What Sticks In Your Mind?

By Carl Zimmer | January 27, 2009 3:22 am

I’m putting together a list of classic articles and essays about science for a writing class I’m designing, and I’m a bit frustrated. I’ve read plenty of great stuff over the years, but the list I’m coming up with feels too short. So allow me to launch a comment thread: can you name an article or essay about science that you read years ago in a magazine or newspaper that still sticks with you? (No books allowed.)

Update: Just to be clear, I’m not looking for scientific papers.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: General

Comments (64)

  1. charfles

    A bit superficial but does the Time cover article of Sagan count: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,951539,00.html ?

    It’s tough because most good science writing comes from books. Maybe look to Richard Dawkins latest book “Modern Science Writing”. I’m pretty sure a few a few of his selections were articles rather than journal/book excerpts.

    Matt Ridley comes to mind. Any science article by him is a good example of great science mixed with great prose.

  2. Dear Carl,

    I’ve only had one cup of weak coffee thus far – so no articles or essays come to mind. However, since I’m also designing a writing class for environmental scientists, I’m particularly interested in the list you compile.
    Could you please share the list?

    -Rania Masri
    University of Balamand, Lebanon

  3. If peer-reviewed articles are allowed, then King and Wilson in Science, 1975: Evolution at two levels in Humans and Chimpanzees.

    Gould wrote many sticking essays, of course. How about ‘A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse’?

  4. Sarah

    [Article in SEED: Science is Culture] Thinking Before You Think: Does your brain make decisions seconds before you do? April 2008

  5. David Quammen’s “Something to Crow About,” from Natural Acts.

  6. “Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony”.

  7. “Phylogenetic structure of the prokaryotic domain: the primary kingdoms”
    C R Woese and G E Fox
    PNAS November 1, 1977 vol. 74 no. 11 5088-5090
    http://www.pnas.org/content/74/11/5088.abstract?sid=6fa54107-635b-40d7-bc3a-6caf621625b6

  8. VentureFree

    Scientific American
    April, 2003
    Parallel Universes
    Not just a staple of science fiction, other universes are a direct implication of cosmological observations
    By Max Tegmark

    The main reason that this article sticks out for me is because of the first paragraph.

    “Is there a copy of you reading this article? A person who is not you but who lives on a planet called Earth, with misty mountains, fertile fields and sprawling cities, in a solar system with eight other planets? The life of this person has been identical to yours in every respect. But perhaps he or she now decides to put down this article without finishing it, while you read on. ”

    I wanted so badly to be the one that put down the article and read no more…but I couldn’t help myself. I’ve never forgiven myself for my lack of self-control. As penance, I’m refusing to read the last Harry Potter book.

  9. Also David Quammen’s “Planet of Weeds.”

  10. jim

    The Dennis Overbye in this morning’s NYT was great and reminded me of one by Brian Greene in the NYT just a couple months back.

    I also strongly remember that Nat. Geo cover, from 2004 I think it was, “Is Evolution Wrong?” and of course the answer was “No.”

  11. Dale Hoyt

    All of Stephen Jay Gould’s essays were first published in Natural History magazine. I liked his early essays that were collected in “Ever Since Darwin”. These were written before Gould was infected with the prose bloat virus. Several people have mentioned to me that they initially became interested in evolution from reading these essays.

  12. Are we talking classic science (aka published peer-reviewed) or classic articles (essays, macgazines) about science?

    If it’s the former, I always liked Reznick’s study on how predation affects life history strategies in guppies. Classic article on evolution and ecology.

    Otherwise, maybe you should take a look at the Open Lab winners from the past few years – there might be some good stuff in those.

  13. Robert Sapolsky’s “Open Season,” published in 1998 in The New Yorker, has stuck with me since I first read it, and I was pleased to find it reprinted in his anthology Monkeyluv. And it even mentions tattoos!

  14. johnk

    Can they be chapters from books? I think Oliver Sacks is very good.

