Outstanding profiles of scientists? Narrative science journalism?
June 30, 2011 10:13 AM   Subscribe

So, I'm looking for well-written profiles of scientists or other outstanding examples of "narrative science journalism".

That is, gimme stories that handle scientific topics through a compellingly narrated "plot" and well-drawn characters – be they scientists themselves or other people.

Something like this (look, it's even got dialogues!):

posted by earthwormsleg to Media & Arts (24 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Ahh, the link. Now clickable. Sorry.
posted by earthwormsleg at 10:14 AM on June 30, 2011

A Beautiful Mind.

Is that too obvious?
posted by humboldt32 at 10:37 AM on June 30, 2011

Best answer: John McPhee's books will do.

Basin and Range, The Curve of Binding Energy, and Encounters With the Archdruid are all amazing and sound like what you are looking for.

A great writer following scientists around.
posted by TheRedArmy at 10:38 AM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: (URL shorteners are unnecessary and discouraged here - we don't have text limits, after all!)

Seconding nearly anything by McPhee. In light of this spring's Mississippi floods, definitely read Control of Nature, which has a long bit about the Army Corps of Engineers and their work on the river.

Mountains Beyond Mountains is pretty great, if you're open to books and not just articles.
posted by rtha at 10:43 AM on June 30, 2011

Dava Sobel, Finding the Longitude
Great story. The stars tell your latitude at a glance, but not longitude -- and "finding the longitude" used to be a way of saying "doing the impossible." Maritime traffic paid a huge price in lives.
Then along comes this layman who figures out a way to do it. He was rejected and ridiculed by the scientific establishment of the day, but his invention was eventually adopted, and used by every oceangoing ship in the world.
posted by LonnieK at 11:17 AM on June 30, 2011

I'd also suggest Young Men and Fire, by Norman McLean. A great suspenseful narrative about some brave young "smokejumpers." They were so good at getting to forest fires fast, and putting them out before they grew, that except for their leader they had no experience with a monster fire. The fire is riveting, and so is the aftermath: the inquest, the blame . . . and I won't spoil it further. Not pure science, but broadly speaking, the world learned a good deal about forest fires from the events it relates.
posted by LonnieK at 11:22 AM on June 30, 2011

I found The Making of the Atomic Bomb to be quite compelling.
posted by pombe at 11:41 AM on June 30, 2011

Poisoner's Handbook fits the bill.
posted by cosmicbandito at 11:48 AM on June 30, 2011

The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen
posted by mattbucher at 12:10 PM on June 30, 2011

I've heard great things about Radioactive, a recent illustrated book about Marie and Pierre Curie.
posted by cymru_j at 12:21 PM on June 30, 2011

Fermat's Enigma by Simon Singh.
posted by hariya at 12:28 PM on June 30, 2011

Response by poster: Wow, Thanks guys, keep it coming :)

However, I'm yet somewhat more interested in magazine stuff ("long form journalism"). Should've pointed this out more clearly, sorry.

So, then: how about some best ever New Yorker pieces by John McPhee? Plus, other magazine writers of his caliber? Authors who seem to master both -- the complexity of science and writing compellingly about people.
posted by earthwormsleg at 12:42 PM on June 30, 2011

The series "Best American Science Writing" is excellent. It is a compilation of magazine-style articles published each year and contains a variety of different kinds of science writing, but I think each book I've read contains at least some narrative-style science writing. Here is the 2010 book.

Highly recommended.
posted by Cygnet at 1:11 PM on June 30, 2011

Oh, also, because these books are so fantastic, and because I think everybody should read them:

Breakthrough, the thoroughly research and also thoroughly embellished story of Elizabeth Hughes and the discovery of insulin. Includes an extremely well-detailed historical setting and lots of characterization.


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the story of how Henrietta Lacks' cancer cells became an immortal cell line that biologists everywhere depend upon, and how her family was affected. A very personal story of the relationship between the writer and the family, it also includes lots and lots of history about the Lacks family through the generations.
posted by Cygnet at 1:15 PM on June 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

The Code Book covers the history of cryptography from ancient times to the modern day. While obviously the individual portraits for ancient times are very thin, there is a surprisingly interesting narrative surrounding the invention of public key cryptography. Also, for a topic that is very complicated, this is a very easy read that doesn't condescend to the reader.
posted by mmascolino at 1:27 PM on June 30, 2011

Thirding The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I believe it was excerpted in O, if you want something shorter.
posted by cyndigo at 1:36 PM on June 30, 2011

Mauve, by Simon Garfield. William Perkin, by accident, at the age of 18, in 1856, discovered aniline dyes. After doing groundbreaking work in synthetic chemistry, consultative selling, and scientific patent law (British and international), he returned to what he really wanted to do, which was Anglican theology. Then he was forgotten. The author could not find his gravestone, and only in a subsequent edition did one of his readers locate it for him.
Garfield's writing is accessible, yet comprehensive, and I highly recommend it.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 11:02 PM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Eighth Day of Creation by Horace Freeland Judson. [wiki] [previously on MeFi]
Judson won a MacArthur Fellow award for his account of the foundation of molecular biology.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 11:12 PM on June 30, 2011

