Science Writing Prize 2012 – Simon Frantz
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.
In this post, a scientific whodunit set in a Canadian town beset by a strange black mould is a real page-turner for Simon Frantz.
Writing long-form articles isn’t simply a matter of finding out the facts and positioning them in the correct order. Engaging readers also requires a structure that places them within the story, maintaining their interest through scene-setting, characterisation, pace and drama, as you unravel the often highly technical aspects of a subject that you want them to understand and appreciate.
Even if you haven’t formally learned it, regular readers of general science publications like New Scientist or Nature will be familiar with the generic narrative framework of a feature – an opening paragraph or two that set the scene; followed by a “billboard” paragraph providing the essential points that the article will cover; then a history section; a narrative section; and a “kicker” at the end that helps the reader remember the story.
But like jazz music, it doesn’t hurt to play around with a standard, as long as you respect its roots, and your skills are up to the task, as Adam Rogers ably proves in this feature published in Wired last year. If I told you this story was about a scientist who discovers a new genus of fungus, few people would bother clicking on the link. But if I told you the story was a scientific whodunit – a Canadian town is covered by a mysterious black fungus suspected to have come from the local distillery, and the only person who can get to the bottom of it is a man who styles himself as the Sherlock Holmes of weird fungal infestations – your interest should be considerably more piqued.
Rogers deliberately and wisely constructs the story as a detective mystery. Its protagonist is James Scott, a forensic mycologist whose old-school ways of tracking clues to solve fungal mysteries have been superseded by the new school of genetics. Rogers plays an off-stage Watson-like role, recalling Scott’s investigations in chronological order, as he slowly proves how the Canadian Club distillery in Lakeshore, Ontario, is responsible for the strange black stuff found everywhere, “on the walls of buildings, on chain-link fences, on metal street signs, as if a battalion of Dickensian chimney sweeps had careened through town”.
That last sentence hints at what makes the feature such an engaging read. Most writers would have been content to present the story as a human pursuit focusing on Scott’s likeable, fungi-obsessed character. But because Rogers spent three days pounding the ground with Scott, he is able to present the story as a sensory experience too. In the opening paragraph we smell the air around the Lakeshore distillery, “like witch hazel and spices, with notes of candied fruit and vanilla”. Later on, we can almost taste the barrels leaching “tannins, sweet vanillin, smoky phenols and coconutty oak lactones” into the ageing whiskey. Through Scott’s microscope we see the lifeless black layer transform into a living, thriving organism.
A story as alluringly presented as this allows the reader to breeze through some pretty esoteric subjects – the history of distillation, evolution in manmade microenvironments, the perpetuation of scientific error, not to mention the workings behind the unglamorous subject of mycology. As one expert dryly notes about his field: “If you found a new deer, you’d be on the cover of Nature. If you find a new fungus, you’re in the middle of Mycotaxon. But we’re not bitter.”
Personally, I see the un-Hollywood-like ending as an interesting and brave editorial decision. Scott discovers that the fungus thrives off the poetically named “angel’s share”, the small portion of whiskey that evaporates from the porous oak barrels as it ages. But he doesn’t figure out what the fungus actually is, and the story ends with him doggedly continuing the pursuit despite encountering another experimental dead-end.
Even though Rogers’ skills as a writer allows the story to hold up, many editors would have shelved the story for its incomplete resolution. That the Wired editors didn’t do so is to their credit, as it illustrates a more honest face of scientific endeavour. Science is far from being a succession of isolated, complete breakthroughs, each with the potential to revolutionise our lives. As Rogers’ story proves, science can be at its most compelling and fascinating at the edges, and when we don’t have the complete answers, rather than when we do.
Simon Frantz is science and technology features editor at BBC Future
For more on the story behind this story, see Adam Rogers’s interview at Open Notebook.
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.