    Mostly, I’d like to see the list you come up with. My list is not too long.

    One tricky thing. Are you looking for profound or provocative ideas stated in interesting fashion, or clear and interesting writing about interesting areas of science?

    I loved Steven Gould’s early writing in Natural History Magazine. Not so much his later writing.

  15. i’m surprised at how hard it is to pull it out of memory on the spot.
    Oliver Sacks’s “Stereo Sue”, The New Yorker, 2006
    I’m sure there’s more, though.
    Please post the list, once you have it!

  16. another one (a series, actually).
    “Altered oceans”, by kenneth weiss and usha macfarling, LAtimes 2006. http://www.latimes.com/news/local/oceans/la-oceans-series,0,7842752.special
    it got them the 2007 Pulitzer in journalism.

  17. Oliver Morton, “Moonshine and Glue: A Thirteen-Unit Guide to the Extreme Edge of Astrophysics” (published in The American Scholar, Spring 2004) — formally a bit atypical/experimental for a science essay (it’s divided into thirteen sections with titles like “Kilometers”, “Zettavolts”, and “Days”), but it works extremely well.

    A little googling turns up a PDF version of the essay here:
    http://www.phys.hawaii.edu/~anita/web/paperwork/currently%20organizing/Other%20Papers/Moonshine&Glue.pdf

  18. Janice Kane

    Excerpts from “Disturbing the Universe” by Freeman Dyson that were published in The New Yorker in 1979.

  19. Laury Carter

    hi

    Harrowsmith Magazine did an article on Three Mile Island, right after the tragedy occurred, then followed it up with another one about twenty years later.

    I thought the first one was very well done, maybe the second didn’t seem as great because of the lack of good news…

    not sure if this is what you are looking for. Harrowsmith is Canadian. (Camden House publishing, I think)

  20. Sara Tenney

    What comes to mind first for me is the book THE CANON by Natalie Angier. There’s a lot of great science writing in that book. In particular, the material on molecular biology.

  21. Stan

    http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E0CE3DE1138F935A15756C0A964958260

    “Why Don’t Men Ask Directions? They Don’t Feel Lost”

    This NYT article from 1992 comes to mind a few times every year. Getting lost, and differences between sexes; 2 constant and universal themes.

  22. Sara Tenney

    Two more of my all time favorites…

    George Divoky’s Planet in the NYTimes (Sunday magazine, I believe)
    By DARCY FREY, Published: January 6, 2002

    Leland Hartwell’s Nobel Price Lecture on December 9 2001 on Yeast and Cancer

    http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2001/hartwell-lecture.pdf

  23. Marie Martinek

    Many of the essays by Isaac Asimov, originally printed in F&SF (Fantasy & Science Fiction). The only one I can recall by title is “You Too Can Speak Gaelic”, an etymological breakdown of the chemical word “paradimethylaminobenzaldehyde”. There were also several on the discovery/creation/filling in of the Periodic Table, and short biographies & description of the discoveries of people such as Roentgen, Kelvin, Celsius, Schroedinger. Page through whatever volumes of “collected essays by Isaac Asimov” you’ve got on your shelf, and you’ll probably have that “aha! I remember that one!”

  24. J.B.S. Haldane’s “On Being the Right Size” stuck in my mind, largely because of the “…and horses splash”. I think it was originally published in a magazine, but it’s also in a book collection.

  25. Anne H

    Any of the early chapters from Matt Ridley’s 23-chapter book about the human genome. One was re-printed in one of those annual Best Science Writing volumes. And like many others, I know I was influenced by Microbe Hunters long ago — the chapter on diphtheria for example.

  26. Technolinguist

    http://discovermagazine.com/1997/apr/thecurseofqwerty1099

    I read that in the magazine it came out in, and was so persuaded by it that I switched to Dvorak myself.

