More Stories, Always More Stories

After a long stretch of quiet here on the Loom, I wanted to let you know what I’ve been up to, and what I’m going to be up to over the next couple years. I’ve got some new projects afoot.

1. Each week I’ve continued to write my “Matter” column for the New York Times, about subjects ranging from vaccines to the Cambrian Explosion. I won’t break down the whole list of recent columns here, but if you ever feel the urge to catch up, you can go to the Matter archive.

2. Two of my books are coming out as second editions. A Planet of Viruses will be out on October 6. It will include updates on Ebola, MERS, and other viruses in the news. Evolution: Making Sense of Life, a college textbook about evolution I co-authored with biologist Doug Emlen, came out in its second edition in July.

3. Assorted other stuff happened this summer: Speaking of viruses, Radiolab podcasted a long talk I had with hosts Jad Abumbrad and Robert Krulwich about their place in life (the viruses, not Jad and Robert). I wrote for the Open Notebook about how to explain science. I was the subject of a profile along with my brother Ben in the New York Observer. And I interviewed writer Steve Silberman for Wired about his book on autism, Neurotribes.

4. I am starting a new book. It will be about heredity, from its baffling past to its increasingly manipulated future. I got the idea in the spring, and over the summer my old friend and editor Stephen Morrow at Dutton (who edited three of my first books) agreed to take it on. It’s been wonderful to start visiting people for my research. But I confess the enormous stack of research books covering my desk daunts me each morning. (No publication date set yet.)

5. I am also starting a new gig. I’m very excited to begin contributing to a new online publication about medicine and the life sciences called Stat, as a national correspondent. Stat was founded by Boston Globe Media and is now led by Rick Berke, who previously worked as executive editor at Politico and assistant managing editor at the New York Times. He has assembled a great team at Stat, which will have its official launch next month. I will be doing a mix of things for them each month (some writing, some other stuff) in which I’ll explore medical research. Details to come. (A note to fellow science writers: I’ll be participating in a panel about Stat’s launch at MIT next month in conjunction with Science Writers 2015. Details about when and where are here.)

—As I continue writing my column each week for the Times, embark on my new book, and gear up for Stat, it’s clear that these three things are going to gobble up pretty much all my free time for at least a year (and probably also my un-free time as well…). So I’ll need to take a break from the Loom until things loosen up again. National Geographic will continue to archive the Loom’s twelve (!!) years’ worth of posts. The science tattoo emporium is going nowhere. Eventually, I’ll be back.

In the meantime, you’re in amazing hands with BrianEd, Erika, Maryn, Nadia, and Robert here at Phenomena.

If you’d like to keep posted on stories I publish and other misadventures, please sign up for my email newsletter, Friday’s Elk, which I will continue to send out. (Technical note: over the summer I switched from MailChimp to TinyLetter. I transferred my mailing list, but it’s possible that a few people fell through the cracks. If you didn’t get my first TinyLetter-hosted issue of Friday’s Elk on August 23 and would like to continue receiving it, please sign up at TinyLetter.)

As always, I’m deeply grateful to all of you for reading my stories in whatever form they take, and for joining me on this endless dive into the strange world that science reveals to us.


Please Welcome Maryn McKenna to Phenomena!

Marynbarn-smallToday, Phenomena gains a phenomenal new member: Maryn McKenna. If you’ve read her books such as Superbug or kept up with her blog of the same name, you know that nobody does a better job of analyzing the threats we face from infectious diseases. To celebrate the launch of “Germination,” her blog here at Phenomena, I asked Maryn some questions about how she got here, and where she’s headed.

You gained the nickname “Scary Disease Girl” from fellow journalists. What was the path that led you there?

A complicated one–the kind that makes sense in retrospect but seemed random at the time. I started as a newspaper reporter, with a just-out-of-grad-school specialty of conducting investigations by digging through documents. The first investigation I did, though, was not science but finance, about bad savings and loan organizations in the Midwest. That attracted the attention of editors at larger papers, and I moved through a couple of other jobs doing investigative work.

Oddly, all the investigations after that first one were about public health — cancer clusters, drug abuse, Gulf War Syndrome — so after a few, I had turned into a public-health reporter. On the strength of them, I was asked to apply for what was at the time the best public-health reporting job in the country, covering the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC, from its home base in Atlanta. The instruction when I was hired was, “Just get inside there and tell us who these people are,” and so I spent 10 years talking my way into every investigation I could. That’s really where the nickname originates, because the stories I ended up telling were the big outbreaks of those years: the anthrax attacks, the arrival of West Nile virus, the international epidemics of SARS and H5N1 flu.

That experience led to my embedding with the CDC’s disease-detective corps, the Epidemic Intelligence Service, for a year, and writing a book about them, Beating Back the Devil (2004); and one of the investigations in that book provided the germ of my next book, Superbug (2010), which is about the global rise of antibiotic resistance.

Before joining us at Phenomena, what have you been writing about diseases, and where?

I left newspapers in 2006 to freelance, so, like most science journalists, I write for a variety of placesWired, Scientific American, Slate, Atlantic — a range. But for the past five years, the core of my scary-disease identity has been a blog at Wired, also called Superbug. At that site, which was one of the launch entries at Wired’s “all-star science blog” platform, I’ve explored emerging infections, the recurrence of problems we thought were beaten, the difficulty of getting rid of infections we thought we could eradicate, and the mistaken health and social policies, and personal mistakes, that allow disease organisms to flourish.

What’s the scariest disease you’ve ever written about?

I suspect people expect me to say something like, “Ebola!” — but while Ebola is a dreadful disease in its worst manifestations, and devastating to West Africa, I personally find it less frightening as a public health threat than more widespread, less-noticed infections. There was a point where I was seriously unsettled by the possibility of a pandemic resulting from the global spread of avian flu; I remember calling up a friend, another disease reporter, and confessing that for the first time ever, what I was learning was frightening me. And I find it stunning that the insect-borne disease Chagas is now so endemic in the southwestern United States that it is a risk in blood transfusions and organ transplants.

