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The Best Science Writing Online 2012

The Best Science Writing Online 2012

Bora Zivkovic, Jennifer Ouellette

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Contributors Brian Switek and Allie Wilkinson discuss dinosaurs, dodos, and why they blog

The Best Science Writing Online 2012 contributors Allie Wilkinson and Brian Switek got together to discuss what inspired them to become science writers and bloggers, as well as their fascination with dinosaurs, dodos, and marine biology. Allie's essay in the book, “How to Take the Real Measure of a Man,” discusses the evolutionary implications of the “anogenital distance,” and Brian's “The Dodo is Dead, Long Live the Dodo!” turns our mental image of the extinct dodo on its head. Brian is a science writer based in Salt Lake City, who runs the blogs Laelaps and Dinosaur Tracking, and whose book, My Beloved Brontosaurus will be published by Scientific America/FSG in April. Allie is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Ars Technica, Scientific American, and Chemical & Engineering News.

Allie Wilkinson: For starters, great piece! It was especially interesting to me—after visiting Paris last year and seeing the spotlight on the dodo at the Grande Galerie de lÉvolution—that at one time the French didn’t even believe the dodo to have existed. What inspired you to write this piece? Was it the paper published last year by Angst, et al?

Brian Switek: Thanks! And the fact that people didn’t believe in the dodos’ extinction for so long truly was strange. People had driven an entire species into extinction in an extremely short period of time, yet naturalists didn’t believe extinction was possible! It wasn’t until about 1799—when the French anatomist Georges Cuvier pointed out that mastodons and mammoths were extinct elephants and not the same as their living cousins—that people realized that extinction was real. It’s absolutely baffling.

And you’re spot-on regarding my inspiration for the essay. When I read the paper by Angst and co-authors about the new weight estimate for dodos, I was shocked. I had grown up with images of fat, waddling, stupid dodos. I wanted to know more, so I dug into the literature and found that paleontologists and zoologists have known that dodos were actually relatively svelte, elegant birds for years. The new imagery just hasn’t filtered through to the public. I thought I’d try to change that and introduce readers to the more accurate version of the dodo that naturalists are just now becoming acquainted with.

Allie: How was the feedback on the piece? Did you notice if the paper got a lot of coverage in the mainstream media?

Brian: Readers seemed to enjoy it. I think they were just as surprised as I was that the classic imagery of dodos differed so much from the actual birds. Of course, my blog is just one small corner of the science blogohedron. I’m sure the traditional image of dumpy dodos hangs on. Hopefully the printed version of the essay will reach a few more readers who wouldn’t otherwise find it! I don’t recall the paper getting any mainstream media coverage. I think that’s partly because of the journal it was printed in—papers in Naturwissenschaften sometimes get media play, and sometimes they don’t. That, and it’s a matter of context. A paper about revised weight estimates for dodos by itself might not seem interesting, but it becomes much more compelling when couched in the broader change in imagery. 

Allie: Since you are a full-time freelancer as well, what made you decide to cover this piece in blog format? 

Brian: I don’t think I ever considered another format for the essay. Many of the outlets I write for—such as Nature News and ScienceNOW—feature short news stories that go up right when embargoes lift on papers. It was already too late to pitch the dodo story to them, and I wouldn’t have had space to really draw out the narrative. And I’ve never had much luck selling natural history stories as features to magazines. Looking back, I could have given it a shot, but the natural thing to do was to gather all the references and take as much time as I wanted with the story. I think that’s one of the main advantages of having a blog; as our editor Jennifer Ouellette has said, blogs can act as a kind of “writing laboratory” where it’s fun to experiment with different ideas and styles. 

I’ll turn the same question around at you. You blogged about a paper with an obvious human connection that readers would certainly pick up on! What made you decide to blog the paper rather than sell a news story? At the moment, at least, studies in neuroscience, psychology, and (for better or worse) evolutionary psychology seem to be among the most popular areas of science in the mass media.

Allie: To be honest, I never planned to cover the paper myself. I thought it would be perfect for Scicurious’ Friday Weird Science series, so I told Sci about it. She asked if I wanted to guest-blog it that week, and after confirming that it was a different study than one she had seen on anogenital distance, I went for it. Pitching it as a news story didn’t even cross my mind, but looking back, had the idea crossed my mind I still would have blogged it. You (and Jennifer) were on point in saying blogging is like a writing laboratory—guest-blogging allowed me to break out of my usual routine and write for a new audience, try my hand at an area of science outside my usual beat, and experiment with humor.

Brian: Do you think of yourself of having a usual beat, then? With so much science out there, how do you pick what to write about?

