Science Writing Prize 2012 – Mun-Keat Looi
The 2012 Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize, in association with the Guardian and the Observer, opened last week. Between now and the competition deadline, we’ll be hearing from established science writers about a piece of science writing they admire and what makes it so good.
Today, Mun-Keat Looi on a tale of celebrity, neuroscience and tragedy is woven into a masterful piece of science writing.
What’s brilliant about this story is the way it weaves two, maybe three, strands seamlessly together. Three strands that are each strong narratives in their own right.
It begins with a personal, human tale and something we’re all interested in (whether we admit it or not): celebrity.
Dave Duerson was an American Football star, a Superbowl winner who rose to the top of his game, winning a clutch of personal awards and glory for his team through hard training, determination and a passion for his sport. He got the money, the fame, the fancy cars, and he was a good guy to boot. You can and can’t guess what happened next.
“On 17 February 2011, aged 50, Duerson killed himself inside his Florida apartment. He did so in a manner that was in keeping with his unimpaired earlier self – meticulously, neatly, and with a thought to others. He had placed his NFL Man of the Year trophy, awarded in 1987, on a table beside the spot at which he fell, along with several notes setting out his financial and other arrangements. One of the notes carried a request that he repeated in a text message earlier that day to his ex-wife, Alicia. ‘Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank,’ he said. The request might have been deemed a quirk had it not tallied with the unusual method of Duerson’s suicide. He shot himself in the heart.”
This is how Pilkington introduces his second and third strands, the ones in which he’s a character and, like all good reporters, the cipher through which we, the readers, experience the story. It’s his first-person account of a visit to a fascinating place: the NFL Brain Bank. That alone is enough to get your interest isn’t it? What the heck is a “brain bank”? Who knew that the National Football League had one?
The story of the brain bank itself is the third strand. Pilkington describes it with all the questions any one of us would have visiting such an unusual place: How did it come about? What’s it like? What do they do here? With a storyteller’s tone, he adds the little details, the inconsequential things you or I would pick up on:
“Security is tight as you enter the building through heavily bolted metal doors. We pass rooms lined with shelves of jars carrying human brains pickled in formaldehyde. At the end of a corridor, we arrive at a small room into which several stainless steel refrigerators have been packed, one of which is marked: ‘Feet first. Head by door’.”
He also drops in pop-culture references and analogies that ground us, giving context: the boxer Micky Ward and the Hollywood film of his life (The Fighter) that just won big at the Oscars; a likening of brain images to Google Earth.
This is the point at which we’re introduced to the scientist, Dr Ann Mckee, but it’s not like an interview, it’s a conversation. Sure, he recounts the science parts, but it’s the offhand comments and mannerisms that make us feel a part of it.
When it comes to the dissections, it’s classic drama. We’re simultaneously grossed out and fascinated (take a look at Pilkington’s accompanying video to see what I mean). The brain is an interesting organ because it’s something we maybe feel we shouldn’t see – we will never see our own brain after all. And despite our rapidly advancing scientific knowledge, there’s still so much mystery surrounding this squishy thing and how it produces and stores thoughts, ideas, emotions, experiences and memory. In reading (and watching) this, we and Pilkington are getting an insight into something few ever see.
The narrative jumps again at this point, back to Duerson’s story. We get a second layer of detail to that story, the more personal one about how it started going right and how it started going wrong. This part goes beyond the sports story, to the life after athlete retirement that we rarely think about. But armed with that scientific insight, we maybe think of things a little differently. As his former wife describes his attitude and commitment to his profession, we understand how the damage he took affected his brain, and how his puzzling behaviours might be attributed to it. We join the dots between everyday life and the science we just heard. And we see what that squishy organ has to do with our memory failings, and our mood swings.
Pilkington jumps suddenly back to his own narrative, like cutting to the sad coda at the end of the movie. Mckee describes more of the science to him, the methods she uses to detect abnormal proteins in the brain, what tau is and how it clogs up nerve cells and eventually kills them. Then the bombshell, the soundbite, the bottom line that ties it all:
“‘This amount of damage in a 50-year-old is really profound, it’s huge,’ McKee says, pointing to the brown inlets on Duerson’s slide. ‘To show this degree of degenerative disease at that young age is quite extraordinary.'”
It’s the brain bank that finishes the story, which is fitting in a way, as this is where Duerson’s brain ends up. It ties together what the goal of this place is, why this research is important, and how the findings will help many different people – soldiers, trauma victims – not just sports stars. It’s a happy ending of sorts, not least because it offers some answers to the many people, like Duerson’s family, who wonder just what happened to the sweet person they loved.
This article was published online and in the G2 section of the print Guardian on Wednesday 20 July 2011, where it will have been seen by millions of readers. Online it attracted 216 comments. Scrolling through them I recognise some of the usernames, but from two different sides of my life. Half are the people I see frequenting this blog, the others are those I see commenting in the sports section. All are fascinated by the research, and gripped by the explanations it offers for a high-profile tragedy.
I know zip about American football. But this was not just a story about sports, nor was it just about neuroscience. It was the tale of Dave Duerson, but also Ed Pilkington and the NFL Brain Bank. What I liked about it was the way these elements worked together as a team to become greater than the sum of their parts, passing the reader like a ball between players, carried upfield to victory.
This article first appeared on the Guardian website. The rest of the series will be published on our blog and the Guardian’s site over the coming weeks. You can find more tips and advice in the ‘How I write about science’ series that ran ahead of last year’s competition.
Find out more about the Science Writing Prize on the Wellcome Trust website – the closing date is 25 April 2012.