Science Writing: The Art of Nonfiction
Cancer is clinical. And the epidemiology of the Cholera outbreaks in early industrial England seems like a niche topic for a best-selling novel. We are dealing with death, laboratories, and people in white coats muttering on about estrogenic markers and passaging capabilities. For those unfamiliar with the World of Science might be inclined to plead for “English, please”, not just in the cliché way they like to do on television, but asking for some of the literary home ground that makes reading novels so wonderful. And who is there to answer? The pantheon of science writers that manage to make the clinical creative and the detailed decipherable.
Science writers often come from a fascinating variety of backgrounds. People most often hear the title “science writer” when discussing journalism. The New York Times employs quite a few. But researchers with academic doctorates also contribute—as do doctors, hospital administrators, public health experts, and writers with a love and passion for science. Playwrights, screen writers, and poets can do it to. No grueling degree is needed (as long as you cite your sources).
But what makes good science writing? Now this moves into the realm of personal opinion, but I think a good science writer must be able to hop between disciplines seamlessly. A great one is able to keep you along for the ride with bated breath. Because this brand of creative nonfiction doesn’t just draw from scientific research and the ability to string words together in a pleasant fashion, although that is a lot of it. Science writers deal with history, technology, humanitarianism, international relations, and, well, math. Not only do they deal with these, they manage to make wildly successful novels out of the information they gather.
I once had the immense opportunity to study under Dava Sobel, acclaimed science writer and lovely human being, whose novel Longitude earned the British Book of the Year Award. She came to Mary Baldwin to teach a few week intensive course in “writing with science in mind”. She had the most thrilling stories about her time as a science journalist and submitting herself to experiments where she was stripped of her sense of time among others. She taught us about the process of researching and piecing together a work of science writing. Teasing apart the facts from centuries old sources and making inferences that are both literary and scientific and nature. Her message was one of accessibility.
Now, if you want to write, read, discuss creative nonfiction or science fiction, I have a few recommendations:
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the flagship of the science writing literature, the paperback edition having spent 75 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list, and the novel earning numerous awards. Rebecca Skloot treats the sensitive subject matter of the novel with humanity and respect while telling the story of the woman who died from cancer but revolutionized science.
- The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story by Richard Preston details the outbreak of Ebola, one of the most horrific viruses out there, spreading from sub-Saharan Africa to crowded Washington D.C. This novel reads like a fast paced thriller, because it is, and I finished it in one sitting.
- The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, is the most expansive text for non-science people on cancer out there. These days, everyone knows someone personally that has been affected by this incurable disease, and anyone who has experienced this should read this book. It follows cancer through our, at times, futile effort to isolate and eradicate it as more and more people die.
If you have any other recommendations, please leave them below!