The Wellcome Trust has just posted my science writing prize entry (with minor edits, including a couple added typos). Here’s the unedited original:
It’s early May. Along with 15 other Oxford biology students, I am in a seminar as part of a course on ecology and conservation. The room is dark and hot, and the last of the afternoon sunlight streams through a narrow gap in the curtains. But all eyes are fixed on Rory Wilson, a professor visiting from Swansea University. “After we’d made the magnets small enough to fit in their bums,” he explains, “the difficult part was figuring out how powerful to make them.” Continue reading
A few days ago Kevin Zelnio, a science writer and Webmaster at Deep Sea News, wrote an incredible blog post about his non-traditional path to science. He tagged the post #IAmScience, which quickly spread through the sciencey part of the Twitterverse as others used it to hashtag short stories about their own unconventional routes to science.
Many of these stories can be found here. Mine is a tale of having an early interest in science, lapsing into the humanities, and rediscovering biology after being put off it in high school. Continue reading
One of my most indelible early memories is of participating in a near-drowning incident when I was 8 years old. This was in a lake, near the shore, in water less than three feet deep. A life jacket somehow ensnared my legs, suspending them near the surface and trapping my head under water. Before losing consciousness I saw spidery patterns of light rippling over the sand a few inches from my face, an image that lodged itself with vivid permanence in the inner recesses of my brain.
Or so I have always thought. Last night at a family dinner my dad disputed the accuracy of this visual memory. The human eye is incapable of focusing properly under water, he said, because the refractive index of water is so different from that of air. This led to a prolonged argument, my position fueled by better wine than science: eyes must be able to see under water because a) I remember doing so, and b) what about pearl divers?, and c) what about amphibious creatures like seals and otters? Continue reading
This is an excerpt from a letter to Nature published in 1870, written by E. L. Layard, an English naturalist living in South Africa.
Permit me to add my mite to Mr. Horace Waller’s theory respecting the utility of mosquito curtains in warding off fever, generated by the miasma of decaying vegetation.
When the body is relaxed in sleep and the pores of the skin act freely, then is the time that the deadly miasma, cold and damp, even in the tropics, seizes on its victim. What jungle traveller does not know the feeling of the air an hour and a half or two hours before daylight? But the warmth from the body and breath within a well-secured mosquito net, I think effectually protects the sleeper.
A few months ago I entered the 2011 Science Writing Competition, put on by the Wellcome Trust in association with the Guardian and the Observer. I was lucky enough to be shortlisted, which meant that yesterday I got to go to a science writing workshop at the Guardian as well as an awards ceremony hosted by the brilliant Dara O’Briain.
The ceremony consisted of drinks and canapés in the Wellcome Trust Collections, surrounded by sciencey art installations – a gorgeous blown-glass sculpture of an H1N1 virus, a hanging skeleton with the skull and pelvis switched, and the like. The Wellcome Collections are what my house will look like when I am rich.
Somewhere in the middle there were a couple of great speeches, including an impassioned pro-science polemic by Dara O’Briain, after which he announced the winners: for my category (non-professionals), Tess Shallard; and in the professional category, Penny Sarchet. Their pieces will be published in The Guardian and/or The Observer within the next couple of weeks, and I’m looking forward to reading them – I think my own entry, and the other shortlisted entries, will be published online in due course.
The event also provided an opportunity to meet several of my idols (e.g. Dara, Ed Yong and Ben Goldacre) and be rather too effusive (it was an open bar). Most of these conversations went like this:
Me (earnestly): Dude, you’re fucking awesome.
Ed Yong (equally earnestly): Hey, where did you get that beer?
In truth, everyone was utterly charming, and I’m very grateful to The Guardian and the Wellcome Trust for being excellent hosts and for putting on the competition in the first place. Congrats to Tess and Penny!
One of the nerdier things I enjoy is reading through back-issues of scientific journals. Really old ones: archival issues of Nature, The American Naturalist, Anthropological Review, The American Microscopical Society and others, dating back to 1840-1900. These are available online; JSTOR, for instance, recently made everything in their archives from pre-1923 completely open-access.
I really can’t recommend this highly enough. In those days, many scientists were also excellent writers, and even formal papers were often written with clarity, style, and a liberal use of figurative language. Here is an excerpt from a paper (“The cockroach and its enemy“) published in The American Naturalist in 1867. The author, G. A. Perkins, is describing how a species of wasp stupefies a cockroach before laying eggs in its still-living body: Continue reading