My Favorite Science Writing, January 2023
In any given month, far too much science writing is published than anyone could realistically read. Certainly more than I could. Still, as someone who makes a point of reading and taking brief notes on a few articles most days, I read about as much as I possibly could, especially on topics that particularly interest me, like marine ecology, predator-prey dynamics, and wildlife conservation. Each month, I'm going to try to put together a list of my favorite science writing from around the web, so I can hopefully bring just a little more attention to those stories that stuck with me. They are listed in chronological order, since that seemed like the most fair, but I'm not ranking them. All five are, in my opinion, equally worth your time. Here goes.
"How We Came to Know and Fear the Doomsday Glacier"
By Marissa Grunes, Hakai Magazine
"RAM!" How's that for an opening sentence? This story takes us to one of the hardest places to reach on the surface of the world, and that would be more than enough to make it interesting, but the research and writing rises to meet the subject in a way that a lot of science stories don't. Science communicators always have to maintain a tricky balance between perfect accuracy and readability. Regurgitating the contents of a journal paper would be accurate, but who would read it? Grunes hits that balance perfectly for me, and from the opening, I was along for the ride.
"Can the Ancient Humpback Chub Hang On in Today's Grand Canyon?"
By Morgan Sjogren, Sierra
There is so much great writing coming out about the Colorado River this year. Between big ongoing projects like the LA Times series on it and dozens of articles like this on individual species and issues, it feels like it's finally getting the attention it deserves. Here, Sjogren starts with one little fish and expands out to explore all the challenges of managing this unique ecosystem. I was most impressed with the handling of the controversy over poisoning non-native fish species with rotenone, against the wishes of the Pueblo of Zuni people. Great coverage doesn't tell you to be mad. It tells you the facts, presents the author's and sources' experiences, and lets you react for yourself. Sjogren does that masterfully here.
"Why the Search for Life in Space Starts With Ancient Earth"
By Ramin Skibba, Wired
Most of my science writing starts with a paper. I've tried the embargo treadmill, where writers try to beat each other to the same few well-publicized stories, and I'm mostly done with that, so instead I look for the papers that got missed in the rush. There are always plenty of those. But something I haven't done much of is report from conferences, and this is a great example of that. Reporting from the American Astrological Society annual meeting in Seattle, Skibba gets insights on the search for extraterrestrial life that are fresher than anything published. I've been at these meetings as a presenter, and I know that these presentations represent (sometimes literally) up to the minute updates on researchers' work. This is as live as science reporting gets, and Skibba does it really well.
"Carnivorous oyster mushrooms can kill roundworms with “nerve gas in a lollipop”"
By Jennifer Ouellette, Ars Technica
This is very directly my jam. I'm always looking for stories that take something familiar and make it fascinating, and as someone who is already obsessed with mushrooms, I had no idea they sometimes ate worms. Ouellette found a great science story and wrote it up as well as anyone could have, and hooked me from the first sentence. In general, Ars Technica was very good this month. I feel like their science reporting has stepped up a notch lately.
"Wanted (by Scientists): Dead Birds and Bats, Felled by Renewables"
By Emma Foehringer Merchant, Undark
“This is one of the least smelly carcasses.” Love that lede. What follows is a detailed and nuanced look at an issue that tends to get flattened by detractors of wind energy and too often politely ignored by its supporters. I've struggled with how to think and talk about the bird/bat strike issue, and this article gave me some of the vocabulary and fact base to do that. I'm not surprised that it got syndicated around to some of the biggest sites on the web, because of both the importance of the subject and the quality of the writing.