21W.777 | Spring 2017 | Undergraduate

Science Writing in Contemporary Society


[AS] = The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016. Edited by Amy Stewart. Mariner Books, 2016. ISBN: 9780544748996.


Class overview and introductions

Writing in “Contemporary Society”

For Assignment #1:

Weed, William Speed. “106 Science Claims and a Truckful of Baloney.” Popular Science. May 5, 2004.

Five short articles on science-related “problems” of various kinds:

Shariff, Azim, Iyad Rahwan and Jean-François Bonnefon. “Whose Life Should Your Car Save?The New York Times. November 3, 2016.

Quammen, David. “It’s Our Land. Let’s Keep It That Way.” The New York Times. December 10, 2016.

Holmes, Jamie. “Flossing and the Art of Scientific Investigation.” The New York Times. November 25, 2016.

Traywick, Catherine and Mark Chediak. “Nuclear Plants Closing Early Leave Decades of Toxic Waste Stranded.” Bloomberg. November 3, 2016.

Gross, Rachel E. “Just Add Science?Undark. January 24, 2017.


The pleasures and challenges of science writing

Context(s): Getting at the bigger picture

For Assignment #2:

Lightman, Alan. “Prisoner of the Wired World.” (PDF) In A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit. Reprint edition. Vintage, 2006. ISBN: 9781400078196.

Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Basic Books, 2012, pp. 175–209. ISBN: 9780465031467.


Different approaches to similar material

The “human element” (Hancock)

For Assignment #3:

Proctor, Robert N. “Climate Change in Trump’s Age of Ignorance.” The New York Times. November 19, 2016.

[AS] “The Bed-Rest Hoax.”

[AS] “The Man Who Tried to Redeem the World with Logic.”


Considering audiences, and persuading them

Telling a (good) story; explaining concepts; clarity, liveliness

Introduce Investigative Essay assignment

For Assignment #4

Gawande, Atul. “The Heroism of Incremental Care.” The New Yorker. January 23, 2017.


Culture and science

Organizing a long essay

Discuss proposals

No assigned readings
6 Workshop Essay 1 (3 writers) No assigned readings
7 Workshop Essay 1 (3 writers)

For Assignment #7:

[AS] “The Siege of Miami.”

[AS] “Attack of the Killer Beetles.”


The conundrum of reporting on climate change

Representing complexity (without losing readers)

Feedback on Science in/and Culture Essay

Discuss Research proposals

For Assignment #8:

Specter, Michael. “Rewriting the Code of Life.” The New Yorker. January 2, 2017.

9 Complexity, controversy, context

For Assignment #9:

Gladwell, Malcolm. “The Engineer’s Lament.” The New Yorker. May 4, 2015.

Toness, Bianca Vázquez. “Before the Bridge Falls Down.” Undark. Janauary 10, 2017.


Representing thinking

The role of ethics in an engineer’s education

Progress reports on Investigative Essays

For Assignment #10:

Pollan, Michael. “Our Decrepit Food Factories.” The New York Times Magazine. December 16, 2007.

———. “Unhappy Meals.” The New York Times Magazine. January 28, 2007. (Read up to and including the section on nutritionism)

Levenson, Thomas. “Human health needs a common defense. Too bad we blew it.” The Boston Globe. March 5, 2017.


Making the familiar fresh

Putting language front and center

For Assignment #11:

Patel, Rinku. “The Microbes in Your Home Could Save Your Life.” Popular Science. July 7, 2015.

Quammen, David. “Deadly Contact: How Animals and Humans Exchange Disease.” National Geographic. October, 2007.


Reaching a “popular” audience

Handling a hot topic

Update on Investigative essays

No assigned readings
13 Pre-writing for the Investigative Essay No assigned readings
14 Workshop 3 Investigative Essays full class

For Assignment #14b:

McGowan, Elizabeth and Lisa Song. “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You’ve Never Heard Of, Part 1.” Inside Climate News. June 26, 2012.


Feedback on Investigative Essays

The online environment for readers and writers

No assigned readings
16 Organizing a longer article; incorporating sources and voices No assigned readings
17 Watch sample TED talks

No assigned readings

Watch sample TED talks:

Gawande, Atul. “How do we heal medicine?” February 2012.

Turkle, Sherry. “Connected, but alone?” February 2012.

Specter, Michael. “The danger of science denial.” February 2010.

18 Presentations on websites

For Assignment #18:

Mnookin, Seth. “A Book Examines the Curious Case of a Man Whose Memory Was Removed.” The New York Times. August 29, 2016.

Thubron, Colin. “‘The Invention of Nature,’ by Andrea Wulf.” The New York Times. September 25, 2015.

Frank, Adam. “Dreaming in Code: Michio Kaku’s ‘Future of the Mind’.” The New York Times. March 7, 2014.

Margonelli, Lisa. “Eternal Life.” The New York Times. February 5, 2010.

Ball, Philip. “‘Frankenstein’ Reflects the Hopes and Fears of Every Scientific Era.” The Atlantic. April 20, 2017.


The Book Review, an important genre

Making a review an essay

For Assignment #19:

Hirsh, Aaron E. “Signs of Life.” In The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2004. Edited by Tim Folger and Steven Pinker. Mariner Books, 2004. ISBN: 9780618246984.

Berry, Wendell. “Preserving Wildness.” In Home Economics. North Point Press, 1987. ISBN: 9780865472754.

20 The classic science essay No assigned readings
21 Preparing for Book Review Essay No assigned readings
22 Workshop Book Review Essays

For Assignment #22:

Levenson, Thomas. “Doubting climate change is not enough.” The Boston Globe. April 17, 2016.

Fitts, Alexis Sobel. “Of Science, Activism, and Journalism.” Undark. March 20, 2016.

Song, Lisa. “To Be Heard, Climate Scientists Must Practice What They Preach.” Undark. June 23, 2016.

Harari, Yuval. “People Have Limited Knowledge. What’s the Remedy? Nobody Knows.” The New York Times. April 18, 2017.


Feedback on Book Review Essays

Calls to action – but what kind?

No assigned readings
24 Guest speaker: Amanda Gefter No assigned readings
25 Work on revision issues No assigned readings

Final class

Share favorite writing; summing up & reflecting

Evaluations: Bring laptops to class

No assigned readings

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2017
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments