Sunday, September 23, 2007

Guest in Progress: Jesse Cohen

I grew up with a chemistry professor (my father), but that didn’t mean I knew much about science. On the contrary, what I remember most vividly about my year of high school chemistry was feeling perpetually lost from early October, mostly because I never could understand the very basic concept of what a mole is. (Still don’t: I was doing okay with this explanation until the equation showed up.)

Yet when doing a bit of research for my novel A Year and a Day (high school chemistry and biology teachers play important roles), I discovered a new interest in science…not in a science-class sort of way, but as a general reader. Corny but true: not only is science amazing, but it is beautiful and creative. (NOT the data, Father Chemistry Professor…the theories!) I was pleased that the ending I struggled to find for A Year and a Day hinged on a scientific fact that was also a lovely metaphor for the book. I was also pleased to find poetry in the Periodic Table of the Elements.

At best, I’m definitely a science dilettante: I’ve poked around Richard Feynman’s books; read Atul Gawande’s book Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science; skimmed some general science “books of facts”; enjoyed Allegra Goodman’s excellent novel Intuition, which takes place in a research lab; and whole-heartedly love all planetariums. It seems to me that part of the difficulty scientists have is translating the fantastic things they know and are passionate about into a language people like me understand. Not that they have to; they can focus on writing for colleagues and other scientists, of course. But one of the reasons I’m looking forward to reading the 2007 edition of The Best American Science Writing, which has just been published, is because here is science that is smart and beautiful and interesting…and the writing is focused on readers like me.

Here, Jesse Cohen traces his history as the Best American Science Writing series editor, discusses effective science writing, and gives an enticing preview of the new edition. I met Jesse nearly ten (!!) years ago at the Sewanee Writers Conference and have stayed in touch through job changes, moves, marriages (one apiece), arrival of children, and the shifting fortunes—or dreary continued same fortunes!—of our hockey teams (Caps for me, Rangers for him). He’s a smart editor…and, as you will see, obviously much more than the “Xerox-and-skim” guy of the anthology world:

Way back in the fall of 1999, I found myself presented with an opportunity, the kind that comes in the form of the inquiry, “Would you know anyone who might be interested in …?” Of course, that kind of question is a code: you can say you do know someone (or don’t), which is a way of turning down an offer without offending anyone. Or you can say, “Well, golly, I’d be interested!”

It was exactly that form of question that was posed to me by the legendary Dan Halpern of Ecco, long a freestanding and worthy literary publishing house that is now part of the HarperCollins empire, when he needed a series editor of what he hoped would be an annual anthology of the year’s best science writing. At the time I was working at a small publishing company, where my role was to develop a series of short books on science. Seeing an opportunity, and seizing the opportunity, I told Dan, “Well, golly, I’d be interested.”

Anthologies are a little bit like “Saturday Night Live”—a show with a group of regulars, but with a different host each week. The series editor of an anthology gathers articles from many places (I’ve read one description of the role as the “Xerox-and-skim” guy), winnows them down to a manageable number, and then sends them to the guest editor for final selection. The guest editor, like the SNL host, changes with each edition, and publishers search for a marquee writer to bedazzle potential consumers. For that first volume, James Gleick had agreed to assume that role.

I have to admit that I was a little intimidated when I was told that I would be working with James Gleick. Partly this was because I am an easily intimidated person, but primarily it was because Gleick is a writer of such fierce exactness and penetration that I imagined he would see right through a mere amateur like myself and mop the floor with me.

I needn’t have worried. Gleick is exacting and penetrating, yes, but also, I learned, generous and professional, who from the first did me the honor of including me as a partner in the process, asking for my advice in questions of selection and making me feel like much more than the “Xerox-and-skim” guy.

But what I will cherish most from our time working together is the insight he gave me into what makes for good science writing. Of course, good science writing has the same elements as good writing in any genre: strong narrative, attention to language, a sense of suspense that is organic to the story and not imposed by the telling.

Science writing also has to fulfill that nearly impossible task of translating scientific knowledge into a language that the general reader can understand without—and here is the tricky part—dumbing down the science. But, when you think about it, just about every form of writing requires an act of translation, even if it is simply taking something that has personal meaning and making strangers care deeply about it.

Still, what Jim impressed upon me was the idea that good science writing has depth. “I don’t want articles that just say, ‘Here is what’s going on in this field right now,’” he told me. There are many fine articles that fit that description. But what he was looking for, and what I in turn learned to value most highly, was the kind of writing that went beyond mere reportage.

What that meant was writing that stressed, or prized, or never lost track of, the human element. While “the human element” is a cliché, perhaps even tautological in any discussion of good narrative writing—stories are, after all, about human beings—it is not something that can be taken for granted in science writing. The love of ideas, the fascination in data and observation, are part of the scientific adventure; the best science writing not only lets readers share this love and fascination, it allows us to glimpse the minds and the passions of the people who come up with the ideas, collect the data and make the observations.

So, in that first volume, The Best American Science Writing 2000, we had a few articles that were really memoirs, one by Oliver Sacks, who shared his first scientific love, the elements; and one by a jazz musician who shared his early, disastrous apprenticeship in chemistry. We had a stunning article by a relatively unknown Atul Gawande, ostensibly about medical mistakes, but which opened with an unforgettable first-person account of emergency surgery. We had scientists who talked about what it was like to study ants in the searing heat of the desert or to track neutrinos in the subfreezing temperatures of the Antarctic. We had a poet who explained the mechanisms behind brain damage—by reporting on how he struggled with his own.

Now, amazing to say, I am about to publish this series’ eighth installment, The Best American Science Writing 2007. This year’s guest editor, Gina Kolata, has selected many powerful and exciting stories. I would love to celebrate them all, but maybe a few previews will suffice. A splendid young writer, Tyler Cabot, writes about the latest uncertainty in physics, by really getting into the heads of the scientists, young and old, who are waiting for some kind of corroboration of their theories. It’s as though Cabot had taken us into a scientific dressing room moments before the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals. Sylvia Nasar (who wrote A Beautiful Mind) and David Gruber profile one of the most fascinating mathematicians in the world today—a man of such simplicity and humility that he has foregone the usual academic career and turned down lucrative honors. Matthew Chapman, a descendant of Charles Darwin, reports on the surreal experience of watching the Dover evolution trial—talk about having a unique perspective!

Those are but three of some twenty pieces, but I can say that all of them rise to the standards of the best science writing. None of them is merely a “here-is-what’s-going-on” article, as James Gleick would have put it. Every single one of them is well reported, well written, and well told. And every single one introduces us not only the wonder of science at the cutting edge, but the remarkable people who are taking us there. ~~Jesse Cohen

About: Jesse Cohen is a longtime book editor, now working as a consultant and book reviewer. He’s known Leslie for nearly ten years, since they met at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and discovered they both shared a passion for ice hockey. He also has a blog of his own, devoted to literature and music: THE BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE WRITING 2007 goes on sale on September 18. For more information, check out the HarperCollins web site.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.