For a lot of writers, there’s no greater dream than to get onto the Colbert Report or the Daily Show.
This was not exactly how my dream was supposed to go:
Now, as the author of a book about science tattoos and articles on topics including exploding whales, jumping fleas, zombie cockroaches, and the sex-crazed flashes of fireflies, I’ll be the first to admit that I sometimes like writing about things that may seem–at first–to be pure diversion.
But my hope is that there’s more to the stories than an intriguing headline, an eye-catching opening photo, or, yes, a cute cover of a magazine. I hope readers can learn something surprisingly deep about how the world works.
The flashes of fireflies are one of the best examples of Darwin’s ideas about how sex shapes nature. The parasitic wasps that make cockroaches their slaves have learned things about nervous systems that we humans do not yet understand. Learning about how whales survive deep dives can potentially give doctors clues about how to treat people who suffered from high-pressure impacts. A tattoo of the Dirac equation sums up quantum physics and Einstein’s theory of special relativity on one shoulder. And learning about how animals make friendships may reveal some important insights about how social interactions improve human health.
I’m guessing that Jon Stewart didn’t know that that last item was one of the conclusions of my article in this week’s issue of Time. I’m also guessing he’s not aware that I also wrote in the article about long-term fieldwork on animal societies, or research on endocrinology, or studies on reciprocal altruism. As far as I can tell, he only looked at the cover.
Mister Stewart, meet me at camera three.
I think it’s important to debate about how well journalists are covering the big political issues of our day. But it doesn’t make sense to claim that a science story is a cause of a great nation’s downfall. Surely a well-informed electorate can handle reading about both the evolution of behavior and the latest unrest in the Middle East.
And if you’d like to talk more about this, maybe you could have me on your show. (Hope springs eternal.)