  27. Wes

    Two people have already mentioned Oliver Sacks. His article “The Abyss” for the New Yorker (Sep 24, 2007), on a very extreme case of amnesia, is both touching and informative:

    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/09/24/070924fa_fact_sacks

  28. jeremy

    It’s hard to give non-paper ones, I guess Dobzhanskys famous “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution” counts. Homage to Santa Rosalia or why are there so many kinds of animals?” by GE Hutchison might count, it is not too technical.

    Try http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_important_publications_in_biology though most of these will be papers

  29. One of my very favorite science writing articles of all times was published in The New York Times magazine a bunch of years ago. It was about an unconventional scientist doing research on birds in the arctic. The topic itself was good, but the writing made it a brilliant story. It was called George Divoky’s Planet, By DARCY FREY
    Published: January 6, 2002

    http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B05EFDE1430F935A35752C0A9649C8B63

  30. Matt

    Well, it was sort of a history of science article, but it was a Neal Stephenson article in wired about laying fiber optic cable under the ocean. An engineering topic, granted, but he spent most of the time talking about Lord Kelvin and lots of hard science. It was fantastic. And verbose, but in the best possible way.

  31. Philip Schmalz

    “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm” by Gould and Lewontin and anything from Metamagical Themas by Douglas Hofstadter (yes its a book, but its a collection of articles so I think it counts).

  32. Bob O’H beat me to it, but Haldane’s “On Being the Right Size” certainly deserves to be included. Obviously SJG and Quammen have loads of stuff to include but I’ll bet they are on your list already.

    Lewis Thomas’ “On Science and Uncertainty” is a great, and very honest essay, although happily, in the nearly 30 (!) years since he wrote that essay we’ve made significant progress on many (but not all) of the biological uncertainties he addresses. Another essay of his “Organelles as Organisms” is one of my all time favorites…it literally gives me goosebumps each time I read it.

  33. Owlmirror

    Seeing Haldane’s article reminded me of a fun favorite that cites it,

      The Biology of B-Movie Monsters
    http://fathom.lib.uchicago.edu/2/21701757/

  34. Matt

    Let’s not forget the impressive portfolio of one C. Zimmer.

    [/brownnosing]

  35. Greg Peterson

    Aw, it’s not old enough and might never be deemed a classic, but for a great relatively recent article I can’t get out of my head, try this one on:

    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/06/30/080630fa_fact_gawande?currentPage=all

    The Itch
    Its mysterious power may be a clue to a new theory about brains and bodies.
    by Atul Gawande

    Sorry I couldn’t be more help. I read so many great articles, but when I try to remember them, they all mush together. I was trying to think of something funny…maybe a classic National Lampoon piece…but nothing specific came to mind. Good luck!

  36. I tend to save interesting articles from the web on my hard drive for future use in teaching – or just to refer back to when I have one of those “I know I read something about that somewhere” moments. Here are a few cool science articles from my archives that are still live on the ‘net somewhere or other:

    “A Linguistic Big Bang” – Well-written article addressing the spontaneous generation and evolution of a new sign language by deaf children in Nicaragua:
    http://www.nytimes.com/library/magazine/home/19991024mag-sign-language.html

    “The Kept University” – If you’re interested not just in science but the context of science, this article is tremendous:
    http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2000/03/press.htm

    “Of Vice and Men” & “The Case Against Intelligent Design” – Evolutionary psychology is always fun and controversial, especially since so much of it is so bad; Jerry Coyne’s review of Thornhill & Palmer’s “A Natural History of Rape” from the April 3, 2000 edition of The New Republic was wonderful in its frank criticism of awful science. Also terrific for similar reasons is Coyne’s comprehensive take down of ID from the August 22, 2005 issue.
    Not available without subscription on TNR’s website, but I’m sure you can get them via some sort of library access.

