Life under the lens: two paths to science writing

Former Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson has a name for his favorite type of writers: “the failed scientists.” These logically-minded individuals at first pursued the mastery of a scientific field, thinking their place in life was in a lab, before undergoing a profound change of heart. Turning to writing, they found a consolation prize: the nerdy remnants of their specialization allowed them to translate between science and plain English. (Anderson was a physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory before becoming an editor at The Economist.)

Yet this is not the only way to end at that curious destination, science writing. This summer, in a Magazine Editing class at the Medill School of Journalism taught by Charles Whitaker, I had the chance to speak with two representatives of distinct trajectories to science writing: Alan Burdick, senior editor at The New Yorker, and Laura Helmuth, health and science editor at Slate.com. Burdick was formerly an editor at Discover magazine; before that, he edited science stories for The New York Times Magazine and the now-defunct The Sciences. Helmuth formerly served as a senior editor covering nature, science, technology, and the environment for Smithsonian magazine; before that, she reported and edited at Science magazine.

Helmuth came from the sciences. Burdick came from the humanities. Both, in their own way, found academia too limiting a box. For these two science writers, journalism proved more satisfying way to engage with the world and the voices that fill it. Here is a summary of their paths to science writing and what they see as its role in a world in flux.

What was the arc of your career?

Four years into her Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience, Helmuth could use a break. “My advisor took a sabbatical. I was like, I could kind of use a sabbatical, too,” says Helmuth, who had just come off the heels of studying biology and psychology at Eckerd College. So she took a summer off and tried her hand writing for the Berkeley Guide to Eastern Europe. It was her first time writing something other than lab reports. “It was even more fun than doing science,” she says. Helmuth began enrolling in classes at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, where she discovered her cultural niche: drinking beer, having potlucks, and listening to stories. She would end up finishing her dissertation—an analysis of pattern-learning in individuals with Parkinson’s disease—but her focus had changed for good.

Helmuth followed up her Ph.D. with more school. She underwent the rigorous nine-month science communications program at UC Santa Cruz, which takes scientists and turns them into journalists by some form of chemical alchemy. Afterwards, it was an easy transition into an internship at Science News in Washington, D.C. Her science background turned out to be “completely unnecessary” as far as journalistic writing. But it did help get her in the door: after Science News, her first beat as a reporter at Science magazine was neuroscience. What she found most gratifying was getting to think and interact with scientific ideas from a different perspective. “I was more interested in big questions than dressing up and going to an office,” she says.

Burdick, too, was interested in big questions. Born in Syracuse, NY, he initially came to the University of Chicago to major in mathematics and literature. But he found both fields “incredibly arcane.” Next he considered pre-med, which was in turn “physiologically impossible.” After transferring to Stanford University before his junior year, his interest in science was revitalized by a course on the philosophy of science taught by Peter Galison. Galison, a physicist and science historian, had written a book called How Experiments End that was “a way of combining anthropology and physics,” Burdick says. “It was really inspiring.”

Burdick knew he wanted to engage with the world. And after doing lab work for pre-med classes, he realized that he liked hanging around scientists more than doing science. So he took a year off college and interned at Harper’s Magazine. This was the reign of then-senior editor Michael Pollan, who helped redesign the magazine and introduce the now-iconic Harper’s Index. “They were reinventing the form, and it was kind of great to see,” Burdick says.

After college, he became an editor and writer for The Sciences, published by The New York Academy of Sciences. Five years later, he was hired to edit science stories—“ostensibly”—at The New York Times magazine. “But they didn’t do much science,” he says. Instead, he got the opportunity to try his hand at celebrity profiles, travel pieces, and foreign reporting, all the while honing his craft. That passion for craft would sustain him at The New Yorker.

Day-to-day: Slate.com vs. New Yorker

In general, the articles Helmuth edits are planned and thought-out, scheduled at least a few days in advance. Helmuth makes sure Slate.com has enough of these stories—both timely and evergreen—to run every week. Most of this involves responding to pitches and keeping abreast of the news. She estimates that “actually going through line-by-line and editing a story carefully” fills about 30 percent of her time.

However, this ordered world changes when national news breaks. At that point, Slate.com transforms into a 24-hour-newsroom. “It’s all hands on deck,” she says. In April, when the Boston marathon bombings happened, she left her post at the science desk (she usually writes a science or culture-themed piece every three weeks, ranging from ‘why the next Dr. Who should be a woman’ to ‘why cats are evil’), and was up all night covering the news of the moment.