But the problem that most worries me now (and was the subject of my recent TED Talk) is the unchecked spread of antibiotic resistance. The Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, a project in England, estimates that if we can’t get things under control, resistance will kill 10 million people per year by 2050, and cost $100 trillion. That’s definitionally scary to me.

A year ago, you began writing for “The Plate,” a group blog at National Geographic about food. How did you get interested in food as a subject to write about?

I came to writing about food through writing about food problems: foodborne illness, and also antibiotic overuse in food production, and the drug resistance that results. That opened a door to writing about things that are not strictly related to disease: the evolutionary history of wheat, for instance, and how the names of foods enshrine colonialism. I’ve always been fascinated by food; as a young business reporter I talked my way into places doing small batch chocolates and cheeses and beer. And in the years since, it’s become a topic that essential to our culture. But my goal in writing about food is always to link it back to larger issues: sustainability, economic pressure, social justice — as well as disease.

MarynbugYou’ve written for a number of newspapers and magazines. Is there anything different about blogs for you?

The pleasure and terror of blogs is how much they require speaking in a personal voice and engaging with the audience in an unfiltered way. We take this for granted now, but for a traditionally trained journalist, taught to stay out of the story, it was challenging to learn. But in compensation, I appreciate the opportunity to be incremental in bringing a story to my audience. I don’t always have to have the full chronology, and all the arguments, in one post; I can present it to readers piece by piece and be confident they will stay with me for the unfolding. That’s particularly welcome since all of us here are telling stories about science, which changes from study result to study result, so we can contextualize and reframe post by post.

What plans do you have for Germination?

I’m excited to bring the various pieces of my blogging life to one site (though my food-related writing will still be flagged at The Plate as well). I hope to be covering the full slate of public health and infectious disease topics: scary diseases, little-noticed infections, cool microbiology; the complexity of big campaigns such as polio eradication, and the challenge of our widely distributed food-production system. Readers should expect coverage of new research results, interviews with little-known scientists, glimpses of the underbelly of the food system, and some whimsy.

A Blog by

Introducing Germination: Diseases, Drugs, Farms, and Food

When I was a kid, my favorite part of school wasn’t class — even though I loved studying, and liked showing off what I knew. It wasn’t the uniforms, though my boarding school’s dresses and blazers, and shoes for indoor and outdoor games, were a puzzle that came together differently every time. And it certainly wasn’t the food: School dinner in England was a mystery of boiled sprouts and stewed rhubarb, even if the Texas high school lunches that came after taught me how to make Frito pie.

What I loved most about school, with a fierceness that bordered on devotion, were school supplies. The incense of a just-sharpened pencil. The order in a fresh box of pen cartridges. And more than anything, the promise in a new notebook, and the anticipation of filling its empty, perfect pages with everything I would discover and learn.

I’m feeling a similar thrill now, viewing this new space at Phenomena. Welcome to Germination, a blog that will explore public health, global health, and food production and policy—and ancient diseases, emerging infections, antibiotic resistance, agricultural planning, foodborne illness, and how we’ll feed and care for an increasingly crowded world.

If you followed me here from my previous blog Superbug at Wired, thanks, and get comfortable. If I’m a new discovery for you, here’s a capsule bio. I’m a freelance journalist working mostly for magazines (Wired,  Scientific American, Nature, Slate, the Atlantic, the Guardian and Modern Farmer, along with an array of women’s magazines). I’ve written two books so far—Superbug, about the global rise of antibiotic resistance, and Beating Back the Devil, about the Epidemic Intelligence Service, the disease-detective corps of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—and am working on a third, about how we came to use antibiotics in agriculture, and what a mistake that turned out to be.

Before I was a magazine writer, I was a newspaper reporter, doing mostly investigative work: on the causes of cancer clusters, the social effects of drug trafficking, and a mysterious illness in reservists that turned out to be the first cases of Gulf War Syndrome. In my last newspaper job, I covered the CDC, under orders from the editor who hired me to “get in there and tell us these people’s stories.” I spent a lot of time talking my way into investigations and onto planes in the middle of the night. It was enormous fun.

Me, at TED, on March 18, 2015. Original here/a>.
Me, at TED, on March 18, 2015. Original here.
Maryn McKenna speaks at TED2015 - Truth and Dare, Session 6, March 16-20, 2015, Vancouver Convention Center, Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman/TED

I’m also a Senior Fellow of the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, and just finished a fellowship at MIT. I do some video. And I just gave a TED talk, on imagining what the world will be like after we’ve used up antibiotics. (The video has not gone up yet, but I’ll let you know when it does.)

As a journalist, my interest is complexity, inadvertence, and unintended consequences. (My Phenomena colleague Ed Yong jokes that he covers the “Wow” beat; I think of what I do as the “Oops” beat.) We got to widespread resistance because we wanted to cure infections quickly; we got to factory farming because we wanted to ensure affordable food. There isn’t (much) malfeasance in either of those endeavors,  but there is a ton of good intentions—and good intentions gone bad are a rich, rewarding subject. We might be here a while.

Here’s what you can expect at Germination: reports on new scientific findings; inquiries into policy initiatives; profiles and interviews with researchers doing cool things; history; and, occasionally, whimsy. I have been writing for a year for National Geographic‘s food platform The Plate, and some posts that deal more purely with food will be loaned or cross-posted there. (About which: You make Frito pie by opening a serving-size bag of Fritos along the back seam and plopping in a ladle of chili and some shredded yellow cheese. It tastes best when served by a lunch lady in a hairnet and a Texas Longhorns jersey.) If you’d like to hear more about my plans, head over to The Loom, where my new colleague Carl Zimmer has kindly conducted a Q&A with me.

