How I write about science – Ian Sample
As a science writer you have weighty responsibilities. Dwell on them too long and they will paralyse you from the neck up, says Guardian Science Correspondent Ian Sample in the latest tips for entrants to the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize 2011 in association with the Guardian and the Observer .
You will never write a word if you stop long enough to consider the responsibilities that rest on your shoulders when you sit down to tackle a science story. Your job is to produce an article that is correct, clear and fascinating; that raises implications and proper doubts and leaves your readers grateful having given you their time, whether they are the world’s leading authority on the subject or, more likely, a passer-by who landed on your story by chance. Dwell on this too long and it becomes reality’s version of a paralysing dream. Like the one where you find yourself on stage before a vast audience and realise you’ve not only forgotten the words to the song but are dressed in nothing but a jumper and socks.
So what to banish from mind? The people you interview may have spent decades pondering a particular phenomenon to grasp the depths and subtleties of its meaning and mysteries. You will have minutes to grab from them enough information to explain their work and perhaps not much longer to put it in a context that an interested but inexpert reader will thank you for. Consider how much trust your interviewees put in you. Misrepresent their work or opinions and you might as well not bother. An interesting story is a worthless story if the information is wrong. Now put that thought to one side.
The most valuable asset a journalist has is access to other people’s brains and it is your responsibility to pick them. You might interview a Nobel prizewinning academic about their latest world-changing idea and be eager to write it up, but you have a duty to tell readers what other informed people make of it. Your prized researcher might forget to mention the practical or ethical hurdles that others see as terminal blows. The views of serious sceptics are invaluable, because science thrives on criticism, even if scientists do not. Your readers deserve to hear their voices.
People might get grumpy with you for airing valid concerns about their research and even harass you with uppity emails. But don’t let that play on your mind.
A generalisation: people who are unfamiliar with science think it is about facts and discoveries. This is how science was taught at my school and I suspect at many others. You have a responsibility to convey science as it is. Wonderful insights into nature do not materialise from nowhere and they are never the final word. They are milestones in long and often disjointed stories that are populated with normal people who display all that is spectacular and dismaying about human behaviour in any walk of life. Your story is precious. One of your greatest – and at times most paralysing – responsibilities is to do it justice.
You have more responsibilities beyond these. Acknowledge them and move on or you will spend the day sat in front of a blank screen eating biscuits as deadlines hurtle past.
Immerse yourself in science and it will lead you to stories that are wondrous and baffling, beautiful and cruel, cute and amusing. Make a note of pieces that grab your attention and work out why they appeal. Learn from them. They don’t have to be profound and luxuriant eight-thousand-word essays. Some years back, New Scientist published a forgettable short story on “smart” flatpack furniture, but I will always remember how it was covered by James Meek, a former science correspondent at the Guardian. The story was never going to win any prizes, but to me it made a good point: that even within the confines of 250 words, there is room for imagination. The same writer’s lovely dispatch on the death of Dolly the Sheep is another that remains lodged in my mind.
Don’t ignore the emotions and thoughts people have as they go about their work. They might just reveal something of the passion that drives many scientists. Talking about the discovery of a Neanderthal shelter that was occupied until the last years of that race’s existence, Clive Finlayson at the Gibraltar museum described how it felt to sit in the cave and hold a stone tool that had presumably be used to prepare food.
“I saw one flake and went to touch it, knowing it was a tool left by a Neanderthal, and it drew blood,” he said. “It can be very powerful being in the cave. You can get that feeling that a Neanderthal was sitting in exactly the same spot, that the only thing separating us is time. It’s like a connection over tens of thousands of years and it makes you want to know more. We’re humans studying humans.” Science writing is more than explaining science.
Good science writing should pull you into unfamilar worlds and some of the most memorable are the most uncomfortable. In “An error in the code”, a New Yorker feature that was eight years in the making, the writer Richard Preston reported on a genetic condition called Lesch-Nyhan syndrome that can be caused by the change of a single letter in the human genome. This minuscule glitch has dramatic consequences. Those affected compulsively self-mutilate to the point of chewing off their own fingertips. They instigate situations to bring harm on themselves. Preston managed to bring out the frustration and despair of the condition without losing sight of the matter-of-fact attitude some patients adopt in order to have anything like a normal life. Few other articles have stopped me so firmly in my tracks.
There is a balance to be struck in science writing. Take your responsibilities seriously, but don’t let them get the better of you. Keep them in mind and you are on course to do the right thing by your readers, your interviewees and your story.
Ian Sample has been a science correspondent for the Guardian since 2003. He is the author of Massive: The Hunt for the God Particle and tweets as @iansample.
Enter the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize 2011 in association with the Guardian and the Observer. Deadline 20 May.