An Open Letter to Science Students and Science Teachers

One day a few years ago, I got an email from someone who called himself Davis.

hey carl,
i have 2 do a report on the book parasite rex. and i kind of need help on chapter 4 i dont really get it! can u please help me?

thank you alot

your pal,



Dear Davis:

If you have some specific questions, maybe I can answer them.

Best wishes,



i mean can u explain to me what chapter 4 is talking about??? cuz i really dont get please help me out

your pal,



I don’t have time to answer such a general question. I suggest you reread the chapter, and if you are still confused, look at a
biology textbook for some of the concepts you don’t understand. If you later find you have some specific questions, feel free to contact me.



i did all that and i still need help. please help me i have a C in biology i need at least a B- please help me



The point of the chapter is to show how parasites can control their hosts for their own benefit. They control how their hosts digest their food, how they behave, and so on. The chapter gives a series of examples how parasites do this, and the effects that they have on ecosystems as a result.



thank you soooooooo much


[The next day…]

now can u help w/ chapters 5-the last chapter?

[A day later…]

well can u help me


[Three days later…]

hey carl

can u please help me w/ chapter 5 can u just tell me that it is about?


you pal



Dear Davis-

Describing one chapter for you is a favor. Describing two is
doing your homework for you. Sorry.



I never heard from Davis again. But I have continued to get a steady stream of emails from other students. Some are a pleasure to read. They are the products of young minds opening up to the rich rewards of science. These young correspondents are starting to understand something important about the natural world, and that understanding triggers a flood of questions that will take them even deeper.

But a lot of the emails follow in the tradition of Davis. Essentially: I have homework. I need information from you.

In the past couple years, I’ve noticed a shift in the tone of these requests. They’re not furtive acts of desperation. They seem to bear the seal of approval from adults–either from teachers or parents.

Here, for example, are three emails I received on the same day not long ago:

Hello. My name is —- and I am a 9th grader at —-. I am currently writing a research paper for my Honors Biology class on the topic of evolution. More specifically, my topic is on the evolution of dinosaurs over geologic time.

From my preliminary research, one thing I have learned is that dinosaurs are related to birds. I was hoping you could provide me with additional information about this topic. Some of the questions I will attempt to answer through my research include: What are some specific features of birds that prove they are related to dinosaurs? How are they related? How did dinosaurs change through each geologic period? What were some reasons for the evolution?

Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing back from you soon.


…I am a ninth grade honors biology student, and I am working on a research project regarding the evolution of dogs. I was wondering if there are any reference materials or websites you could suggest to add to my research, or if you or anyone else may be able to contribute any information. Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing back from you.


…For my biology honors final exam, I am doing a research paper on evolution and how evolution and the Galapagos and evolution are related. As part of the research paper I must contact specialist in this field. I would be so grateful if you could email me information about this topic. Also if you know anyone else who specializes in this topic please email me their contact information. Thank you so much.


All three emails came from the same class at the same high school.

I got in touch with the chair of the science department at that school to find out what was happening. Here’s the reply I got:

Their final examination internet research project is to select an evolution topic which must be approved by the teacher. These students will be entering a world in which global communication is necessary. They will have to confer with fellow researchers and professionals in many countries. This assignment is to provide these youngsters opportunities to investigate their topics by reading current articles, etc. and then communicating with authors, scientists, professionals, etc. Students are supposed to have read the work, formulated questions, all in an effort to bring their topics up to the minute. Teachers were very specific about “bothering” people just for information.

I wondered if other writers and scientists were having the same experience as me. In a discussion that started on Twitter, I found that they are. Here’s one example, from Rebecca Skloot, the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks:


I want to emphasize that when a writer like Skloot says something like this, you should not take it to mean, “These awful kids! They’re interrupting my soap operas!” Skloot has dedicated a lot of her time to helping young students delve into the science in her book. In addition to speaking in person at schools, Skloot has posted a lot of resources on her web site specifically intended for students. And yet Skloot reports getting three or four desperate pleas for personalized help each week.

Over the past few days, I continued this conversation on Twitter and email and found other scientists and writers with the same experience. And we all felt the same consternation. We want to help students learn about science, but we don’t have time to handle floods of requests, and it doesn’t feel right to supply emails that students can simply cut and paste into their assignments, when they should be learning how to learn from reading.

So, here are a few thoughts I have about how to make this situation better.

First, to science teachers:

It’s great that you are looking for new ways for your students to do research and learn about science. But having them send emails to scientists and writers has failure stitched into its very concept. Writers are perpetually scrambling to meet deadlines and pitch new stories. Scientists have full plates as well, between their research, their eternal quest for the next grant, and their teaching. To answer a single email from a student–either in the form of a long list of questions or just an open-ended plea for help–takes a lot of time. We may respond to the first few emails we get, but as they keep pouring in, we tend to burn out. And the more popular this becomes as a pedagogical tool, the more emails students will be sending to scientists and writers. And that makes people burn out even faster. It doesn’t seem fair to the students for their grade to depend on whether they get a reply from their email. Even the most polite email may land in the inbox of someone who decided long ago never to respond to such requests.