When I think back to being a kid at the start of a school year, the initial thrill might have been those pristine new notebooks—but the bigger thrill was filling them. Phenomena is the most exclusive science-writing club on the internet, and I’m excited to join it. Please come along.

(Much gratitude to Jonathan Eisen, PhD, for suggesting Germination as a blog name.)

Please Welcome Nadia Drake, the Newest Member of Phenomena

Nadia head shot cropFifteen months ago, Virginia Hughes, Brian Switek, Ed Yong, and I joined National Geographic to form Phenomena. I’m delighted that our circle is now expanding. Starting today, science writer Nadia Drake will be writing “No Place Like Home.” I’ve followed Nadia’s work for the past couple years, but I’ve never had the chance to talk to her. To celebrate her debut, I asked her some questions about her past and future.

Your father is Frank Drake, of the famed Drake Equation. What was it like growing up with a dad spending so much time thinking about life in the universe?

Grand cosmic questions loomed large in our home, in a good way. The walls were filled with astronomy related artwork, the shelves stuffed books about the stars; we have a rendering of the Pioneer plaque by the door, and a stained glass window depicting the Arecibo message. There’s a chunk of the meteorite that created Meteor Crater in Arizona sitting on the mantle. My parents used to host observing nights for my elementary school classes – in the backyard — and my sister and I would go with my dad’s college classes to look through the big telescopes at the Lick Observatory.

I learned a lot of astronomy by diffusion. Following dad to lectures or observatories, and tagging along to meetings overseas meant meeting a lot of very thoughtful scientists.

Dad is also hilarious, and exceedingly humble. We rarely knew when he was going to be on TV and often learned about it the next day from classmates and friends. But more than that, I learned by example that it’s OK to be interested in, and fascinated by, a variety of questions. It’s OK to cast a wide intellectual net. Our house wasn’t just filled by astronomy – my dad’s orchids and his wine-making and other projects were just as visible.

What was the path you took to becoming a science writer?

I took the long way. Started out planning on a professional dance career, then made a left turn and switched to academics when it was time for college. Later, that road would turn back on itself and I would end up dancing professionally after all, which was a pleasant surprise and one of the most fulfilling (and hardest) jobs I’ve had.

Along the way, I seriously considered law school, but ended up ditching those plans and working in a clinical genetics lab at Johns Hopkins Medical School, looking for abnormalities in fetal chromosomes. After that, I went to graduate school at Cornell University, where I worked in an epigenetics lab and studied a gene that’s imprinted in neonatal mouse brain — in other words, copies of the gene are either turned on or off, depending on whether they were inherited from the father or the mother.

It was only after I finished my PhD that I finally returned home to Santa Cruz and enrolled in the Science Communication program at UCSC. That was one of the best decisions I’ve made. Since then, the road has been much straighter and the trip much faster, and I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had in the (nearly) three years since I’ve been at UCSC.

Before coming to Phenomena, where have you been writing, and what have you been writing about?

My first reporting job was as the astronomy reporter at Science News, based in Washington, D.C. When I moved back to California, I started writing for WIRED, where I report on the life and materials sciences – from giant spiders through marine mammals to materials that change color when they stretch. I’m also working on astronomy features for the news section of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. While at UCSC, I interned at Nature and wrote about everything from human ancestors to rogue planets, and also spent two quarters interning at Bay Area newspapers, which I loved.

I’m really looking forward to getting back on the astronomy news beat at Phenomena!

What can we expect from the blog?

A thoughtful exploration of the science probing everything that isn’t on planet Earth. I’m aiming for a mix of stories – many about recently published research, but also some excursions into astro history, perhaps some profiles of scientists, some obsession-driven posts. And lots of great photos. Maybe I’ll even open up the Frank Drake archives from time to time. As I get going, I’d be interested in hearing feedback from readers. Which stories or topics are the most satisfying?

Blogging is an excuse for writers to put their obsessions on public display. What obsesses you?

Above all, words. Using language to express ideas that are slippery, to describe something intangible or relay a visceral experience, in a way that leaps off pages or screens – it’s like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. Words are powerful and meant to be used properly.

My other obsessions tend to be fairly transient in duration – I’ll plunge into a subject or idea for a short but utterly immersive period, then slip quietly out and move on to the next. That said, some obsessions do recur. In astronomy? Iapetus, a cranky, bizarre moon of Saturn. Type 1a supernovas – what in the world is going on with those? Ancient observatories, those sites where scientists and philosophers convened to observe the skies. And of course, exoplanets. Also exomoons. For some reason, I really, really love the idea of exomoons.

In life? Ballet. Champagne. I love a good glass of bubbly more than just about anything.

(What are your obsessions, Carl?) [Ed. note: These days, oxygen, for some reason.]

You’ve written about some strange science—what’s the weirdest thing you’ve written about so far?

This question made me laugh. The jungle spiders that build spider-shaped decoys in their webs are definitely bizarre. But using a sky crane to lower a giant robot onto another planet? Totally nuts.

Scientists On the Loose! My AAAS Talk

On Thursday I participated in an interesting day of talks at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago. The theme was “Communicating Science.” I was on a panel in the morning made up of four journalists, who shared our experiences with the changes roiling the field. You can watch it here. I speak from 10:55 to 18:00. After 48:33, the panel and the audience had a long conversation that I thought was pretty interesting.

