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The Best Science Writing Online 2012

The Best Science Writing Online 2012

Bora Zivkovic, Jennifer Ouellette

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Best Science Writing Online 2012 contributors David Manly and Eva Amsen talk blogs, twins, and Vitamin C

 

David Manly and Eva Amsen are two contributors to The Best Science Writing Online 2012, edited by Bora Zivkovic. Amsen’s essay, “Make History, Not Vitamin C” outlines the strange connection between South Africa’s foundation and scurvy prevention, and Manly’s “Mirror Images: Twins and Identity” talks about growing up as an identical twin. Here the science journalists and bloggers got together to talk about each other’s posts, about animals, and about National Novel Writing Month.

 

David Manly: Hi, Eva! Nice to meet you.

Eva Amsen:  Hi, David!

David:  I'm glad we get to do this.

Eva:  Yes, this is fun. I just got my copy of the book in the mail this morning.

David:  I got mine earlier this week and am saving it to read when I am traveling next week, but it keeps taunting me to read it!

Eva:  I'm still deciding whether to pack mine for my trip.

David:  So, we are supposed to ask each other questions about our articles that are in the collection. I really enjoyed yours, by the way (especially the Princess Bride references).

Eva:  Ha, thanks. I made the Princess Bride reference so subtle that I think you can still read it without knowing the film. I just read your essay in the actual book, and I can't figure out who's who in the photo, even though I saw it with a legend in the blog post. I already forgot. But I guess that’s one of the things that made you write the post.

David:  Hahaha, that is perfectly ok. And yes, even now (at age 28), we still get confused for one another now and then.

Eva:  Have you ever (ab)used that to play any fun pranks? 

David:  Yes and no. My brother and I would intentionally confuse people, because it was SO EASY, even if we were wearing different clothes. But my parents were smart. They moved us into different classes after Grade 1, so the chances of that happening in school were reduced. That said, we'd muse about taking tests for one another, though, but because we were so identical, everyone knew us at school (even through high school), so it became difficult.

Eva:  I guess people would suspect a swap as soon as something seemed slightly odd.

David:  Speaking of odd, how did you come up with the idea for your post?

Eva:  I don't actually remember. It had been lingering for a long time as an idea for a post, but I don't recall what inspired it. But I tried telling people about the connection between vitamin C and settling in South Africa once before (in person), and they didn't find it interesting. I thought: no, it is interesting, but it took me a while to write it down in a way that made sense.

David:  It definitely is a complex story to understand, but an important one!

Eva:  So many different factors... And even if history had run along a different course, where refrigerators were invented before the 17th century, things would have been different!

David:  I knew scurvy was bad on ships, but I had no idea it was THAT bad, with up to 80% of a ship’s crew dying from it!

Eva:  I know! I didn't fully realize that people actually died of it until I started reading about it. I never did get around to properly keeping track of my references for this, though. Bad (chaotic) writer...

David:  Not every writer does, so it’s ok. And I will admit, as an animal nut, I really enjoyed it when you mentioned capybaras.

Eva:  They're so great. In all senses of the word! I actually took note of your Twitter bio, where you said you're an “animal knowledge savant.” What animals in particular do you know a lot about?

David:  We'd be here for hours! But, a lot. I love learning about animals and I absorb that knowledge like a sponge. If you named a type of animal (or a species in some cases), I'd probably know quite a bit about it. But I can tell you exactly what sparked my interest in the zoological world that began my quest for animal knowledge – dinosaurs. I was obsessed with going to the museum as a child, and my knowledge eventually outpaced the tour guides’. And I thought, "What else is there to learn about animals that are alive today?" Which naturally led me to a career in science and biology.

Eva:  Dinosaurs always do such a good job at getting people interested in science.

David:  I wrote a piece about dinosaurs in Scientific American earlier this week, coincidentally.

Eva:  Back to your first love, then? 

David:  It never leaves!

Eva:  I've become mildly obsessed with reading news articles about the liger cub, taking me on a trail along all the websites about hybrid cats. But I have absolutely no time to think or write about it now, so I've just been bookmarking links. It may just be my next blog post, though. Only I don't know when "next" is.

David:  So what's your background, since we've covered a little bit of mine already?

Eva:  I did chemistry in undergrad, with the intention of studying environmental sciences and saving the planet. But then I discovered that the reality of environmental science research involves sitting at spectrometers and waiting for hours, so I chose biochemistry instead.

David:  I had a similar revelation!

