past. Over this past century of unprecendented deforestation, a tiny cadre of scientists has roamed the world’s remaining woodlands, searching for trees with long memories…”

6) New Videogame Lets Amateur Researchers Mess With RNA, by Brendan Koerner (Wired). Much has been written about “citizen science” but none of it as skilful or elegant as this piece on the amateur scientists who play with one of life’s fundamental molecules.

“She may have given up astrophysics, but Fournier still has a deep love of science. As soon as she gets home from work each night, she boots up her Asus laptop and begins what she calls “my second job”: designing molecules of ribonucleic acid—RNA—that have the power to build proteins or regulate genes. It is a job that she happens to perform better than almost anyone else on earth.”

7) Do No Harm, by Anil Ananthaswamy (Matter). This first salvo from a new long-form science magazine knocks it out of the park, with a gripping and understated story about people who don’t feel whole until they cut off a limb.

““He told me that there was something in my eyes the whole time I was growing up,” David said. “It looked like I had pain in my eyes, like there was something I wasn’t telling him.” Once David opened up, he discovered that he was not alone. He found a community on the internet of others who were also desperate to excise some part of their body — usually a limb, sometimes two.”

8 ) The Mosquito Solution, by Michael Spector (New Yorker). A thoroughly reported piece on efforts to create dengue-beating genetically engineered mosquitoes, and the greatest obstacle to their success—people.

“In Key West, the town meeting with the Oxitec scientists and Doyle quickly became emotional, and, at times, rancorous. Oxitec was portrayed as an international conglomerate willing to “play God” and endanger an American paradise. The worry about theoretical risk tends to overwhelm any discussion of possible benefits. “But to get rid of the virus, we have to get rid of the mosquitoes,” stated Aldo Malavasi.”

9) Re-awakenings, by Virginia Hughes (Last Word on Nothing). A paper came out last year about a mysterious sleep-inducing chemical in the brain. Most people covered it as straight news; Hughes gave us this brilliant feature about the woman who revitalised a buried idea. The only unedited piece on this list.

“The doctors at Emory, led by neurologist David Rye, weaned Sumner off the stimulants and decided to look more closely at the chemicals bathing her brain. Rye had a hunch about what was going wrong, but his idea had a tired, tainted history.”

10) The Last Laughing Death, by Jo Chandler (The Global Mail). Before prions were known, before Britain’s BSE crisis, a young man trekked into the hills of Papua New Guinea to begin a 55-year quest that would reveal a cause of disease unlike any other.

“It’s 50 years since Michael Alpers, a 28-year-old medical graduate from Adelaide with a restless spirit and an urge “to do health in a different kind of way”, hiked into the Papua New Guinea highlands looking for the crucible of a devastating disease epidemic — and stumbled into the crater of an uncharted volcano.”

11) Attack of the Mutant Pupfish, by Hillary Rosner (Wired). A wonderful feature by Hillary Rosner, loaded with brisk, clean turns of phrase, on a bold approach to conservation—hybridising species in order to save them.

“Thousands of years of adaptation have left the Devils Hole pupfish able to live only in one very particular environment: It needs 90-degree water, low oxygen, and a shallow submerged ledge on which to spawn. It’s hard enough being endangered; being endangered and picky is a deadly combination. Endangered, picky, and unlucky? Even worse.”

12) Restless Genes, by David Dobbs (National Geographic). A heart-achingly evocative piece on the human compulsion to explore, written with Dobbs’ trademark embrace of science’s complexity, eye for nuance, and command of narrative.

“Not all of us ache to ride a rocket or sail the infinite sea. Yet as a species we’re curious enough, and intrigued enough by the prospect, to help pay for the trip and cheer at the voyagers’ return. Yes, we explore to find a better place to live or acquire a larger territory or make a fortune. But we also explore simply to discover what’s there.“

13) Is the Cure for Cancer Inside You?, by Dan Engber (New York Times). This was published when I had already finished compiling my list, but because of it, I needed to add “baker’s” in front of my “dozen”. Peppered with delightful turns of phrase, and opening with the best lede of recent memory, Engber talks through a big new direction for cancer research.

 “Before she finished reading, Claudia was hollering at her daughter to wake up. “Dad got the Nobel!” she cried. Alexis, still half-asleep, told her she was crazy. Her father had been dead for three days.”

Others of note:

Here’s another ten from beyond the world of science writing (or that dip a few toes into it, rather than wading knee-deep).

  1. The Wave-Maker by William Langewiesche (Vanity Fair). On a record-breaking surfer; lose yourself in the unparalleled intro.
  2. 18 Tigers, 17 Lions, 8 Bears, 3 Cougars, 2 Wolves, 1 Baboon, 1 Macaque, and 1 Man Dead in Ohio, by Chris Heath (GQ). There were four pieces on the Zanesville massacre this year, and this was my favourite.
  3. With The Avengers, Joss Whedon Masters the Marvel Universe, by Adam Rogers (Wired). Joss is sparkling as usual, but this is a masterclass in profile writing.
  4. The Ultimate Counterfeiter Isn’t a Crook—He’s an Artist, by David Wolman (Wired). A brilliant piece of narrative journalism.
  5. Obama’s Way, by Michael Lewis (Vanity Fair). Amazing scene after amazing scene.
  6. The Blind Faith of the One-Eyed Matador, by Karen Russell. Breathtaking writing, with paso doble intensity.
  7. When Illness Makes a Spouse a Stranger, by Denise Grady (New York Times). Heartbreaking portrayal ofdementia.
  8. Angel Killer, by Deborah Blum (Atavist). Deeply unsettling true crime story about the mind of a child-killer.
  9. The New French Hacker Underground, by Jon Lackman (Wired).
  10. A Textbook of Trauma, by Jesse Green (New York Magazine). Tracking how one hospital responded to a traumatic bus crash.

And my contributions:

Feature-writing is some of the most rewarding work I get to do. Here are a few from this year that  I was especially proud of.

  1. Seeing the light: Ed Boyden’s tools for brain hackers (Wired UK), on the titular scientist’s quest to “solve the brain” with an engineer’s ethos
  2. Replication studies: Bad copy (Nature), on psychology’s troubles with mischief and misconduct, and how psychologists are facing up to them.
  3. Logging the Amazon (Wired UK), on Greg Asner, the man who is mapping the Amazon by plane.
  4. Five questions on H5N1 (Nature), on how little we actually know about the virus that everyone’s worried about.

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