I thought I’d put my prepared remarks here, with links, in case anyone wanted to chase down the things I was talking about…

–Good morning. We are going to collectively spare you the hassle of Powerpoint. And so, instead of looking at a slide, I’d like to start this morning’s discussion by having you look at a mental picture. The picture is of Stephen Hawking. You can picture the physicist thanks to us–the media—thanks to the magazine covers, newspaper portraits, web site photos, TV documentaries, episodes of the Simpsons, and dust jackets where he has appeared. For over twenty years, Hawking has been at the media’s frontier, helping to define how scientists present themselves to the public and are represented by others. And just three weeks ago, at age 72, Hawking once again did something new. He posted a two-page document online.

This is actually a much bigger deal than it may sound at first. Hawking recently gave a talk about a new idea he has about black holes. This is interesting, since Hawking has been so important in our current understanding of these strange things. Some recent developments in cosmology and quantum physics have caused him to rethink black holes in a serious way. Hawking once thought that when things fell into black holes, there was no way for us to get any information about them ever again. But now he is suggesting that when things get pulled into a black hole, some information can leak out, in a jumbled form. Black holes are not black holes as we knew them, in other words.

Hawking did what scientists usually do: he wrote up this idea in a paper. But he didn’t proceed to keep it secret until it appeared in a peer-reviewed journal. Instead, on January 22, he uploaded the paper, “Information Preservation and Weather Forecasting for Black Holes” to the physics pre-print site known as arXiv. Two days later, Nature had a detailed article about Hawking paper. New Scientist published an explainer piece the same day. These stories swiftly got a lot of attention on sites like Digg and Facebook, driving hordes of readers their way.

Today, three weeks later, the paper is still only available on arXiv, where anyone can download it for free. The arXiv page conveniently links to some of the blog posts that people have written about the paper—including posts by his fellow scientists. I highly recommend this new piece on Slate by Matthew Francis. Reasonably web savvy teenagers can gather all this information in a few minutes, to digest later at their leisure.

To me this episode epitomizes the huge changes in our field. I’m not saying the individual elements of this story are new. Physicists have given talks for centuries. Arxiv has been around for 23 years. By the early 2000s, people were blogging regularly about science. On February 4 this month, we marked the tenth anniversary of the day a Harvard computer science major launched a site called

But recently these elements have crossed two thresholds–of scale and connection. And the result is a drastically new way for scientists to reach the public.

If Hawking had this idea ten years ago, things would have worked differently. To get a wide audience for his new idea, Hawking might have submitted his paper to a prominent journal. The journal would then send it to anonymous reviewers. If the reviewers judged it good science, it would go into press. But it would only be available to people with thousands of dollars to spend on a subscription to the journal.

The journal might promote the paper with press releases. They’d let us journalists look at a preprint—but only if we respected an embargo and stayed quiet till then. Or maybe journalists would get wind of the paper through a press release from Cambridge University.

At this point, the outside world would have known nothing about the paper. Only when the major print outlets unveiled their stories would they find out. Only in the comments the reporters offered from other scientists would people get a hint of what the scientific community thought. And ten or twenty years ago, this process made a few scientists into celebrities—like Steven Hawking.

Every step of this process has changed—or, rather, there is now a set of parallel steps. Arxiv has become a required stop on the road to publication for physicists. Biologists are following their lead now, too. Some of the most provocative biology papers I know of—on topics like exactly when Neanderthals and modern humans interbred—were first posted online on preprint servers like bioRxiv. The curtain-raising ritual at high-impact journals is losing a bit of its magic. It becomes not an unveiling, so much as a stage of maturation in the life of a research project.

I have no idea when or where Hawking will ultimately publish his new paper. It’s possible that the journal he chooses will offer the final paper as freely as arXiv did. Open access publishing is steadily growing. Just yesterday afternoon, AAAS, the host of this meeting, announced they were launching their first open-access online journal, called Science Advances.

Peer review is also becoming more open. Scientists are increasingly reviewing papers in public, after they are published or even when they are on a preprint server–as happens on Haldane’s Sieve. If you visited the early post-peer review forums at places like the Public Library of Science, you heard crickets. Now that’s changing. There are more comments on papers, and more forums. Even the prime portal to biomedical research, Pubmed, is now starting to post comments on papers, which appear right below your search results.

It’s common for scientists to debate new research as soon as it’s published, on blogs, Twitter, or Facebook. New companies are launching in order to measure this response, and to create an alternative to the traditional ways of measuring the impact of a paper. Instead of looking at the number of times it shows up in the footnotes of other papers, maybe the number of Tweets matters, too.

What do these changes mean for people like the four of us on the panel–the journalists? A lot. It makes science journalism more fun. You don’t have to sit dutifully by your computer, waiting for some journal to deign to let you know about a new paper. You can go hunting. You can turn up a new paper that’s just sitting quietly in a preprint archive, and share it with the world.

And you can get a more realistic understanding of how scientists toss around ideas. If research simply appears in an august scientific journal, it can be hard to figure out how it actually fits into the current scientific debates. The last thing a journalist wants to do is present research as if it’s the discovery of extraterrestrial life, when, in fact, it’s arsenic life.

The new ways that scientists share their ideas and opinions helps us. We can take the pulse on Twitter. We can follow comment threads. We can throw questions into these debates in real time if we so wish.

But it also presents new risks that we journalists should be mindful of. The scientist who tweets the most may not be the wisest expert on a particular topic. If you come across a preprint, you have to ask, “Does its mere existence constitute news?” Or is that preprint just a flakey idea that will never make it into a serious journal? Should journalists wait for the journals to give these papers their seal of approval? Is that what journals are for now—to designate important science? Or are they simply seizing that role for themselves from the scientific community as a whole?

I honestly don’t have answers to those questions. But Stephen Hawking has made it clear to me that I need to find some.

Ten Years!