Editing is a humble art, Helmuth says. A good editor cannot be proud, or jealous. She must strive to “make writers sound better, sound more like themselves,” as she told The Open Notebook in January. These days the challenge for Helmuth, who works mostly with freelancers, is to “Slatify” stories, meaning: to pump them up with voice and argument. “Most of these people have written for straighter news outlets,” she says. “It takes a while to kind of let go, put your experience in, or make jokes, or feel like you can be more irreverent. A lot of what I do is kind of encourage people to let it all out.” She considers this one of the most refreshing things about her job. “It kind of beats taking people’s attempts at humor and trying to take it out,” she says.

As a senior editor at The New Yorker, the heart of Burdick’s role is the same: to determine what gets covered at his publication. That involves “a lot of reading and talking,” he says. Mostly, it’s keeping abreast of news and attending weekly meetings with other senior editors, where he comes up with ideas that staff writers can then pick up. For Burdick, who has had the solitary experience of writing his own book, being part of the media hive is a pleasure. “I like being plugged in,” he says. “When you’re part of any magazine, you’re creating something that’s more than just you. At The New Yorker, you do feel like one of the centers of the universe. I’m a small part of a large and very amazing machine. And that’s immensely gratifying.”

There are a few differences, of course. The first is that Burdick works with The New Yorker’s stable of about two dozen regular contributors, rarely with freelancers. This reliable stable writes about 75 percent of the magazine. Burdick has six or seven writers that he works with personally, and “only two who write about science with any regularity.” The second difference: since The New Yorker is less instantaneous than Slate, Burdick can spend more time helping writers through the reporting and writing process. “A lot of my job is making sure they’re making progress, making sure they’ve got an idea, talking through editorial problems,” he says. About 40 percent of his time is spent line-editing—“or massive restructuring,” he adds.

And, like Helmuth, he still writes. Every other week, he has a piece in the magazine. “That can be a fairly labor-intensive process, with copy editors and top editors and writers,” he says.

What is your approach to science writing? 

Helmuth points out that there are many science-specific outlets—New Scientist, Science News—which “do a wonderful job if you wake up in the morning thinking ‘I want to learn about science,’” she says. But for her, “the trick is to get the vast majority of people who don’t know anything about science interested and want to know more.” Burdick too hopes to reach “the broadest possible intelligent audience” with his writing. This is a challenge; to write about science in a way that is lively, engaging, and accessible is no easy feat.

There is a subtle difference in the two editors’ missions. Helmuth calls herself a “science communicator.” In journalism today, “there’s not a lot of scientific sophistication,” she said in 2010 interview at the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes. She sees part of her role as combating the myths that pervade the public consciousness, i.e. vaccines causing autism. By contrast, “What we try to do in the responsible media is have stories that are responsible, are accurate, and are also fun to read,” she says.

Helmuth embraces the role of scientific mythbuster. She isn’t afraid to take a stance and, as a former scientist, she has the chops to back it up. In a recent article on Slate.com, she takes on the creationism vs. evolution debate. Specifically, she dissects Virginia Heffernan, a tech journalist who recently published an essay defending creationism. “At first I thought Heffernan was joking when she additionally described herself as a believer in angels, but she was not,” Helmuth writes. She goes on:

“People, please. This is important … If you endorse creationism, you’re giving comfort to people who brainwash children and prevent them from learning about the most powerful and fascinating discoveries people have ever made … There is no hodgepodge. Creationism and evolution aren’t equivalent stories to be believed or not. Creationism is magic and evolution is facts.”

Burdick comes from a different place. Though he most often writes about science as a topic, “I really don’t think of myself as a science writer,” he says. What makes science writing work for Burdick is what makes writing work, period. That is: it’s literary. It’s understated. It steps back. It’s not trying too hard. “Ultimately, I’m in in it the craft. What works for me is somebody who just really cares about the sentences,” he says. Most importantly: “good science writing has to be thoughtful.”

Can you name a quality that makes good science writing? 

Both Burdick and Helmuth stress the need for good characters in their writing, both human and animal. For Helmuth, characters function as entry points, giving a layperson a way into what is essentially a foreign world. “People always want to read about people,” she says. “It’s trite journalist-y advice but it’s true. We are trying to reach readers who have never met a scientist. It just really helps if they’re quirky, or unassuming, or curious. Whatever characteristic they have so they actually have a personality.” Captivating characters can make a disinterested audience suddenly fascinated by the mechanisms and theories that make the universe run. “It makes the whole process seem less textbook,” she says. Helmuth also takes a page out of environmentalists’ book by employing ‘charismatic megafauna’—huggable animals that help readers identify with otherwise-intimidating science. “You can squeeze all sorts of evolutionary theory into a story if you’re willing to make it about elephants,” she says.