And, frankly, we can’t help but wonder what good this exercise does. When we were young, it certainly was a thrill to get an email or a letter from someone we admired. A message like that can steer young people into a career and change their life. But the exchanges we get today are nothing of the sort. They are just requests for information. They’re sometimes courteous and they’re sometimes unintentionally rude. But it feels about as educational for the students as copying a Wikipedia page.

Don’t get us wrong. We enjoy communicating with students and we see it as a valuable thing to do. But we just want to do so in a better way. The Internet offers many other opportunities for students to make contact with scientists and writers. One way is to have a Skype video chat with a class. In 45 minutes, we can talk with dozens of students, who can pepper us with questions. Again, it’s not possible for any person to talk to a dozen classes a week. But there are a whole lot of writers and scientists out there.

If you decide that it’s still useful to have your students send out emails, please don’t just shoo them off into cyberspace. Spend time making sure that students are actually getting something from what they’re reading, so that their emails are thoughtful rather than boilerplate. I’d also suggest having them turn in draft emails to you as part of the assignment. Help them learn the fine art of letter writing. Don’t just send them off to write emails that start, “hey carl…”

And, to students:

You’re the first generation to grow up in the ocean of information that we call the Internet. In some ways, this makes you incredibly lucky. You can get hold of information in a matter of seconds that the students in the picture above would never be able to find.

But getting a string of words on your computer screen is not the same as learning, or as understanding. Once you find an article on, say, carnivorous plants, you need to read it deeply. Let the ideas sink in. The first time through, you may not appreciate how all the pieces of the story fit together into a whole. Read it again. Resist the urge to click away to Facebook after every sentence. Print the story out if you have to. Save it as a pdf if you have to. The more you focus on reading, the stronger your mind becomes.

As you read, questions will occur to you. Some of those questions may answer themselves as you come to understand the piece you’re reading. Others may require reading something else. You may find that something else through the Internet. But the Internet is not an Answer Machine, into which you type a vague question and out of which comes a paragraph you can drop into an assignment. Give yourself the chance to really understand the words that come flowing across your screen.

These are the years when you learn to think. When you send an email to an expert, hoping that the Answer Machine will spit out something you can show your teacher, don’t get angry when someone politely declines to do your thinking for you. Believe it or not, that’s actually a compliment.


I would be grateful if science teachers and students leave comments below. It’s time we had a conversation.

Update: Thanks for all the comments. They inspired me to set up this new page for students and teachers at my web site.

Creating Young Darwins

Darwin's experimental greenhouse. Ian Capper, via Creative Commons:

Charles Darwin was a DIY biologist. He was not a professor at a university; he was not a researcher at a government lab. As a young gentleman, he had the right connections to tag along on the voyage of HMS Beagle as an unofficial, unpaid naturalist. Once he came home, he spent most of his time at his country estate, where he ran decades of experiments on orchids and rabbits. He played a bassoon to earthworms to see if they sense low noises. He made painstaking observations on other species. He spent years peering through his personal microscope at barnacles. He spent afternoon following ants around his lawn. To add to his personal discoveries, he wrote to a global network of friends and acquaintances for every scrap of information he could find that seemed relevant to his theory. While Darwin took advantage of every tool a Victorian naturalist of means could get his hands on, they were quite simple compared to the equipment evolutionary biologists use today. No DNA sequencers or satellite databases for him.

The simplicity of his tool kit and the grandeur of his work makes Darwin exceptional enough in the history of science. What makes him even more so is our ability, some 150 years later, to get to know his DIY biology in deep detail. Darwin described many of his projects in his books, and the University of Cambridge still has hordes of his letters on file. In recent years, this Himalaya of information has become available in searchable form online at places like The Darwin Correspondence Project and Darwin Online.

Ned Friedman, a botanist at Harvard, has come up with an intriguing way to use Darwin’s life to teach the basics of evolution. He and a team of graduate students have created a freshman seminar called “Getting to Know Darwin,” in which the students recreate ten of Darwin’s experiments and observations, spanning his life from his college days to the work on earthworms, which he carried on during his final years. To get an intimate feel for Darwin’s ideas and work, the students read his letters in which he discusses each topic. They then run experiments very similar–or in same cases, identical–to the ones Darwin ran himself.