Eva:  It just seemed like it would be so much more exciting!

David:  I did my honors undergrad in biology and zoology, complete with a thesis. I loved the lab work, but honestly disliked the sitting at a bench for months/years crunching data. So I wanted to do something that combined my love and enthusiasm for science with my passion for telling people about it – hence, science journalism. I got my Masters of Journalism and have been doing that ever since. But the bench does still beckon from time to time....

Eva:  Oh, I don't miss the bench at all. But I did do a PhD, so I've done my time. I went straight from my PhD to various science-writing jobs, but I'd been doing it freelance on the side for a few years at the time.

David:  I never really considered it. But I had been writing for my university paper as a way to pad my résumé, and ended up really liking it! I worked with a professor on an article about plants in offices, and he said that I was quite good and should consider transitioning to writing. I gave it no mind at the time, but that one comment stayed with me until my last year at university, when I became a bit disillusioned with bench work. Then my sister mentioned off-hand that since I enjoyed writing for the school newspaper, I should consider journalism. And the rest, as they say, is history!

Eva:  I have actually wanted to do writing-related things since I was about eleven, but I never really thought about writing about science until some time during my undergrad. And then it still took me years to actually do it. Most of what I do these days is coordinating and managing rather than writing, though. But that's why I still blog!

David:  I spend my day editing and writing for a magazine that, as I like to say, is “science-adjacent.” But, just like you, that is why I still blog and write about science. I'm also writing a novel.

Eva:  Ooh, that's something I've never seriously considered. I do have a draft of one (as a result of a NaNoWriMo experiment) but it's just sitting on my hard drive. Is your novel science-related or not at all?

David:  Science with a dash of science fiction. I've actually hit a roadblock (my character is in a situation where I cannot figure a way to escape). So, I'm hoping that this year's NaNoWriMo will help me power through. It also has a bit of horror. It's called, The Black.

Eva:  Sounds interesting!

David:  Thanks! Back to your post. Your writing style is very conversational and informal, and it really suited the piece. It was like I was sitting at a table and you were telling it to me.

Eva:  Thanks. I try to do that with other posts, but it doesn't always work. Or people read it in the wrong tone and get offended. This one was the only time where it turned out the way I wanted it to!

David:  The key is that you are trying!

Eva:  I try to look at examples of writing I really like, and figure out how they got their point across.

David:  Like who?

Eva:  Not necessarily science writing. There's one particular bit in a Bill Bryson book where he describes American parking lots that I think is just brilliant, and I try to figure out what makes it so good. In that case, it's his casual tone about things that are actually huge issues, when he actually usually uses big dramatic paragraphs about nothing in particular.

David:  That's a key to being a good writer - reading other good stuff (and even bad stuff helps too).

Eva:  So what made you write your twin post when you did?

David:  Like you, I had wanted to write it for a while. And I had just started regularly contributing to the Scientific American Guest Blog, so I pitched the idea to Bora, who absolutely loved the idea.

David:  I wanted to convey something that people don't really consider: that when you have an identical or fraternal twin, how much more difficult it is standing out from each other's shadow (because you are always compared to one another).

Eva:  I think that does come across in the piece, mainly because it's clearly your voice. As opposed to, say, TV programs where two identical twins are both together on screen talking about identity, although that does illustrate the issue.

David:  True, and thank you. Honestly, it was one of the most fun things I've written.

Eva:  You start the piece by saying that most people ask “who's older,” and that just made me realize what a huge nerd I am, because my initial (often unspoken) question to identical twins is: "So, have you ever participated in twin studies?" Have you? 

David:  HA! You are in the small minority, my dear. But no. Our records were once anonymously used in a study regarding deadly allergies (I'm allergic to fish, my identical twin brother, Daniel, has none).

Eva:  Interesting! (I'm now thinking about the biochemistry of allergies, hence the pause.) Did you have any more questions? Because I have to pack for a conference.

David:  What was the first thing you did when you learned your piece was going to be in The Best Science Writing Online 2012?

Eva:  I don't remember... I probably tweeted or blogged about it! You?

David:  I stared at the email, stunned, for probably a good five minutes before calling my brother.

Eva:  What did he say?

David:  (jokingly) "Really? WHY???"

Eva:  Haha!

David:  Do you have any questions left for me?

Eva:  No, I'm all done.

David:  Well then, I won't keep you from your packing, but it was lovely chatting with you. Have fun at your conference!

Eva:  Bye, and thanks for the interview/chat!

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