Animals and devoted researchers are also staples of Burdick’s writing. Two of his recent pieces for NewYorker.com are formulated the same way: they feature a quirky animal pursued by the researchers devoted to understanding it. In the online article “When Cicadas Fall in Love” the buzzing insect, which emerges just once every 17 years, is pursued by researchers David Marshall and John Cooley; in “Dung Beetles, Dancing to the Milky Way” it’s the humble dung-roller who is followed by researchers who track its movements in Sweden and the Kalahari desert.

Helmuth sees herself as a bridge, making science accessible and engaging to the masses. Burdick is doing something a little different. “It’s about ideas. I’m interested in more than just the news,” he says. His interest often starts with what the news is reporting. But it rarely ends there. Instead, he looks for the “bigger intellectual story.” That’s why he finds scientists to be compelling characters. “They’re interested in big questions of how do we know what we know, what are the limits of what we can know,” he says. “I love that stuff.”

Those kind of big, universal ideas drove his 2005 award-winning book Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion. While reading the news, he began to see the reigning paradigms of ecology shifting beneath his feet. Not only was this reshaping the scientific field; ecology was changing the way we saw nature, and ultimately, ourselves.

Out of Eden challenged the cultural and ecological assumption that invaders were, by definition, evil. As Burdick wrote in an interview about the book that appeared in American Scientist in 2005: “Life disseminates; it aims to spread, expand its range, move around; that’s what any organism or species must do to perpetuate itself over generations.” After all, in an evolutionary sense, invading is undeniably positive—even admirable. “Instead of demonizing these globe-trotting organisms, I felt it was important to observe them in a more neutral light,” Burdick wrote. “I wanted to give myself, and by extension the reader, permission to be impressed by them—to sympathize with them, even.” Such paradigm-undermining contemplations—rather than merely the science—became the driving focus of the book.

Similarly, when he first saw news reports last year on the scientific finding that dung beetles orient themselves using the Milky Way, Burdick thought: “It’s just so cool on a cosmic level that you can have a creature that small grasping something so huge.” But he needed more than coolness; he needed a story. So he called up the researchers who were similarly obsessed, spending years tracking the tiny insect in the Kalahari Desert. “It becomes this kind of parallel story about this little creature, but also the human need to study this little creature,” he says. “And it works out nicely.”

The point, he says, is not just to disseminate the science. “It’s not that dung beetles are going to change your life,” he says. “It’s not going to improve your health, it’s not going to do anything materially for you. You have something in common with this creature. And that’s what it is.” The piece ends on a moment of reflection, asking us to consider the similarities we have with these humble bugs, elevated to the heavens by their focus on celestial matters. Burdick’s prose grows similarly elevated; in his hands, science turns to poetry:

“We suppose that we are superior to dung beetles, but are we really?” he writes. “At least dung beetles recycle. We scavenge, hoard, consume…what? Crap, mostly. It piles up around us; increasingly we live on a ball of it. Even light we waste; designed to illuminate, it now obscures. As our celestial guides recede, we risk losing our bearings and will have ever less to consider but ourselves.”

Where is science writing going?  

In describing what makes good science writing, Burdick recalls a quote from Henry David Thoreau: “The man of science, who is seeking not for expression but for a fact to be expressed merely, studies nature as a dead language.” By contrast, he says, “What you’re writing about is a living organism.” By this he means: good science writing is lively. It must move, because the field itself is a moving target, shifting under our feet.

So is the field of science journalism. Burdick launched his career with a dead-trees book. Now, he writes a regular blog called “The Synthesist” on the OnEarth, a nonprofit environmental thought publication; his writing appears on The New Yorker blog “Elements”; he Tweets regularly. (“Elements” is part of The New Yorker’s new Science & Tech channel, launched in April with former BuzzFeed editor Matt Buchanan as a way for the magazine to expand its coverage of how science and technology are reshaping our lives.) Burdick has adapted well to this ever-changing media landscape, partly because he can transition fluidly between a more formal, literary cadence and a more conversational blog style.

Helmuth also sees science writing as evolving in terms of the technology and form in which it is communicated. From the journalist’s point of view, you’ve got to be adaptable. “The trick is changing all the time,” she says. “You’ve kind of got to stay on your toes all the time. It’s a little daunting. But the nice thing is it’s incredibly intellectually stimulating.”

She’s still hopeful for the future of long-form narrative in science writing. Both Smithsonian and National Geographic are in good shape, she points out. “There’s something really satisfying about diving into a long narrative,” she says. “Especially for science, it’s a form that has been underused.”


2 Comments on “Life under the lens: two paths to science writing”

  1. […] two paths to science writing with Laura Helmuth (from sciences) and Alan Burdick (from […]

  2. […] Life under the lens: two paths to science writing […]


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