Science writing I like

by Michael

Image of writing

Writing sample created using a mechanical substitute for the arms, 1919 (Wellcome Images)

The title of this post is not a Yoda-like pronouncement of a generally warm feeling towards writing that deals with scientific subject material. Rather, it is the brief given to me recently as we prepare to launch the second year of the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize in association with the Guardian and Observer newspapers. I am one of several science writers and journalists who have been asked to write about a piece of good science writing and explain what makes it good.

I have to admit, it was a bit of a struggle to produce my answer.

I’d had the same problem when, doing a segment of the Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast ahead of last year’s Awards ceremony, I was asked what my favourite piece of science writing was. I had nothing. Shameful. Or at least a lesson that one should have answers to such obvious questions prepared at all occasions. In hindsight, I realised that my answer would probably have been The Periodic Table by Primo Levi.

In preparing for the new assignment, I skimmed through The Periodic Table again. It is, like all of Levi’s work, autobiographical, taking the concept of elements as a frame to talk about his life, work and experiences. I also did a quick search for views about the book and found that Tim Radford had written about it much more eloquently than I could do. So I shelved it (not as bad as it sounds when the object being shelved is a book) and thought harder.

There are two observations to make about why I was finding it difficult to pick a piece of science writing to write about. First, while I do read quite a lot of other science writers’ work (by which I include science journalism, scientists writing about their work or others’, ’embedded’ science writers like myself, bloggers whatever their background or qualifications, etc), I don’t remember much of it. This is just a consequence of the way I tend to consume media – I browse a lot, graze on the rich pastures of newspapers, blogs, magazines across science, literature, culture, theatre; what I read I do not remember specifically but I do feel that it all goes in somewhere and moulds my overall world-view (this was close to being a handicap when I was studying at university, as I could never remember the source material for my feelings on a particular subject or issue – my essays were a little bare in the citations department).

Second, I am not sure that among the articles I read there is all that much variation in quality. And a fair amount of the variation comes from the subject matter more than the writing. So how much of what I read really stands out? Not much, but of course this does not mean it is not ‘good’, merely that most of what I read is pretty good and I don’t think there is anyone consistently producing ‘science writing’ that moves me.

This may indicate that I do not read enough.

So anyway, I hit upon a piece of writing about science that I really do love, although I would hesitate to call it science writing. I’m not going to scoop my own piece (which I hope will be published on the Guardian website and the Wellcome Trust blog early next week), suffice to say it is a poem. In French. From the 1950s.

Choosing this poem and examining why I like it so much (especially when I don’t even have the French language skills to fully judge its literary qualities) made me realise what I want to be the result of any collision between ‘science’ and ‘writing’ to form ‘science writing’: I want for the best science writing to be artistically accomplished – yes, to convey the science accurately and simply so that any interested, intelligent reader can understand it; but also for the writing to rise above its subject material, to be classifiable as good writing regardless of whether it is about science or not. Apart from the poem, in my piece I mention a book by Italo Calvino (possibly my favourite author) and a piece of journalism by Ian Sample. I would have also perhaps mentioned a wonderful feature by Ed Pilkington (who is not a science writer) but one of my colleagues had already nabbed it for his blog post. All of these deal with scientific content but the result is good writing that makes you care less about whether it is science or not, and just enjoy the quality of the writing.

When I was involved in shortlisting entries for the MRC’s Max Perutz Science Writing Prize, I was always looking out for an essay that, although about a specific research project, was about more than that project, about more than just the science; I wanted to read a piece that gave me, the reader, the impression that this was urgent, important and fascinating – and just happened to be about science. So that is what I want from the best science writing – to leave behind the brief, which is to write about science, and to become a great piece of writing that just happens to deal with a scientific topic, or, more accurately, perhaps, that has chosen to deal with a scientific topic not because it is ‘science’ and fulfils the prize criteria or the writer’s job description or the remit of the organisation the writer is working for, but because it is urgent, important and fascinating.

The upshot of this is that I have to consider how my own writing stacks up against these criteria and I think I am found wanting. It is a challenge. I am proud of much of what I write in my current role, but there is definitely scope to raise the bar, challenge the conventions and aim to write something that transcends the necessity of being ‘science writing’ and becomes just damned good writing in its own right.