On Monday I was at a meeting at MIT. When it broke up in the afternoon, I breathed a sigh of relief. The purpose of the meeting was to bring together lots of people who share science in one way or another–in museums, on Facebook, at street fairs, in books, and so on–and have them talk about what they saw in the future. Thankfully, I got to the end of the day without anyone stopping to say, “Now, we really need to talk about how blogging is going to change the landscape. Carl, maybe you could stand up and explain how blogs work?”

I had reason to dread this, because I’ve experienced variations of it over the years. People were wondering whether blogs were here to stay long after they had infiltrated the entire body of journalism. But it seems that, at long last, no one even thinks of blogs as something new and strange. And it felt particularly satisfying to me to go unbothered on that point this particular week. Because today marks the tenth anniversary of The Loom.

It’s hard to escape reflection when a ten-year anniversary rolls around. In 2003, starting a blog was still something people did as an experiment, or as a short-cut around traditional publishing, or as an open journal. Science blogs–the few that were around at that point, at least–were a mix of journal-club-like musings on new papers or righteous rants by scientists about bad reporting on science. As I got familiar with the software (because blogging is, when you get down to it, publishing software), I used it to write essays about science, toy with video, and find other ways to be a science writer than what I’d been doing up to then. (Like curating science tattoos.)

I don’t think many people blogging about science in 2003 would have guessed at the upheavals that would sweep across journalism in the years that followed. I certainly didn’t. And I was also surprised at the vague suspicion that somehow we science bloggers were to blame for the shuttering of newspaper science sections across the country. I was even more surprised to find myself in journalism classrooms where teachers asked me to explain the laws of good science blogging. When I said that blogging was software, and that you could make up your own rules, my answer did not satisfy. Clearly, blogging had achieved a cultural heft if rules were now required.

Its peculiarity dwindled as big publications established their own blogs. But the online world was also concocting new ways to communicate (or waste time, depending on your view of such things). Twitter and other outlets lured people away who wanted to have public conversations but didn’t want to learn WordPress. (I will spare you the “In my day, you had to build your blog from twigs and paper clips!” rant.) Recently, some high-profile blogs shut down, and so now we’re getting routinely exposed to think-pieces declaring that blogging is dead.

Does that mean that the Loom at ten is a zombie publication? I don’t think so. And I think the “blogging is dead” meme overlooks how bloggy all journalism has become. While blogging is just software, it has fostered certain social behaviors–an informality, a personal voice, a willingness to hear other voices such as commenters, an interest to respond to those voices, and a dedication to backing up claims with evidence in the form of links. Those behaviors now extend far beyond publications that we arbitrarily identify as blogs.

That’s not to say that these behaviors don’t pose their own challenges. Popular Science, for example, has gotten so tired of trolls in their comments that on Tuesday they simply shut down comments altogether on their stories. While I have no intention of shutting off comments on the Loom, I certainly appreciate how unpleasant a few commenters can make a thread with anti-scientific rants, insults, narcissism, and other conservational toxins. That’s why I keep an eye on comments and intervene when they break dinner-party rules. But I have always been well aware that I can always shut comments down–because blogging is software, and turning comments off is a feature of that software. I don’t think shutting down comments or banning trolls is automatically a cause for high dudgeon. After all, no one prevents even the nastiest trolls from starting a blog of their own for free. (“In my day, you had to pay for the privilege…” Oh, sorry again.)

For me, ironically, the biggest challenge for the Loom is that ever-expanding blogginess. In May, I started a weekly column for the New York Times, where I can write in a personal style about new developments in science that intrigue me. I write short essays sometimes for Slate or other publications. Ten years ago, by contrast, my options were stark. They were a) magazine features, b) newspaper articles, c) other. The Loom was the only place for Other. Now Other is everywhere.

So I’d love to hear from you about where you think I should steer the Loom in its next decade. The comment thread, after ten years, remains open.


Happy New Year from the Loom!

Whew! Tomorrow, January 1, 2013, marks two weeks since I started  writing here at National Geographic’s Phenomena. I’m in a holiday lull at the moment, but after New Year’s, I’ll rev back up to full speed. I’m looking forward to a delightful year in blogging in 2013, and hope you’ll join me for the ride.

[Image: Wikipedia]

Moving Day

Welcome to the Loom. I’d like to use my first post here to introduce myself and my blog, as I set up camp at National Geographic.

My relationship with National Geographic goes way back–back to a prehistoric era when I didn’t even know what blogs were. My first story for the magazine appeared in 2001. It was an exploration of the ways scientists figure out how old things are–the universe, the Earth, the animal kingdom, our own species. It was the first article I wrote as a freelance writer, having just left Discover, where I had been on staff for ten years. I’m forever grateful to National Geographic for welcoming me into the uncertain world of freelance journalism with journeys to mountaintop observatories and to the oldest patches of Earth still exposed on the planet’s surface.

Since then, I’ve written more stories for National Geographic, on topics ranging from Venus fly traps to feathers to brains. (I’m working on a couple now that I’m particularly excited about, but more on those in good time.) I also started regularly contributing pieces to the New York Times, where I still write frequently. (I’ve won some awards for my stories.) And since 1998, I’ve written 13 books. Here is a web site with more information if you’re interested.

In 2003, I noticed that some scientists and science writers had discovered a new way to write. They had software that allowed them to update their web sites on a daily basis. I was so fascinated that I had to join the experiment, and launched a blog I called the Loom (named after my favorite passage in Moby Dick).

Over the past nine years, the Loom has served as a lab where I can experiment with topics and styles that interest me but might not work as articles for newspapers or magazines. And I can try out different formats. The first time I embedded a Youtube video, I may have actually drooled.

When I was recently invited to join National Geographic’s salon, I immediately said yes. If I had to sum up what I write about, it would be natural history–the unfolding of life on Earth (and maybe elsewhere). No magazine in the world does a better job than National Geographic at exploring the majesty of natural history, both in text and in images. I’m delighted that they now want to make blogs a part of that mission.