    “Six Degrees of Lois Weinberg” – I’m lukewarm on Malcom Gladwell’s science writing, but this article on social networks was a wonderful blend of human interest and interesting science:
    http://www.gladwell.com/1999/1999_01_11_a_weisberg.htm

    “Shaking the foundations of mathematics” – I haven’t run across many truly engaging and accessible articles about deep conceptual issues in mathematics. In fact, this one may be it. Again, behind a subscription wall: From New Scientist magazine, vol 136 issue 1848, 21/11/1992, page 36

    “The Seven Signs of Voodoo Science” – I know, you said “no books.” But The Chronicle of Higher Ed conveniently posted a short summary by Bob Park of his seven signs, so…
    http://chronicle.com/free/v49/i21/21b02001.htm

    Two hilarious postscripts to Voodoo Science, if you want to amuse your students…
    An unintentionally hilarious review of Park’s book from Infinite Energy magazine, a.k.a. The Cranks Strike Back:
    http://www.infinite-energy.com/iemagazine/issue30/voodoo.html
    And an editorial from Infinite Energy’s subscriber base:
    http://www.theonion.com/content/node/42384

    “Mind Games: Psychological Warfare Between Therapists and Scientists” – Would it be juvenile of me if the first comment on this article I came up with was that “Carol Tavris is made of awesome!”? Nevertheless…
    http://chronicle.com/free/v49/i25/25b00701.htm

    “A Bad Trip Down Memory Lane” – The original version of this wonderful article about Susan Clancy’s research on “alien abductees” and the recovered memory debate had one of the greatest pullquotes ever: “With alien abductees,” Clancy thought, “I’m never going to have to deal with the criticism that it might have actually happened.” Oops. Sorry Susan.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/27/magazine/27CLANCY.html

    “Food for Thought” – Some guy named Zimmer recommended this article to me in a blog post or something…
    http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=food-for-thought

    “Scientific Method Man” – What could be cooler than a coded medieval manuscript, a massive hoax lasting centuries, and a new way to approach scientific methodology and critical thinking?
    http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.09/rugg.html

    Okay, that’s enough. I enjoyed this excuse to wander through my archives, but I’ve had a long day and I’m getting the blurry-computer-eyes thing.

    Good luck with your class!

  37. Matt

    Do you want any counterpoints? I mean, Gregg Easterbrook’s “science” columns stick in my brain. But it’s as much to do with his obviously tenuous grasp of issues as it does his writing style (which is actually damn compelling).

  38. Chris

    The Panda’s Thumb by Stephen Jay Gould. Of course, you probably have that one since there’s a blog by that name. Gould had lots of good stuff.

  39. Peter Jakubowicz

    I think about Robert Sapolsky’s essay “A Gene for Nothing” a few times a week, so that qualifies as having stuck. It’s in Monkeyluv, but was originally published in Discover in 1997. Sapolsky is one of my favorite writers ever, and I find myself talking about things I first read about in one of his essays pretty often.

  40. How about Dobzhansky’s classic “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution” (see http://people.delphiforums.com/lordorman/light.htm).

  41. johnk

    Oh yes.

    “What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?” gets my vote, too.

    Huge impact. But I guess it can’t be the one that sticks in my head, since I didn’t remember it the first time around.

  42. Gould of course (http://www.monmsci.net/~kbaldwin/mickey.pdf) and the Mickey Mouse was the first that came ti my mind. Also The Possible and the Actual by Francois Jacob.

  43. Sharat

    These articles pepped me up:

    Robert Sapolsky on the “natural history of peace” Foreign Affairs Jan/Feb 2006
    http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20060101faessay85110/robert-m-sapolsky/a-natural-history-of-peace.html

    Jeffrey Rosen, “the Brain on the Stand”, NY Times Magazine 12/11/2007

  44. “Saving Us From Darwin” — especially the first part of the two part essay — by Frederick Crews, from the NYRB,10/4/1991, is a very good example of the critical essay in science writing. Not to mention it will serve to introduce the notion of hardy perennials in our subject. URL: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/14581.

