Life on Mars, death on Earth – the power of science writing

Image courtesy of NASA

The surface of Mars

It’s only midweek, and yet there have already been enough fantastic pieces of science writing to fill another weekly edition of “Morsels for the Mind”. And by science writing, I mean writing about science. Real, bona fide science writing. Science, perfectly explained in prose, but prose so beautiful that it resonates like poetry.

So far this week, two pieces of science writing really stand out. The two are quite literally worlds apart in terms of subject matter. One is about deadly diseases here on Earth. The other is about lava on Mars. Despite this, they are linked by a handful of masterful introductory paragraphs in the first piece.

The first piece was written by Ed Yong. If you are a lover of science writing, you are undoubtedly already a regular reader of Ed’s amazing blog “Not Exactly Rocket Science”. If you aren’t already a regular reader of Ed’s work, do yourself a favour and fix that right now.

Ed’s piece on deadly infectious diseases is a long read in Aeon Magazine (and if you aren’t reading Aeon Magazine already you need to fix that also). The piece is a wonderfully written treatise on the competition that occurs between microbes, and how infectious human diseases are simply a by-product of that competition.

As Ed explains, microbes have been competing with each other – jostling for advantage in an evolutionary battle – long before our kind ever made an appearance on this planet. With our emergence as a species, we merely became a new battleground for microbial competition to play out. Natural selection favoured those microbes that were able to best colonise our walking, talking ecosystems.

Some microbes are now merely effective at taking up benign residence on and in our bodies, living commensally. Others confer a benefit on us in exchange for their welfare – mutualistic symbionts. Others are neither benign nor beneficial – running rampant over our cellular ecosystems, overcoming the competition, and wreaking havoc in our bodies as they go – the pathogens. These pathogens give rise to the deadly infectious diseases with which we are so familiar. Crucially, these classes of microbes are somewhat fluid – depending on the circumstances, even benign and beneficial bacteria could become pathogens.

But the thing is – and here is the crux of Ed’s piece - it’s not really about us.

Our infectious diseases, and the deaths they bring about, are not the aim of the microbes. Infectious diseases are merely collateral damage in microbes’ aim to colonise the environment, and to capture the resources there at the expense of the competition. We are literally nothing but a microbial environment, a landscape.

I’m really not doing justice to the incredible storytelling and beautiful writing to be found in Ed’s essay, but hopefully this serves as enticement to read the piece. You are sure to get drawn in by Ed’s opening paragraphs. Without giving too much away, the opening paragraphs draw you in by linking to H.G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds”. Ed recalls Wells’s evocative tale of the demise of the fictional invading Martians, who, of course, meet their end due to no more than Earthly microbes. In Wells’s tale, the Martians are susceptible to the microbes because they had not experienced them on their home world. Ed uses this tale as a perfect introduction to his essay. It’s a truly wonderful opening to Ed’s piece, and a great link to the second piece that stood out this week.

The second piece, published in The Conversation, was written by fellow SciLogs blogger, Robin Wylie. Robin’s piece shares with Ed’s a Martian connection. While Ed’s piece starts with the death of fictional Martians on Earth, Robin’s focuses on the likelihood of life-supporting water on Mars.

Robin’s article is based on recent research by Giovanni Leone of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, published in the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research. The research focused on Martian canyons.

Canyons scar the Martian landscape – deep rifts that are reminiscent of, but much grander than, the Grand Canyon. Past research has explored the hypothesis that these canyons might have been formed by flowing water, just like the Grand Canyon. The research Robin reports on puts forward a different hypothesis – that the canyons were formed by the flow of lava, not water.

Robin’s explanation of Giovanni Leone’s work is excellent. He describes how Leone arrived at his hypothesis, and how the lava hypothesis flows (pun intended) against the current tide of perspectives around the origins of these Martian canyons.

Crucially, Robin considers the implications of Leone’s hypothesis. If many of the Martian canyons formerly thought to be formed by water originated instead due to the action of volcanic lava, what does this say about the possibility of life in those regions? Leone’s research may point to where life is less likely to be found on Mars, instead of where we might look to find signs of life.

Robin’s article is an exceptional example of great science writing. He has taken a nice piece of research, explained it perfectly, and contextualised it. But this isn’t what really sets Robin’s article apart.

What sets Robin’s article apart is that he had already written a blog post about it – a very different kind of blog post than the article. In that blog post he briefly described the research, and highlighted its importance. But he spent most of the blog pondering (and lamenting) why the work hadn’t been more widely reported.

Now, rather than just lamenting the fact that the work hadn’t been reported, Robin did the right thing. He set about to rectify the situation. He reported the work himself, in a venue where the work would get more visibility.

This is what sets Robin’s article apart. It reports on the somewhat obscure. The overlooked diamond. The piece that captured his imagination that, if explained in the manner he explained it, could capture the imagination of others as well.