On this blog, I will be exploring the many forms life has taken, and is now taking. I will also ponder the big science stories that will grab the headlines. In some cases, what really matters are the headlines themselves–in other words, the fate of science in the public square. I am a sworn enemy of sensationalistic distortions of science, along with science denialism in its many forms. I use the Loom to call them out. I also use the Loom to explore the utterly unexpected–such as the astonishing prevalance of science tattoos on scientists. (In 2011 I turned that particular line of blog posts into a book.)

If you use RSS to keep up with new blog posts, here’s my feed. Along with my new posts, National Geographic has kindly archived the nine-year archive of the Loom. If you are new to this blog, let me direct you to a few representative posts.

The Wisdom of Parasites

The Human Lake

Kinkiness Beyond Kinky

Unchecked Ice

Live-Blogging Arsenic Life

As you’ll see from these posts, the comment threads on the Loom can sometimes get pretty intense. This is a conscious decision on my part. Writing about science can mean triggering intense reactions in readers–whether the subject is evolution, the biology of the brain, global warming, or genetic engineering. I think readers should feel free to express those reactions–within reason–on my blog.

I actually find many of these comments useful to my own work. Sometimes people fact-check me and show me where I’ve made a mistake. Other times, they point me to a line of research that’s new to me. I’ve actually ended up writing magazine articles based on those helpful suggestions. (There is no copy-editor looking at this blog, so I appreciate notes about typos, which I will remedy quickly.)

This policy sometimes causes distress to some readers. I’ve gotten messages from people who think I shouldn’t allow any creationists to comment, for example. I completely disagree. If people want to leave posts disputing that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, I see no harm in letting them do so. I will, however, respond by explaning why they’re wrong. I often find that the outcome of these exchanges is useful, if only as an opportunity to explore what science actually tells us, and what it doesn’t.

Besides, you know who won’t let you leave comments on their posts? Creationists. That should tell you something.

While the comments can get rough and tumble, I also expect people to behave. Even if you recognize that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, that’s no excuse to use an obscenity on this blog against someone who doesn’t. If you make your point once, you don’t get to make it a hundred times, in the hopes of getting in the last word. If I write about global warming, you don’t get to make fun of Al Gore’s weight. If you accuse commenters or me of being a Nazi, or brain-damaged, or what have you, you are not welcome here. (National Geographic has additional rules about comments which you can find here.)

I can attest from personal experience that moving a blog always involves a lot of little technical glitches that take a while to eliminate. The folks at National Geographic and I are addressing them right now and will continue to do so for the next few weeks. Please bear with us during the transition, and please leave a comment on this post to let me know of any problem you encounter.

[Image: Jennie Rainsford/Flickr via Creative Commons]

The Loom Weaves Onward

I’ve got some blog news.

Starting next week, I will be publishing the Loom with National Geographic Magazine. I’ll be part of a new blogging team there, collectively called Phenomena. I’ll be joining three gifted writers, all of whom I’ve been fortunate to know for a number of years: Virginia Hughes, Brian Switek, and Ed Yong,.

I’ve had a great time blogging at Discover over the past four years. Highlights have included arsenic life, science tattoos, hounding George Will for bogus climate claims, and, of course, duck penises. Blogs work best (for me at least) as a place to play, rant, chat, and experiment; I’m grateful to everyone at Discover who helped me use the Loom for these ends–especially the web team of Amos Zeeberg and Gemma Shusterman, who held back the ocean of technical glitches that is always threatening to crash on a blogger’s head.

And I am, of course, most thankful to you, for reading these posts and sharing them with your friends. I’ve gotten to know a lot of interesting people through the comment threads, some of whom I’ve even met in person.

(On a related note, I’m also grateful to Discover editor-in-chief Corey Powell for inviting me to write a brain column when I moved the Loom here, and to editors Pam Weintraub, Eric Powell, and Siri Carpenter for their guidance. Next month’s column will be my last. You can read some of my favorites in my two ebooks, Brain Cuttings and More Brain Cuttings.)

I’ll be publishing a few more posts here this week, including one with the final url and RSS information for the Loom’s new home. And then I hope you’ll follow me onward at National Geographic.


Steven Pinker's Style Guide

Each year I run a workshop for science graduate students at Yale, encouraging them to write clearly, compellingly, and effectively. I’m tempted next year to just cue up this video of Steven Pinker discussing his next book–a psychology-based guide to good writing–and kick back.


Excuse The Hoot!

The American Association for the Advancement of Science has just announced this year’s Kavli Awards for Science Journalism. I’m pleased to report that I won in the category of newspapers with a circulation of 100,000 or more.

The award was for three stories I wrote for The New York Times. They didn’t have much in common, which is how I like it:

A Sharp Rise in Retractions Prompts Calls for Reform (April 17)–The scientific enterprise is getting dysfunctional. The fact that this article received 341 comments suggests to me that it hit a nerve.

Studies of Microbiome Yield New Insights (June 19)–I explore the emerging concept of medical ecology, in which we look at our bodies as wildlife parks to be managed, rather than battlegrounds to be carpet-bombed.

Evolution Right Under Our Noses (July 26)–My editor at the time, James Gorman, came across a cool paper on the rapid evolution of fish in the Hudson River. I said, “It’s nice, but it’s not unique by any means. I mean, evolution’s going on all over New York.” Gorman, with that sharp editorial nose of his, said, “Really? Then write about that.” So off I went to the wilderness of Manhattan parks and median strips.

I am now officially barred from winning this award again, having won it in 2004 for my writing here at The Loom and in 2009 for another batch of stories for the Times. I happily hang up my cleats and thank AAAS for all three honors.