Duck's foot with seed attached. From "Getting to Know Darwin"

Friedman has now gone the extra mile and put all the details of the class online at the Darwin Correspondence Project site. You can read about each lesson, such as the one on biogeography–the science of why species are where they are. Friedman’s students do experiments with seeds in fresh water and salt water to see how plants could get to remote islands. Some ducks’ feet obtained from a butcher shop allow students to see how Darwin figured out that birds could transport plants to new homes.

From my inspection of the site, I think it would  be great not only for college courses, but for high school and even for curious families. Maybe it’s time for me to dump some seeds in some salt water…

Friedman explains the project in this video:

Darwin Resources from Darwin Correspondence Project on Vimeo.

[Portrait of Darwin: Wikipedia]

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.


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.” 

Science Literacy: A Worldwide Look

I was skimming through the new Science and Engineering Indicators 2012 from the National Science Foundation when I came across this very interesting table. Whenever I see reports about science literacy in the United States, the reports are very parochial, with no comparison to other counties. Here is a table of scores on similar tests given around the world. We Americans do relatively well on a lot of the questions (although that sometimes means we’re about as bad as most other countries). The one big exception is when Americans are asked about the origin of the universe and of our species.


Science writing workshop for graduate students: Registration is open

In January, I’ll be conducting the 2012 edition of my science writing workshop for graduate students. The workshop is hosted by the Yale Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department. It’s a short introduction to the craft of bringing science to the world, tailored for science graduate students. People who attend are typically  interested in making science writing part of their work as scientists, or are even thinking about making it their career. Students from other institutions can contact the EEB department to get permission to register.

The syllabus and information about registering are on the workshop web site.

Reverse Engineering John McPhee

I’ve never met John McPhee, but he’s always been lurking around my office. I’ve got a number of his books, and I always keep an eye out for his latest piece in the New Yorker. I can’t count the number of times reading a few lines of his stuff helped get me revved up again for writing.

Recently, Alexis Madrigal of the Atlantic invited me to participate in a Neiman Storyboard series called “Why’s This So Good?” Writers pick out a good piece of long-form journalism and try to figure out what makes it so. Having just revisited out McPhee’s sprawling 1987 epic on engineering the Mississippi, “Atchafalaya,” I chose it for my object of study. Here’s my take. And, if you have a free moment to quaff 28,000 words, here’s McPhee’s piece.

Great science books for high school students: The hive-mind speaks

Over the weekend, I was contacted by Melissa Townsend, an Arizona high school teacher, with this question:

Getting ready to assign spring reading to my students. What are your favorite non-fiction science books a HS kid can handle?

It’s an excellent question–there are some books that can open up the mind of a teenager, and leave an impression that lasts a lifetime. But when I got Townsend’s request, I was traveling to Washington to talk on a panel about blogging, so I was a bit scatter-brained. I therefore tossed the question out to the hive mind. When I read the responses, many of them made me think, “Yeah, what she said!”

Here is a selection of the answers. Add your own in the comment thread; I can update the list here accordingly.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. (This one was mentioned so often Townsend decided to go with it.)

Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, by Stephen Jay Gould

The Diversity of Life, by Edward O. Wilson

Under a Lucky Star, by Roy Chapman Andrews

The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, by James Watson

E=mc2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation, by David Bodanis

A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons, by Robert Sapolsky

Microbe Hunters, by Paul deKruif

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, by Steven Johnson

The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story, by Richard Preston

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Revised and Expanded Edition, by Oliver Sacks

Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, by Oliver Sacks

The Story of Science: Aristotle Leads the Way>, by Joy Hakim (follow the link to the other two books in the series, too)

The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist, Richard Feynman

Why Evolution Is True, by Jerry Coyne

Announcements, Announcements! First up: Michael Specter coming to Yale

I’ve got several announcements to post over the next few days. Many eggs are beginning to hatch.

First up: New Yorker staff writer Michael Specter will be coming to New Haven to give a public talk on Monday, and then talk to my writing class Tuesday morning. Specter is the author of many important articles about science and medicine, some of which became the basis for his recent book, Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives. You can find more about him on his web site and hear him talk briefly about denialism during his recent TED lecture.

Michael will be speaking on Monday, October 4 at 4 pm at Morse College at Yale (302 York St.). It’s a Master’s Tea, which means we’ll be gathering in a living-room-like setting, with real tea for those who want it. I organized a tea at Morse in the spring for Rebecca Skloot for her self-made book tourHere’s an article about it, complete with a photo of the comfortable furniture.

(Thanks go to the Poynter Fellowship for making Specter’s trip possible!)

Reminder: Science writing class starts next Tuesday

I just wanted to send out a quick reminder to any readers at Yale that my class, Writing about Science and the Environment (EVST 215a) will have its first meeting this coming Tuesday, 9/6, at 9:20 am.

You can check out the syllabus at the university course information page. (Search for EVST 215.)

If it interests you, please consider applying. And if you’re not interested, please pass on this information to anyone you think might be. Thanks.