If only others would follow Robin’s lead. Too many people spend time not just pondering, but complaining about how one piece of science or another is woefully overlooked. If those same people actually took the same amount of time to report on the science, the science wouldn’t be under-reported. Robin’s article in The Conversation should stand as an example in this regard.

Together, Ed’s and Robin’s articles stand as testimony for the many things great science writing can be.

Like Robin’s, great science writing can flesh out and bring to light novel discoveries that might otherwise be overlooked. Even the seemingly specific and incremental can be shared in this way. Good explanations can make the specific fascinating. Strong storytelling can highlight the importance of the incremental. Discoveries need not be earth-shattering to resonate, to allow us to view the universe from a slightly different vantage point, to understand how all the intricate pieces fit together. There is still great awe to be found in the tiniest of increments, for the glimpses they provide of a more comprehensive whole.

Like Ed’s, great science writing can illuminate us with magnificent ideas, blow us away with the sweep of spectacular processes, and populate our minds with insights into grand themes. Such writing shows us that science is not merely a collection of throwaway factlets – like banter tossed about at a cocktail party – but an epic tale, one worthy of poring over, savouring, and retelling.

Too often nowadays, it seems like science communication is taken over by considering the act of communicating science, rather than actually doing the act of communicating science. Ed’s and Robin’s pieces show the power of actually communicating science. It’s what science writing should be.

And now back to writing about science…

6 Responses to “Life on Mars, death on Earth – the power of science writing”

  1. Khalil A. (@notscientific) Reply | Permalink

    Good post Malcolm. Just want to point out that Robin's piece in The Conversation got republished in The Daily Mail, so clearly being more proactive in communicating science does work.

    • Malcolm Campbell Reply | Permalink

      Much thanks for the kind feedback, Khalil! It's wonderful to see Robin's piece in The Conversation get traction. It definitely underscores the value of being proactive with science writing.

  2. Paige K Brown Reply | Permalink

    Malcolm, thank you VERY much for commenting on these two great pieces of science writing! Robin is really blowing me away with the quality of his science reporting...

    "If only others would follow Robin’s lead. Too many people spend time not just pondering, but complaining about how one piece of science or another is woefully overlooked. If those same people actually took the same amount of time to report on the science, the science wouldn’t be under-reported. Robin’s article in The Conversation should stand as an example in this regard."

    This is spot on. It's also really interesting, because as I interview science bloggers I'm getting a feeling that many of them have passion for this - for covering the "obscure" - the stories that other science bloggers and science journalists aren't covering. And like you said, there may be too many science bloggers (perhaps many scientists??) lamenting the "under-coverage" of neat papers and sound scientific research, but fewer actually going out and covering it. Places like The Conversation and other newer outlets are great venues to do so, where you don't necessarily have to convince the editor that they should accept a pitch for this story even though NOBODY ELSE is covering it (because being the only outlet covering the story probably goes against traditional news norms).

    But I also wonder if the science blogs that DO cover these obscure stories, the bloggers that DO go out and write about the under-reported research, are sort of creating a new "long tail" of science research reporting. In other words, against traditional news routines where you better cover what everyone else is talking about and covering, science bloggers are practicing something totally opposite - they are pushing coverage of science into a long tail of potential stories that not everyone else is covering. Something quite different than every news org this week covering the "female hurricanes are more dangerous" research paper.

    • Malcolm Campbell Reply | Permalink

      Thank you for your comments, Paige.

      You are correct, Robin's science writing is very good. Fortunately, it is not alone in that regard. There is a lot of high quality science communication out there - across the spectrum of science communication formats. Some of it follows a more traditional journalistic format, like pieces published in The Conversation. Other science communication is more akin to storytelling. The pieces being published by the bloggers at National Geographic's Phenomena, or the science podcasts to be found across many outlets provide super examples of excellent science storytelling. In fact, many writers on the SciLogs network also engage in excellent science storytelling. What unites all of these is clearly a passion to explain scientific discoveries of all sorts - popular, obscure, whatever - and share them with others.

      Frankly, a lot less attention needs to be paid to why people are engaged in science communication - be it blogging, vlogging, podcasting, or something more traditional. The motivators are likely to be as varied as the remarkable diversity of people who are involved. Focusing on why people are communicating different kinds of science is a distraction from the act of actually communicating science. Instead of asking "Why are you communicating the science you communicate?", the better question is "How can I help you communicate the science you wish to communicate?". That is, let's work on supporting people in their efforts to communicate science rather than distracting them with the "why?". The post here aims to promote people's efforts to communicate science, irrespective of their motivation, by highlighting two very different examples of great science communication worthy of emulation. Hopefully it inspires people to write about whatever science they wish to write about, without being distracted by the question of why they are doing it and its ultimate impact.

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