You might think being a science writer is a dream job, one that means spending all day learning new things about a seemingly endless sweep of interesting fields. And, to an extent, you’d be right. But in other ways, it’s also a place where dreams go to die. Things you think should be fascinating—things that, in some cases, you’ve dreamed about knowing more about for much of your life—turn out to be staggeringly dull.
So, forgive your science-writing staff if they finish a week wanting to stab the first scientists they see—even (or perhaps especially) if that’s themselves. To keep the violence to a minimum, we’re taking the opportunity to vent a bit about the fields we thought we loved, but have turned out to disappoint us.
Writers’ names have been removed from their contributions to protect the not-entirely-innocent. We’re sure you’ll figure it out anyway.
Space exploration. Astronauts are some of the brightest, most remarkable super-achievers on the planet. They are opinionated and funny. But they are also some of the worst people in the world to talk to on the record. Even before they officially report for training at Johnson Space Center, astronaut candidates receive training in how to talk to the media: speak generically. Be positive. Never say anything controversial. Stick to NASA’s talking points. And because their flight assignments depend upon complying with NASA’s rules, you had better believe astronauts stick to these guidelines.
Don’t get me wrong, astronauts have some wonderful stories to tell about space. But when you’re holding a camera or a microphone, you’re only going to get the G-rated version, expertly crafted to convince you that by-golly, NASA is doing some great things out there. That’s why, instead of a microphone, I find the best appurtenances to bring to a meeting with an astronaut are not recording devices, but rather a beer and a promise of anonymity.
Paleontology. Like most kids, I went through a period of dinosaur obsession, thankfully in the pre-Barney years. Unlike most kids, I didn’t entirely grow out of it, and it lurked in the background for years. Becoming a science writer seemed to finally give me the chance to dive in and learn what’s happening on the cutting edge.
All I have learned is that I will never understand what’s on the cutting edge. That’s because paleontology papers are filled with Latin terms for features on bones with Latin names—in some cases, there’s no equivalent human bone, and the whole thing’s too obscure to have a Wikipedia entry. These features are often compared to those found in various extinct groups of animals that also have Latin names. And, if this is in an online journal without page limits, the whole thing can grow to colossal lengths.
Thanks for ruining my childhood, paleontologists.
Batteries. Here’s a chance to cover something that matters to me every time I go to leave the apartment and find that my phone’s battery level is in the red. It’s research with immediate real-world implications, a rare case where you can compare performance with something that’s already on the market.
If only. Rather than building useful hardware, sometimes researchers are only testing the anode. Sometimes, it’s just the cathode. In neither case will they tell you what their results will mean for an actual, you know, . Even if they do, it’s often so that they can go on about the rate at which it charges, not how much it holds. On the rare occasion researchers include actual battery performance, it’s always in some odd units that you have to convert to get energy density by weight and volume. And they never, ever, compare it to anything that’s currently on the market.
Astronomy. Take a look at that image. It’s the angriest star in the galaxy, one that has probably already experienced a spectacular death—we’re just waiting for the light to get to us. Over a century and a half ago, light reached us from when it thought seriously about blowing up, but it decided to vomit up about 10 times the mass of the Sun into its neighborhood. Even after doing that, it’s thought to still have over 50 times the material that our Sun has.
How could this not be dramatic? If you’re an actual [email protected]!%%# astronomer, that’s how. Because then you’d feel compelled to drone on for page after page of details on the different telescopes you used, and the software pipelines the data went through, and how everything was normalized to… Exoplanets, which are BRAND NEW WORLDS UNKNOWN TO US get announced with excessive details on Monte Carlo sampling and Markov chains. I would not have thought it possible to suck the life out of stories like these, but the people who have chosen to make this their life’s work manage.
Theoretical physics. This is, without doubt, the worst. First there is the pretension: no one discusses new physics; it’s New Physics, and will soon graduate to the slightly hysterical NEW PHYSICS!!?! What starts out as charmingly quirky names for fields, particles, and operators quickly becomes a confused mess. Does the author mean the quirky name for something technical, or the actual-factual meaning of that word?
And then we get to the claims. Our world is to be revolutionised by a graph that covers 15 orders of magnitude. The old theory and the new are compared… They overlap to within the resolution of my screen for 14.5 orders of magnitude. In the remaining 0.5 order, a tiny blip appears that just threads the needle between “described by existing theories” and “eliminated by experimental data.” Four hours of reading later, you’ve gnawed a hole in your own wrist and not yet decided whether this is a story or not.
Archeology. The best thing about covering archaeology news is that I get to explain how we use really tiny pieces of information to stitch together a picture of actual people’s lives in the past, which often makes for incredibly compelling stories. We can measure the ratios of chemical isotopes in someone’s teeth and figure out what they ate and where they grew up. We can analyze microscopic smears of animal fat on the inside of a pot and watch massive socioeconomic shifts in response to environmental changes. Archaeology is so cool!
But you might never realize that if you read actual archaeology papers, because the cool story gets buried under as many layers of dry academic jargon as possible. All the drama, heartbreak, triumph, and total weirdness of human (and hominin, more generally) history is right there, but it’s hidden under highly technical descriptions of sediment layers and a narrative that sounds like it should be read aloud by Ferris Bueller’s history teacher. Nothing kills a sense of wonder so efficiently as academic writing, and sometimes I want to find the nearest archaeologist and shout, “You’re telling an amazing story here! Why aren’t you more excited about this? You don’t have to play it cool all the time!”
Quantum optics. This is almost exactly the opposite. Every paper is fundamental, or a breakthrough, or “has the potential to enable” some amazing new future—weasel words if ever there were. Quantum optics is even more subject to fads and buzzwords than theoretical physics. It is the field that has brought us time crystals, which holds the record for the most stretched analogy ever discovered.
All you really want is to be able to write “quantum weirdness” without having to go to the doctor to get your repetitive cliche use treated. Instead, you have to pull out the buzzword machete to get to a tiny nugget of amazingness that then takes 15 bazillion words to describe adequately. The final cut (to about 1000 words) induces lasting psychological damage which I take great pleasure in inflicting on my students.