    No one has mentioned above (that I caught; apologies if I missed it) anything from Lewis Thomas’s Lives of A Cell. Published in 1974, three years before Gould’s first collection, it was one of the important touchstones for science writing in what those of us of a certain age see as something of a great age for the practice. Like much of Gould’s work, it was a collection of previously published essays — these from NEJM (! — Drs. expected to read liberal arts essays!) and it had a major and deserved public impact. I haven’t got it in front of me at this second — it’s in my office — but there are a lot of good pieces there. (Not that Gould isn’t worth including; it’s just that its important to remember that there are more than three good writers in the world.) (That said, the bibliography at Stephenjaygould.org reminds one of what an impressive career he had.)

    What else? Roald Hoffman’s “The Same and Not the Same” is a wonderful, and almost completely overlooked collection of linked short pieces on the history and practice of chemistry. Good stuff there. For a strong does of skepticism about the practice of science itself, I’d prefer Gary Taubes’ book “Bad Science” on the cold fusion debacle to his fat article referenced above, but both are good. For a recent work by a a writer on science, as opposed to a scientist-writer, I’ve been touting to anyone I can Masha Gessen’s book “Blood Matters,” on the personal, social and scientific issues surrounding the rise of personal genomic medicine. Truly a wonderful book. For a shorter take on it, see her Slate series on her own path to decided what to do with the knowledge that she carries the BRCA 1 gene. That series begins here: http://www.slate.com/id/2102171/entry/2102173/.

    Lots more, always more; good writing may not be as thick on the ground as bad, but this is truly a second (third…fourth….) great age for science writing. I’ve left out lots that I like, for reasons of space, perhaps, more because I write this in the wee hours before shoveling snow, away from most of my library, and I have brain bubbles. I’ve omitted any mention of the proprietor of this blog, figuring he knows what he likes in his body of work well enough.

    I’ll indulge myself here at the far end of a comment too long for most to read by mentioning the one passage from my own work that, in the same vein, I like, whether or not anyone else finds it satisfying. That’s my account of the Minkowski’s concept of spacetime, to be found on pp. 91-95 of my book “Einstein in Berlin.”

    And that reminds me that I forgot to mention Richard Rhodes’ “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” which, among much else, contains some of the best writing on to make the key ideas of atomic physics come to life in the first third of that massive tome.

    That’s enough…

  45. Daniel

    It’s not in a newspaper or a magazine, but for a (rather old) essay: Huxley’s ‘On a piece of chalk’.

  46. “the one passage” above should, I hope, read “one of.”

  47. Years ago, Discover ran a story on surreal numbers; that one still sticks with me.

    Also, as a commenter upthread mentioned Isaac Asimov, I’ll confess to my undying admiration of his essay “Forget It!”

  48. This sticks in my mind as the funniest science journalism ever, about the early days of Robot Wars.

    Die, Robot

    http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/6.08/robots.html

    Runner up:

    Michael Rogers’s “Totality: A Report,” from Rolling Stone in 1972.

  49. Davi

    I remember reading about Google’s search algorithm in the late 90′s in Scientific American. I remember thinking, “That’s smart.” And as Google ascended, I always knew who they were & why their approach was working so well.

    It took me a while to find the reference, but here it is:

    Hypersearching the Web. By: Chakrabarti, Soumen, Dom, Byron, Kumar, S. Ravi, Raghavan, Prabhakar, Rajagopalan, Sridhar, Tomkins, Andrew, Kleinberg, Jon M., Gibson, David, Scientific American, 00368733, Jun99, Vol. 280, Issue 6

    A version is available online at: http://www.cs.cornell.edu/home/kleinber/sciam99.html

  50. Davi

    Also this great New Yorker article about the ecosystem in the canopy of old-growth redwoods:

    http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/02/14/050214fa_fact_preston

  51. You could take a chapter out of one of Richard Feynman’s books, I think they’d stand alone. Look through “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” first, then “What Do You Care What Other People Think?”

