Credit: Rosmary.
Credit: Rosmary.

Top Science Longreads of 2014

Every year, I pick my favourite science features—or ‘longreads’, as they have been rebranded as—from the previous 12 months. It’s always hard. Despite much hand-wringing about how the internet is killing journalism/reading/attention/civilisation, I see a constant stream of great long pieces, written by writers who are at the top of their game, and published by organisations willing to pay well. So, without further ado, here are my favourite dozen from the year, and a dozen more runners-up. In no particular order:

1) One of a Kind, by Seth Mnookin, for The New Yorker. A magnificently told, and often heartbreaking, story about a family trying to solve their son’s unique genetic mystery.

“That fall, Bertrand was rushed to the emergency room after suffering a series of life-threatening seizures. When the technicians tried to start an I.V., they found Bertrand’s veins so scarred from months of blood draws that they were unable to insert a needle. Later that evening, when Cristina was alone with Matt, she broke down in tears. “What have we done to our child?” she said. “How many things can we put him through?” As one obscure genetic condition after another was ruled out, the Mights began to wonder whether they would ever learn the cause of their son’s agony. What if Bertrand was suffering from a disorder that was not just extremely rare but entirely unknown to science?”

2) How “Titanic” is helping a South Pacific tribe understand why their island is disappearing, by Brooke Jarvis, for Matter. In this beautiful, moving piece, Jarvis meets the people most affected by climate change.

“A large, brown bone washed against my calf. At first I thought it belonged to some sort of marine mammal, maybe a dugong, and picked it up. But then I saw what was clearly a human jaw, five teeth still embedded in the bone, in the water next to me. I stared at the bone in my hand, shocked to realize that I was gripping a person’s femur. Once I started to see them, it seemed there were bones everywhere. Vertebrae swirled around my feet.”

3) Arrested development, by Virginia Hughes, for Mosaic. This is an amazing story about girls who seem stuck in permanent infancy, and a scientist’s quixotic (and possibly futile) quest to study them. It’s a textbook example of covering uncertain science, with a protagonist who is fascinatingly painted but never glorified as an iconoclast. “Science is often too slow, and life too fast.”

“Walker, now 74, believes that the key to ending ageing may lie in a rare disease that doesn’t even have a real name, “syndrome X”. He has identified four girls with this condition, marked by what seems to be a permanent state of infancy, a dramatic developmental arrest. He suspects that the disease is caused by a glitch somewhere in the girls’ DNA. His quest for immortality depends on finding it.”

4) How mistakes can save lives: one man’s mission to revolutionise the NHS, by Ian Leslie, for New Statesman. An utterly compelling story of the cost of medical mistakes, and how we might fix them.

“Martin Bromiley is a modest man with an immodest ambition: to change the way medicine is practised in the UK… Bromiley doesn’t fit with our preconceived ideas of a natural leader. He speaks with a soft voice. He doesn’t command your attention, though you find yourself giving it. Neither is he a doctor, or a health professional of any kind. Bromiley is an airline pilot. He is also a family man, with a terrible story to tell.”

5) Reared by puppets, by Lizzie Wade, for Aeon. A fantastic piece about the stewards of condor—people who are saving endangered birds using hand puppets—and whether their approach causes more problems than it solves. (Aeon)

“The condors wouldn’t leave Les Reid alone. In the late 1990s, a pack of them regularly showed up at his house in Pine Mountain Club, California, a small community northwest of Los Angeles. They clambered around on his roof, making a racket. They perched, one by one, on his large patio umbrella, seeming to enjoy the slow slide down its slippery surface and onto the deck below. Once, Reid, a former member of the Sierra Club’s board of directors, came home to find that eight young condors had ripped a hole in his screen door and were enthusiastically tearing apart his mattress. When he’d walked in on them, one of the birds had a pair of his underwear dangling from its beak.”

6) The Story That Tore Through the Trees, by Kathryn Schulz, for New York Magazine. Of all the pieces here, this one about fire, tragedy, and our relationship with nature, may be my favourite. It is achingly beautiful—a masterpiece of craft.

