Elis find science writing

Does the word quasar frighten you? Does ribozyme sound like the name of some foreign creature from a low-budget horror film? Does the medulla oblongata strike you as something you’d find sticking to the bottom of your shoe rather than inside your body?

Yalies with careers in science writing are bringing these foreign terms — and the questions driving scientific research — to the common reader, at a time when breaking into the field is growing more difficult, professionals said.

Science magazine writer Richard Kerr speaks at a Master’s Tea on April 3. The field of science writers — which includes a number of Yale alumni — has grown more crowded in recent years.
Rachel Engler
Science magazine writer Richard Kerr speaks at a Master’s Tea on April 3. The field of science writers — which includes a number of Yale alumni — has grown more crowded in recent years.

“Science writing really took off in the ’70s and ’80s when newspapers started up special science sections and many new science magazines were launched,” said Carl Zimmer ’87, now a freelance science journalist for The New York Times, National Geographic and other publications. “I think we’re coming to the end of that age. There has always been a fierce curiosity about science of all sorts, but it’s not an easy time to enter the science writing field.”

Zimmer is the author of four science books, including “Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea” and “Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain and How It Changed the World.”

“More people are interested in science writing today than they were in the past and [are] looking to get the edge,” Science magazine senior writer Richard Kerr said at a Master’s Tea on April 3. “At the same time, science sections in magazines and newspapers are being squeezed.”

The amount of media coverage science news receives typically depends on its political and social relevance, he said, and can vary greatly.

“In some cases, science writers must content themselves with an audience made up of die-hard science junkies,” Zimmer said. “In other cases — when it comes to global warming or other hot-button issues — science writing becomes front-page news.”

Science journalism is fast becoming a means to spread awareness about such “hot-button issues,” often informing important political debates, said Elizabeth Svoboda ’03, a contributing editor for Popular Science and also a freelance writer.

“Publishers and readers are beginning to realize that scientific literacy is essential to confront some of the most important questions we all face,” she said in an e-mail. “Just to name a few: How likely is another global pandemic? How can we best solve the impending fossil fuels crisis? How plastic are our brains?”

Science journalism can make big waves by driving political action, Kerr said, adding that the body of science research publicizing the link between global warming and human activity has increased the level of public attention the phenomenon receives.

Careers of circumstance

Many who today find themselves in the field of science journalism said they stumbled onto it entirely by accident.

Emily Anthes ’05, who now works for Seed Magazine, a New York-based science and culture magazine, said she came to Yale without the slightest notion of becoming a science writer, thinking instead that she would go into neuroscience or medicine.

“I gradually realized that I didn’t want to actually be a scientist, but that I enjoyed thinking and talking about science,” Anthes said. “Once I realized that, science writing seemed like a natural fit.”

Anthes is a former editor in chief of the News.

Indeed, science writing seems to be a career many settle into rather than plan ahead for. Roshan Sethi ’09, publisher of the Yale Scientific Magazine, the oldest science periodical at Yale, said that “very few” YSM staff members join the magazine with a view to a career in science journalism. Most, like him, are interested in both the humanities and the sciences, he said, and see the journal as a medium that combines these interests.

“It’s sort of a way for people who don’t want to pigeonhole to straddle the line between science and the humanities,” said Brian Wayda ’07, former editor in chief of the YSM.

Wayda said that he doesn’t know anyone who wants to be a science writer, which he attributed to the perceived instability of the career. Wayda himself aspires to a career as a physician or health economist.

“Not having a steady paycheck or schedule may be an scary prospect for most college students,” he said. “So … in terms of a standard 9-5 career, science writing seems to have a small niche. However, I think the people who pursue science writing at Yale do it because they are genuinely curious about science.”

Some of those writers may be surprised to end up in science writing later in life.

“I didn’t know anyone at Yale when I was there who said, ‘I want to be a science writer,’ ” Zimmer said. “But, of course, I didn’t, either.”

The rules of the game

Careers in writing about science are hardly limited to standard news reporting. Jonathan Coulton ’93, the “contributing troubadour” for Popular Science magazine, proves that science can also be explained through song. For the September 2005 issue of Popular Science, Coulton wrote a five-song set called “Our Bodies, Ourselves, Our Cybernetic Arms,” which included the titles “That Spells DNA” and “Womb with a View.”

“I write all sorts of music, but I’m probably most well-known for the geeky ones — songs about robots and mad scientists,” Coulton said in an e-mail.

Coulton, a music major who was heavily involved in a cappella on campus, is the creator of the popular song about computer geeks, “Code Monkey.”

“I think that actual science experts are not always the best ones to write about science subjects,” he said. “I’d much rather hear from someone who’s learning along with me.”

Although most science writers majored in science or English in college, writers said that a background in science is not an absolute requirement for the career. Kerr said between 60 and 70 percent of science writers have a background in the fields.

“I’d recommend having a background in science over one in journalism,” Kerr said. “Journalism is something you pick up on the job.”

But Kerr said the field has evolved in recent years, placing less of an emphasis on writers with doctorates.

“Though an advanced science degree certainly doesn’t hurt, it’s definitely not necessary,” Anthes said, adding that neither she nor the science writers she most admires has one. “Sometimes I think not having an advanced science degree can be an asset. It can liberate you to ask the ‘dumb’ questions and help you identify with your readers.”

Asking such questions is crucial to science writing, professionals in the field said, as the main challenge is to excite readers without sacrificing accuracy and attention to detail. Kerr said it is important to bring the science “down to the popular level.”

This task — which many writers cited as one of the most challenging parts of the profession — has more to it than meets the eye.

“Usually the most interesting and important science turns on some hideously complicated research,” Zimmer said. “My favorite part is fitting together several different research projects into the same story, showing how science is actually based a network of different ways of learning about the world.”

Wayda said readers want to hear the stories of how scientific discoveries were made.

“Nobody is interested in just hearing the findings — if they were, they could just read the abstract,” he said. “Science writing is only interesting when it recounts the story behind the findings: the failed hypotheses, the rationale behind the methods and the challenges throughout the process.”

Armed with their stories, science journalists bridge the gap between academia and the public sphere.

“Most fundamentally, I think of myself as a translator,” Svoboda said. “I’m constantly learning, mostly on the fly, about the latest research in biology, physics and psychology, then scrambling to distill the most important points and communicate their relevance.”

Science writing poses a different set of challenges than standard journalism, practitioners said.

Svoboda said that she worries more about the accuracy of her stories than average reporters do, since the implications of inaccuracies in science journalism can be more dire.

“If I get a fact wrong, I could damage the reputations of the scientists I’m writing about or even cause people to make ill-informed decisions about their health,” she said.

Reflecting this strict commitment to accuracy, the YSM typically has the stories it publishes vetted by the appropriate researchers and professors before they are printed, Sethi said, which is not typical for newspapers and magazines.

Another challenge of the job is the sheer amount of information journalists are expected to able to absorb in short amounts of time, Anthes said.

“Journalists are constantly being asked to become crash experts in new fields,” she said. “Instead of being able to develop a depth of knowledge on one particular beat — such as New York real estate or NCAA baseball — I might be writing about cosmology one week and immunology the next.”

Zimmer said his main objective as a science writer is to bring this sense of constant discovery to others and changing their patterns of thought about science in fundamental ways.

“I hope to help non-scientists understand how scientists go about learning new things about the world,” he said. “People often think that science is either unveiling some absolute truth or just a purely social construction with a nefarious motive behind it. Neither is true.”

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