Of course, you can’t win a prize for newspaper writing without a newspaper to write for, so I have to give heaps of thanks to the Times, to which I’ve been contributing stories for the past eight years. Along with Jim Gorman, I’ve worked with many other fine folks at the Science Times (including David Corcoran, Michael Mason, Jill Taylor, Jennifer Kingson, and Barbara Strauch), as well as Jamie Ryerson at the Sunday Review. They are compatriots in curiosity. Over the past eight years we have looked anxiously at the woes faced by our dear Gray Lady, as the entire world of journalism has shuddered with changes. Things are not all lollipops and rainbows in 2012, but there are many reasons for optimism–not least of which, I think, is the mere existence of the Science Times, still dedicating every Tuesday to the world beyond elections and quarterly employment reports after more than 30 years.

I’ll be heading up to Boston in February to pick up the prize at AAAS’s annual meeting. My wife Grace will be accompanying me, which only makes sense, since she makes it possible for me to scurry off after new species of ants living on Broadway without the rest of our life collapsing in on itself. Ultimately, all thanks must go to her–including thanks for going to Boston in February.

[Image: Portrait of Brother David With A Mandolin, Marc Chagall, via Wiki Paintings]

Herman Melville, Science Writer

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been dipping into a project called “Moby Dick Big Read.” Plymouth University in England is posting a reading of Moby Dick, one chapter a day. The readers are a mix of writers, artists, and actors, including Tilda Swinton.  They are also posting the chapters on SoundCloud, which makes them very easy to embed. Here is one of my personal favorites, Chapter 32, “Cetology.”

When I was an English major in college, I read Moby Dick under the guidance of English professors and literary critics. They only paid attention to a fraction of the book–the fraction that followed Ishmael on his adventures with Captain Ahab. This was the part of the book that they could easily compare to other great novels, the part they could use for their vague critiques of imperialism, the part–in other words–that you could read without having to bother much with learning about the particulars of the world beyond people: about ships, about oceans, and, most of all, about whales. How many teachers, assigning Moby Dick to their students, have told them on the sly that they could skip over great slabs of the book? How many students have missed the fine passages of “Cetology”?

I’ve read Moby Dick several times since graduating college and becoming a science writer. I look back now at the way I was taught the book, and I can see it was a disaster, foisted upon me by people who either didn’t understand science or were hostile to it, or both. Of course the historical particulars of the book matter. It’s a book, in part, about globalization–the first worldwide energy network. But the biology of the book is essential to its whole point. Just as Ahab becomes obsessed with Moby Dick, the scientific mind of the nineteenth century became mad with whales.

“Cetology” reminds the reader that Melville came before Darwin. Ishmael tries to make sense of the diversity of whales, and he can only rely on the work of naturalists who lacked a theory of evolution to make sense of the mammalian features on what looked like fish. You couldn’t ask for a better subject for a writer looking for some absurd feature of the natural world that could serve as a wall against which Western science could bang its head.

The people I know who don’t like the “whale stuff” in Moby Dick probably hate this chapter. It seems to do nothing but grind the Ahab-centered story line to a halt. (No movie version of Moby Dick has put “Cetology” on film.) But do you really think that a writer like Melville would just randomly wedge a chapter like “Cetology” into a novel for no reason–not to mention the dozens of other chapters just like it? Or perhaps it would be worth trying to find out what Melville had in mind, even if you might have to do a bit of outside reading about Carl Linnaeus or Richard Owen? It would be quite something if students could be co-taught Moby Dick by English professors and biologists.

“Cetology” is organized, explicitly, as a catalog, but don’t let the systematic divisions of its catalog put you off. This is science writing of the highest order, before there was science writing. Listen to the words he uses to describe each species. If you go whale watching some day and are lucky enough to spot a fin whale raising its sundial-like dorsal fin above the water, chances are you will utter to yourself, “gnomon.” 

In praise of the big old mess

In June, a writer named Jonah Lehrer got busted for recycling material on a blog at the New Yorker. Lehrer, who specialized in writing about the brain, had been writing a blog called The Frontal Cortex for six years at that point; having just been appointed a staff writer at the New Yorker, he moved it to their web site, where he promptly cut and pasted material from old posts, as well as from magazine and newspaper pieces.

At the time, I just thought he was squandering a marvelous opportunity. When I was asked to comment on the situation, I wrote that some of the things Lehrer had done were uncool, while some were fairly harmless. But Lehrer himself acknowledged that what he was done was stupid, lazy, and wrong. So I figured he’d gotten the sort of school detention that wakes you up and keeps you from getting expelled.

Four months later, I’m struck by how wrong I was.

I’m quoted in the latest of a long string of articles about Lehrer’s misdeeds, a feature in this week’s issue of New York by Boris Kachka. Kachka talked to me for a long while, and it’s clear that he talked to a lot of other people–journalists and scientists alike. He’s ended up with the best account I’ve read of this sad, strange story.

A lot of the other stories and commentaries have been twisted to showcase people’s assorted bugaboos. I’ve lost count of how many times people fussed over Lehrer’s fancy jackets and haircut, as if they were tied up in his moral standing. If Lehrer had a mullet instead, it would not diminish his misdeeds. There was a fierce passion driving people to draw lessons from Lehrer’s story–lessons, I suspect, that they had already drawn and for which they were now just looking for evidence to confirm. In a rare misstep, for example, Reuters blogger Felix Salmon declared Lehrer the exemplar of all that is wrong with TED talks: “TED is a hugely successful franchise; its stars, like Jonah Lehrer, are going to continue to percolate into the world of journalism.” In fact, Lehrer has never given a TED talk. When you’re condemning a culture that promotes the distortion of facts to fit an easy story, it’s best not to distort the facts for an easy story.

In his densely reported piece, Kachka rightly sees two major aspects to this story: Lehrer’s own misdeeds and the culture that fostered and rewarded it.

