When Science Writes Itself
I'm going to go out on a limb and assume you like reading about science. I do too—it's pure wonder, at its best. Writing about it, however, is a different matter. For the most part, it's just tough. However marvellous the topic, the task of turning obscure, tangled concepts into light reading is a slog from start to finish.
But every so often, a piece of research emerges that gives writers a break. It doesn't have to be Nobel material. It doesn't have to change the world—or even be practical. It just needs to write itself.
By an astonishing coincidence, just days before I thought up this article, a paper appeared which nicely illustrates my point. Dinosaurs? Check. Asteroids? Check. High-powered lasers? Yes, that'll do nicely.
If you have more than a passing interest in those things, you probably already know about the study—by Ohno et al., published in this month's Nature Geoscience. It's been covered by almost every major science network, so I'll forgo a traditional summary. Instead, I want to highlight just why this paper was such a gift for science writers.
Reason 1—The Hook
Dinosaurs. Any science writer worth their salt would have put them in somewhere. But guess how many times they're mentioned in the paper. Not once. What is mentioned is the Chicxulub meteor impact—the probable cause of the end-Cretaceous mass extinction, of which dinosaurs* are the most famous casualties. Granted, it's not a huge leap from one to the other. But nevertheless, this is a prime example of the first rule in writing well about science: tell people why they should care. Dinosaurs—that's why.
*(Strictly speaking, non-avian dinosaurs, but here my own self-pedantry reminded me of another useful writing tip: Don't be slavishly scientific if most people will get your drift!)
Reason 2—The Lead
The entire scope of the Chicxulub paper can be summarised in five seconds:
"The meteor thought to have killed the dinosaurs unleashed a worldwide rain of sulphuric acid, a new study finds."
Another 15 fills in most of the specifics:
"Laboratory simulations suggest that the Chicxulub impact—believed to have caused the end-Cretaceous mass-extinction—produced huge amounts of sulphur trioxide gas. This would have rapidly turned into sulphuric acid, causing catastrophic acidification of the world's oceans."
It's a great sign when the introduction, method, results and conclusion of a paper can be condensed into 60 words. In the precious pre-boredom seconds, you've hooked and informed the reader. Who knows, they might even finish the article.
Reason 3—The Science
Conclusions are fun. The actual science behind them, however, can be baffling or—even worse—dry. But this was yet another area in which the Nature Geoscience paper shone: the method was almost as cool as dinosaurs.
To simulate the effect of the Chicxulub meteor strike, the researchers fired a piece of the element tantalum—a rare transition metal—at a small piece of anhydrite—a sulphur-rich rock found at the Chicxulub impact site. Vast quantities of this rock would have been instantly vaporised when the meteor hit, and the team wanted to see what gases this would have added to the prehistoric atmosphere.
To do this, they accelerated the tantalum to speeds of over 13 km/s (29,000 mph*)—an astonishing feat, which the researchers achieved by superheating the projectile with an infrared laser (yes, this was science with a capital S). The gas forged by the collision was sulphur trioxide, which led Ohno et al. to their conclusions about the apocalyptic acid rain.
Scientific research is seldom so writer-friendly. It's not that this study was less complex than the others—it's that its complexity was secondary to the story it told. Genius-level engineering boiled down to an experiment that a seven year-old could grasp; a projectile was slammed into a rock and it made a gas. Advanced atmospheric chemistry was similarly condensed into a dramatic narrative: SO3—acid rain—mass extinction. What the scientists did, what it told them, and why we should care. In short, a checklist for anyone who writes about research—and wants to be read.