    The books are very anecdotal and biographical, but his all-encompassing curiosity and love of scientific inquiry illuminates everything. One of the chapters might make an interesting counterpoint to more topic-focused pieces. And of course he does write about Los Alamos, his part in the investigation of the Challenger space shuttle explosion, and other such fascinating moments in history.

  52. “Self-Consciousness and the Rights of Nonhuman Animals and Nature,” by Richard A. Watson, Environmental Ethics 1:99-129, 1979. Watson spelled out the meaning of a moral agent, and indicated that certain animals probably were able to choose to act morally.

    “The Tragedy of the Commons,” by Garrett Hardin, Science 162:1243-1248, 1968. The classic that argued that it pays exploiters to exploit resources that are common property, such as air, some land, and some bodies of water.

  53. Owlmirror

    Another one that stuck in my mind for quite a while:

    http://www.viking.ucla.edu/Scientific_American/Egils_Bones.htm

    The description of how a real disease (Paget’s disease) was consistent with what was described in the Prose Edda about Egil was a very interesting intersection of history with forensic medicine. It helps emphasize that humans living in the past were not so different from now.

  54. Kenneth Brower’s essay “On the Reef, Darkly”, about the blind marine ecologist Geerat Vermeij, is possibly the best piece of science writing I’ve ever read. It was published in the Atlantic Monthly, November 1976.

  55. Emily

    Except for the paragraph beginning “Geneticists have proposed that the turtle shell may have appeared quite suddenly in the distant past, rather than emerging slowly through modest, mincing modifications of pre-existing structures”, I liked Natalie Angier’s description of ageless turtles.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/12/science/12turt.html?pagewanted=3&_r=1&sq=turtle%20angier&st=cse&scp=4

  56. Philipw2

    I do not have a title or a URL, but I have remembered an article on an deadly attack upon a pod of sperm whales by a group of killer whales. The article appeared in Natural History in the mid-1990s. Because of their panda like appearance, killer whales have been thought of as cuddly. The theory of this article was that deep sea killer whales are different than the coastal ones we usually see in movies and TV shows. It was a gripping article and had my middle school daughter read it for her biology class assignment. She still remembers it.

  57. David J. Fishman

    20,000 Microbes Under the Sea, Robert Kunzig, Discover March 2004

    http://discovermagazine.com/2004/mar/cover

  58. SVanKleef

    Here are some that I use with high school students:

    Women’s Brains SJ Gould (in The Panda’s Thumb)
    Living Water David Quaaman (in Natural Acts)
    A Surgeon’s Life Oliver Sacks (in An Anthropologist on Mars)
    1000 Cheeseburgers, or Getting Enough to Eat Eric P. Widmaier (in Why Geese Don’t Get Obese)
    Small, Yes, but Mighty: The Molecule Called Water Natalie Angier http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/10/science/10angi.html?_r=1
    The introduction to Oliver Morton’s new book. Eating the Sun up to the line “That’s what really happened today.

  59. SC2

    For “sticky” science essay writing may I repeat the recommendation of Lewis Thomas’ and Stephen Jay Gould’s exquisite short essays, and add many writers for the New Yorker including not only Sacks, Gawande, and Groopman but also Elizabeth Kolbert’s series on global climate change that became her book _Field Notes from a Catastrophe_, Richard Preston’s “Crisis in the Hot Zone,” John McPhee’s geology pieces that became _Basin and Range_ and _Assembling California_, Bill McKibben’s pieces that became _The End of Nature_.

  60. druidbros

    I know I am a bit late to the party but I would recommend ‘The Fabric of the Cosmos’ by Brian Greene. Its a great theoretical physics ride. It took me three months to finish because its the kind of book you read for 5-10 pages then have to put it down to think about the concept he has just introduced. Kept me entertained for three months.

  61. Maybe not quite what you are looking for, but a wonderful read:
    Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!

    http://www.amazon.com/Surely-Feynman-Adventures-Curious-Character/dp/0393316041

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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