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 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. Read the rest of this entry »