I was willing to cut Lehrer some slack at first, but as the additional evidence came in, I wondered if I was making excuses for him. The breaking point came when I read about how he had warped a story about a memory prodigy, claiming that he had memorized all of Dante’s Inferno instead of just the first few lines. When someone noted the error, Lehrer blamed it on his editor, but kept on using the enhanced version of the story in his own blog and on Radiolab (which later had to correct their podcast). It’s easy to slip up with facts, but we have an obligation to admit when we’re wrong and not make the same mistake again. It would have been bad enough that Lehrer distorted the facts and continued to do so after having the facts pointed out to him. But he was also willing to damage other people’s reputations along the way. That’s when I signed off.

As for the other side of the story–the culture that fostered Lehrer–I appreciate that Kachka avoided silly sweeping generalizations–that all popular writing about neuroscience has become the worst form of self-help, that speaking about science in public is the intellectual equivalent of pole-dancing. Kachka instead reflects on the trouble that arises when a science writer reduces complex science to a glib lesson. He’s right to zero in on Lehrer’s 2010 New Yorker article “The Decline Effect and the Scientific Method” as an example of this error. For years, a lot of scientists and science writers alike have grown concerned that flashy studies often turn out to be wrong. But Lehrer leaped to a flashy conclusion that science itself is hopelessly flawed.

That makes for great copy (29,000 people liked the story on Facebook), for which I’m sure his editors were grateful. But Lehrer himself didn’t believe what he was writing. If scientific studies were fundamentally unreliable, then why did he continue to publish articles and a book full of emphatic claims about how the brain works–all based on those same supposedly unreliable studies?

The reality is more complicated. After Lehrer’s piece came out, the Columbia statistician Andrew Gelman was asked what he thought of it. “My answer is Yes, there is something wrong with the scientific method,” he wrote–adding (and this is crucial)–“if this method is defined as running experiments and doing data analysis in a patternless way and then reporting, as true, results that pass a statistical significance threshold.”

In other words, this is not a matter about which we should simply issue Milan-Kundera-like utterances, like Lehrer does in his article: “Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe.” In fact, this is a matter of statistical power, experimental design, posterior Bayesian distributions, and other decidely unsexy issues (Gelman explains the gory details in this American Scientist article [pdf]).

Kachka understands there’s no easy way out of this dilemma, quoting Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel-prize-winning, best-selling Princeton behavioral economist: “There’s no way to write a science book well. If you write it for a general audience and you are successful, your academic colleagues will hate you, and if you write it for academics, nobody would want to read it.”

I put it to Kachka in a similar way, referring to writers like Lehrer: “They find some research that seems to tell a compelling story and want to make that the lesson. But the fact is that science is usually a big old mess.”

And the very way we choose to read about science makes it hard to convey that messiness. I will use my own work as an example of that failure.

In the current issue of Discover, I examine electroconvulsive therapy. I had about 1500 words to write about it, and so I only focused on a single study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. I think it’s an important piece of research, because it uses fMRI for the first time to look at what happens to the brain when ECT pulls people out of major depression.

But it’s also true that the study was necessarily small, that the particular method of fMRI they used is very new, that for now the study remains unreplicated, and that there’s a lot of debate in scientific circles (not to mention beyond) about some of the impacts of the treatment.

In the end, I probably oversimplified, leaving people with too much of a feeling that ECT is a perfect cure (it’s not) and an impression that we know exactly how it works (we don’t). But, to paraphrase Kahneman, there’s no way to write a science article well.

Still, the article I wrote was, I believe, the best of my options for discussing the subject. I didn’t have ten thousand words to use to explore its full complexity. I certainly wasn’t going to get many readers if I wrote a scientific journal paper. And waiting for fifty years to see if this research holds up seems like a worse option as well. So I had to fall short. Again. And I will take the criticism that my article triggers and try to do a better job the next time around.

I don’t mean to sound hopelessly fatalistic. Writers can either tackle this dilemma with eyes wide open, or they can look for a way to cut corners and pretend that the dilemma doesn’t exist. And readers can improve things too. When you find yourself captivated by someone talking to you about science in a way that makes you feel like everything’s wonderfully clear and simple (and conforms to your own way of looking at the world), turn away and go look for the big old mess.

That GMO-cancer study? It gets worse.

Last month I blogged about the unsavory practices of French scientists who unveiled a study purporting to show that genetically modified corn and herbicide cause cancer in rats. Not only was the study weak, but the scientists required reporters to sign an oath of secrecy to see it in advance. As I explained to the NPR show On the Media, this strategy raised the odds that all those pesky questions about statistical significance from meddling outsiders would be absent from the first wave of reporting.

In Nature today, Declan Butler continues his great reporting on the affair, unearthing additional disturbing parts of the story. My favorite was this passage from the agreement that some reporters–incredibly–agreed to sign:

“A refund of the cost of the study of several million euros would be considered damages if the premature disclosure questioned the release of the study.”

Who knew that doing basic science reporting could land you catastrophically in debt? Well, aside from Simon Singh…

[Update: Link to Nature fixed]

Ben Goldacre on more bad data: this time from drug companies

This morning I was accused of writing “corporate sponsored blogs whoring themselves out to all and sundry.” Actually, I was arguing that science writers have a duty to call out weak science and press manipulation rather than cave into it. That applies to any kind of research. I happened to be talking about research on genetically modified foods and their health risks. But it applies just as well to pharmaceutical corporations that deep-six drug trials that don’t support their drugs. The most eloquent critic of this bad behavior is Ben Goldacre. You can watch this video of a TED talk he recently gave on the subject, read this essay in the Guardian, or pre-order his new book, Bad Pharma.

If highlighting Goldacre’s vital work means I have to return my gold-plated corporate-whore Corvette, so be it.

[Update: Guardian link fixed, book title fixed]