Allie: I do. For the most part I write about environmental topics, and especially ocean issues. As much as I try to deny my origins as a marine biologist, it seems I can’t, and I shouldn’t. In one of my classes in graduate school, I discovered that while trying to write a feature story on Ebola in gorillas—I am, and always will be, a marine biologist at heart. I struggled more writing that story, figuring out who the big names and organizations were that I should be speaking with. But when it comes to the ocean, I have the background. I know who to talk to, and more importantly, I speak the same language. I’ve found that my interviews always go a lot better and more smoothly when talking to marine scientists because I speak the language, and have knowlege in the field. It never feels like an interview—it feels like talking to a friend or close colleague.

In terms of blogging, in the past year or so I have tried to branch out from the environmental topics and cover more papers in biology as a whole. It’s been an experiment in figuring out what topics I can cover in order to expand my repertoire, and it has also been a really fun learning experience. I’ve learned about gene therapy. I’ve learned about forensics. It’s been fascinating to break out of the box and try new things.

Picking stories can definitely be a struggle. Some weeks there doesn’t seem to be a single paper that catches my eye, and other weeks there can be at least ten. When faced with a deluge of exciting material, I will always pick a good ocean paper first. When I stray from my usual beat, then I’ll pick a paper that is really interesting in some way—either it has mass appeal or significance for people, especially in terms of health, safety, or behavior, or is just a really neat study that I think will make readers say, “Oh wow, this is cool!”

So you have one book already published, with another on the way. (I for one, cannot wait to read My Beloved Brontosaurus.) How did you choose your subject matter for each book, and what made you decide to transition to book writing?

Brian: I wish there was a method behind all this. That would make the process of pitching a book so much easier! I don’t have a specific set of criteria for what makes a good book topic. My writing follows what I’m passionate about—usually fueled by what I’m reading—and then I ask myself, “How can I best tell this story?” Some stories can be told in a blog post. Others need the space afforded by a feature. And a few are so large in scale that they require a whole book, and, at that point, I ask, “Why should anyone care?” For my first two books, the answer to that last question is because I believe people want to know exactly how paleontologists are reconstructing prehistoric life. They see the products of paleontology in museums and on television, but how do we know what we say we know? How do we really know that we’re related to fishapods that pulled themselves out of the Devonian mud, or that birds are living dinosaurs? And, more than that, I think answering such questions helps put our existence in context. At a superficial level, figuring out what color a dinosaur was may not seem to have much relevance to the average person’s life. But by exploring that tiny aspect of science, we have to gauge how distant the dinosaur was from us, how the animal is connected to modern birds, and otherwise keep in mind patterns of evolution and extinction. Small questions can be blown up into wider concepts. 

That, and I like to pick subjects that are familiar but haven’t been totally explored. There is a lot of new, cutting-edge science out there, but I feel that it’s worthwhile to return to “old friends,” so to speak, and see what has changed and why. That was the motivation behind My Beloved Brontosaurus—why have the dinosaurs that we grew up with changed so much? And why are people resistant to new dinosaurs, especially feathery ones?

Allie: What inspired you to become a writer?

Brian: I never set out to be a writer. This is just a happy accident. I started blogging in the fall of 2006, when I was taking a few paleontology classes at Rutgers University. I hated most of my college experience, but those classes helped reignite my passion for prehistoric life. I had a lot of questions, and as I tracked down the answers in books and technical papers, I started writing about what I was learning. I couldn’t contain myself. It took a long time—I’ve only been freelancing full time for a year now—but that passion kept me writing almost every day, and introduced me to a profession that I never thought I’d be a part of! How did you get your start?

Allie: I never set out to be a writer either. My inability to decide on a thesis topic for a master’s in science combined with an impulsive decision after watching Blood Diamond led me to enroll in a journalism graduate program, which I started three weeks later. I figured it would be a useful skill to have, and could buy me some time until I figured out a thesis project. By the end of my degree, I still was no closer to making a decision regarding a research area... but I did find out that I really love sharing science. I’ve since been told that the inability to commit is the mark of a great science writer, and I think that is why being a science writer appeals to me so much—I don’t have to commit myself to one study area. I get to dabble in different topics and keep learning, and it keeps the job from getting boring—one day I could be writing about oil-degrading microbes, and the next it could be ecosystem tools or science policy.

A funny sidebar: as much as I never intended to be a writer, I certainly had NO plans to be a blogger. My very first assignment for my very first journalism class was to keep a blog for a week, and I came home and said, “What the hell is a blog?” I literally spent hours researching different blogs to see what a blog was and what you put on one. Clearly I liked it, because here I am, blogging, four years later. If not for that assignment, I wouldn’t be here today, and I never would have become a part of the amazing Science Online community.

Brian: I think many of us found our way to blogging and science writing by unexpected routes. And that’s a good thing—I think the unconventional pathways help boost the diversity of voices within our community. Flipping through the anthology, it’s fascinating to see all the different perspectives. And that’s just a small sample of the entire community!

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