“It is, at present, a theater full of wildflowers. Meriwether Canyon lifts its head over the ridge opposite us, across a mile of sky. The Rockies stand stock still on the horizon. Things buzz. A hawk rises up on its invisible elevator and gets off at the 200th floor. The crosses are unobtrusive in the grass. The gulch, folded in half lengthwise, funnels itself toward the river, then vanishes near its mouth behind ridgelines and trees. The only thing you cannot see from up here is how to get out.”

7) The man who destroyed America’s ego, by Will Storr, for Matter. Typical of Storr, this story of “a rebel psychologist [who] challenged one of the 20th century’s biggest & most dangerous ideas” is insightfully reported and deftly told.

“Hiding from all this in an upstairs room at the back of the house was Roy: fair-haired, blue-eyed, well-mannered. He was often frightened by his father, but he was smart as well. He would become a distinguished psychologist, and a broad, controversial thinker. In the process, Roy would challenge his father. He would also, perhaps unknowingly, adopt his father’s contrary nature, his instinct for an outsider position. That’s one explanation, at least, for how Roy helped bring the self-esteem movement crashing down.”

8) Secrets of the Brain, by Carl Zimmer, for National Geographic. A state-of-the-union address about the coolest technologies for peering into the brain.

“Van Wedeen strokes his half-gray beard and leans toward his computer screen, scrolling through a cascade of files. We’re sitting in a windowless library, surrounded by speckled boxes of old letters, curling issues of scientific journals, and an old slide projector that no one has gotten around to throwing out. “It’ll take me a moment to locate your brain,” he says.”

9) The Aftershocks, by David Wolman, for Matter. The L’Alquila earthquake was a tragedy and in its aftermath, seven scientists were convicted of manslaughter for their failure to adequately warn the public. This is a harrowing tale of science, disaster, and how we talk about risk.

“Giulio Selvaggi was asleep when the shaking started. It was the night of April 5, 2009, and the head of Italy’s National Earthquake Center had worked late into the night in Rome before going home to crash. From the motion of his bed, Selvaggi could tell the quake was big — but not close. When you’re near the epicenter of a major quake, it’s like being a kernel of corn inside a popcorn maker. When you’re farther away, the movement is slower and steadier, back and forth, as the shock waves hit you.”

10) My Great-Great-Aunt Discovered Francium. And It Killed Her, by Veronique Greenwood, for New York Times Magazine. This starts off as a myth about self-sacrificing scientific genius but transforms into a counterpoint to those same myths; stay right to the very poignant finale.

“There is a common narrative in science of the tragic genius who suffers for a great reward, and the tale of Curie, who died from exposure to radiation as a result of her pioneering work, is one of the most famous. There is a sense of grandeur in the idea that paying heavily is a means of advancing knowledge. But in truth, you can’t control what it is that you find — whether you’ve sacrificed your health for it, or simply years of your time.”

11) The name of the fungus, by Susan Milius, for Science News. If you told me last year that a piece on fungal taxonomy would be one of the best things I read in 2014, I might have looked at you quizzically… and I would have been wrong.

“This basement on the campus of the Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Md., holds the second largest fungus collection in the world, with at least 1,000,000 specimens. Snuggled into exquisitely customized boxes and folders stored in high banks of institutional-beige metal cabinets are organisms that can glow in the dark, turn living ants into leaf-biting zombies, fetch thousands of dollars per pound at gourmet food shops or snarl international commodities markets. It may look like the ultimate triumph of human order over natural chaos. But with fungi, it turns out that looks can be deceiving.”

12) Partial Recall, by Michael Specter, for The New Yorker. In telling the story about neuroscientists who are trying to rewrite our most traumatic memories, Spector seamlessly fuses narrative storytelling with explanatory writing.

“One morning every spring, for exactly two minutes, Israel comes to a stop. Pedestrians stand in place, drivers pull over to the side of the road, and nobody speaks, sings, eats, or drinks as the nation pays respect to the victims of the Nazi genocide. From the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea, the only sounds one hears are sirens. “To ignore those sirens is a complete violation of the norms of our country,” Daniela Schiller told me recently. Schiller, who directs the laboratory of affective neuroscience at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, has lived in New York for nine years, but she was brought up in Rishon LeZion, a few miles south of Tel Aviv. “My father doesn’t care about the sirens,” she says. “The day doesn’t exist for him. He moves about as if he hears nothing.”

And twelve more…

And a few of my own…