For the residents of Lakeshore, Ontario, the black fungus caking their homes was a problem, and they blamed the local distillery. For James Scott, the Sherlock Holmes of fungi, the identity of the unsightly mold was a mystery waiting to be solved. And for Adam Rogers, senior editor at WIRED, Scott’s quest was a story that needed to be told. Rogers spent three days tailing the fungus detective, and the result is a beautiful, sensory, fungal whodunit, with a brief history of alcohol on the side.
I was recently asked if I wanted to contribute anything to the Open Notebook, a site where science writers write about science writing. It specialises in taking big, important stories and dissecting how they were conceived, crafted and refined. It’s about the stories behind the stories. I’ve been a fan of the Open Notebook from the beginning. Not only does it highlight the best science writing around but we get a wonderful look at how the best professionals in the field do their work. It’s an antidote to the caricature of the lazy, uninformed science journalist, and it helps those of us who care about the profession to aspire to higher standards.
When I was thinking which story to delve into, Adam’s whiskey tale was an obvious choice. It was one of my favourite pieces of the year. All of the elements of a great science feature are here. It’s a story, not a review, and it uses a compelling central character to explore the fascinating and overlooked world of fungal science. The explanatory element is crystal clear without skimping on detail. The prose is vivid with sensory detail and has a light, lilting cadence to it. And more than any piece I have recently read, it bares open the process of science, and the curiosity and passion that drives its practitioners. It’s science as a quest: frustrating and never-ending, but always captivating.
Check out Adam’s story if you haven’t already, and then read about how he built it at the Open Notebook.
Image by Shadle