The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee. The Eighth Day of Creation is also very good.
posted by WhitenoisE at 11:35 PM on June 30, 2011

^I forgot to mention that Dr. Mukherjee won this year's Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction for that book. Well deservedly so in my opinion. I know it's going to inspire a lot of future researchers, just like The Eighth Day of Creation did for this generation of life scientists.
posted by WhitenoisE at 11:46 PM on June 30, 2011

James Gleick's "Chaos: Making a New Science" is a book, but divided up into shortish sections about different scientists working on "Chaos theory". I really loved the writing, especially stuff like

"he had reached a point just a few months away from completing his doctoral thesis on superconductivity. No one was particularly concerned that he was wasting time down stairs in the physics building playing with an analog computer.
"The Lorenz equations, handed to him on a piece of paper, were no more complicated than the systems he had been tinkering with. It took just a few hours to patch in the right cords and adjust the knobs. A few minutes later, Shaw knew that he would never finish his superconductivity thesis."
posted by Net Prophet at 1:17 PM on July 1, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you, Metafilter, once more!

I already started reading some (New Yorker) pieces by John McPhee and, indeed, he's my man. I'm not from the States, so I actually didn't know much about this 'scientific side' of McPhee. Now I admire him even more.

However, I hunted up this list of best-ever magazine articles and spent 42 minutes recompiling it for my own bookmarks, sorting out a bunch of pieces related to science.

Here it is. The ones I already had a peek at seem really good indeed.

(BTW: All comments following the links are also a copy-paste from the 'master list'. They're stolen, not mine.)


== Science stories in their all-time top 25 ==

Neal Stephenson Mother Earth, Mother Board: Wiring the Planet
Wired, December 1996. On laying trans-oceanic fiber optic cable.

Ron Rosenbaum Secrets of the Little Blue Box
Esquire, October 1971. The first and best account of telephone hackers, more amazing than you might believe.

== 2010s ==

Naomi Klein Gulf Oil Spill: A Hole in the World
The Guardian, June 19, 2010. The single best piece I've seen on the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.

Errol Morris The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is
The New York Times, Opinion, June 20, 2010. There's been a lot of well-written, breezy books on the brain in the last--well, I don't know; since I've been paying attention?--but this series maps the concepts of perception and the physiology behind perceiving reality and the harsh truth of reality to interesting, practical anecdotes, some of which are recent, and some of which are historical. It's fascinating.

Atul Gawande Letting Go: What Should Medicine Do When It Can’t Save Your Life?
The New Yorker, August 2, 2010. I couldn't read it all at once because I started crying at several points.

Jason Fagone Teen Mathletes Do Battle at Algorithm Olympics
Wired, December 2010. This is actually a piece added by me, earthwormsleg. A brilliant insight into the characters of some outstanding teen 'geeks'.

== 2000s ==

Bill Joy Why the future doesn't need us
Wired, April 2000. The best magazine article I've ever read-- by which I mean the piece that came out of nowhere and just knocked my socks off and changed the way I think about the human species.

Elizabeth Kolbert The Climate of Man
The New Yorker, April 25, 2005.

Peter Alsop, Livia Corona, Fin: The Last Days of Fish
Good, September 5, 2008. An excellent look at the sad state of our oceans and the fishing industry.

Chris Anderson The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete
Wired, June 23, 2008.

Steven Kotler Vision Quest: A Half Centure of Artificial-sigh Research has Succeeded. And Now This Blind Man Can See
Wired, September 2002.

== 1990s ==

William Langewiesche The World in its Extreme
The Atlantic, November 1991. Amazing, thoroughly absorbing article about survival in the Sahara Desert. Langewiesche has done a lot of good stuff but this is the best. (Possibly his first.)

Richard Preston, The Mountains of Pi
The New Yorker, March 2, 1992. Two brothers build a supercomputer from mailorder parts in the New York apartment. All it does is compute new digits of Pi.

Russ Rymer A Silent Childhood
The New Yorker. Part 1: April 13, 1992; Part II: April 20, 1992. The two-part article was later reworked into the book, Genie: a Scientific Tragedy, the story of a feral child discovered in LA in 1970, and how she was used as a guinea pig to test linguistic theories.

Michael Paterniti Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain
Harper's Magazine, October 1997.

== 1980s ==

John McPhee Basin and Range (Part I)
The New Yorker, October 20, 1980. Clear and interesting explanations about geology and plate tectonics for the layperson.

George W. S. Trow The Harvard Black Rock Forest
The New Yorker, June 11, 1984.

Paul Hoffman The Man Who Loved Only Numbers The Atlantic, November 1987.
Discover, May 1987.

William McKibben The End of Nature
The New Yorker, September 11, 1989. Reflections on the greenhouse effect and global warming. It brought home to me the enormity of the threat. I've never gotten over it.

== 1970s ==

Stewart Brand Space War: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Dearth Among Computer Bums
Rolling Stone, December 7, 1972. Written nearly 40 years ago, this account of virtual realities has all the classic props: midnight hours, geek humor, nerd hubris, and other worldliness.


Now feel free to add yours!
posted by earthwormsleg at 2:12 AM on July 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

« Older Is my lens broken? Or just broken?   |   How packed will PEI be this weekend? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.