Three Science Articles Selected for The Best American Science Writing 2010

Three Science articles—by staff writers Jennifer Couzin-Frankel and Erik Stokstad, along with psychologist Daniel Wegner—have been selected for The Best American Science Writing 2010.

The annual anthology, set for publication in September, this year will feature 22 articles from across the spectrum of science, including both up-and-coming writers and some of the most venerable voices in the field.

Jennifer Couzin-Frankel

Jennifer Couzin-Frankel

The 2010 anthology’s editors, led by esteemed medical writer Jerome Groopman, M.D., selected Couzin-Frankel’s 2009 story, “Friendship as a Health Factor,” which explored how friends and family influence our health.

Stokstad’s entry in the anthology, “The Famine Fighter’s Last Battle,” profiled Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, in the final chapter of his life, as he worked against a devastating fungus that threatens wheat crops around the world.

Wegner’s article, “How to Think, Say, or Do Precisely the Worst Thing for Any Occasion,” traces the inner psychological workings of the always maddening, and often perversely amusing, human penchant for accidents and faux pas with acutely bad timing.

Erik Stokstad

Erik Stokstad

In interviews, Groopman and Jesse Cohen, series editor of The Best American Science Writing 2010, had high praise for the Science articles.

“Obviously I have a lot of respect for Science and have been a reader forever,” said Groopman, the anthology’s 2010 guest editor. “I thought that each of these pieces was written with real insight and rigor. And each in its own way represents the kind of quality writing that is so important to sustain and, frankly, honor.”

Added Cohen: Science consistently has some of the best—best-written, best-investigated, best-reported—science writing going, and I’m always delighted when its articles make the final cut.”

Science Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts said the recognition reflects the journal’s creativity and high standards.

“It’s a great honor for our writers to be recognized by the editors of this respected anthology for the quality of their reporting, writing, and insight,” Alberts said. “It’s also a testament to the commitment of the entire staff at Science to be an independent and engaging voice in American science journalism.”

The Best American Science Writing series celebrated its 10th anniversary last year. The 2010 anthology will be published in September by Perennial, a division of HarperCollins.

Jennifer Couzin-Frankel has been a staff writer for Science since 2002, with her coveraged focused on various topics in biomedical research and the scientific community. Her work has also appeared in U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, and the Washington Post, among other publications. “Friendship as a Health Factor,” published on 23 January 2009, is the third story she’s placed in the anthology, with previous works from Science appearing in 2005 and 2007.

The latest profiles two friends and fellow researchers: hospice physician and social scientist Nicholas Christakis of Harvard University and political scientist James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego. They’re interested in how social networks influence our health; before Couzin-Frankel had begun her reporting, they had already published a handful of provocative papers positing that health factors such as weight and happiness are actually “contagious” and can be passed from friend to friend.

She spent time with the two scientists and also spoke with their colleagues and others familiar with social networks to gauge both the significance and the limitations of their findings. She also examined whether they could prove useful in medical care.

“What I loved about her piece is that it did not take the research at face value, a failing in some of the other reports on this work,” Cohen said. “Rather, she investigated some of the skepticism about the research, and that made for an uncommonly rich story.”

Erik Stokstad has been on the staff of Science since 1997, covering natural resource issues—such as agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and wildlife—and other environmental research. For “The Famine Fighter’s Last Battle,” he focused on Norman Borlaug’s work to bring attention a wheat fungus called stem rust. The fungus was once globally rampant, but in the 1940s and ‘50s, Borlaug worked in Mexico to breed plants that could resist the scourge. He is widely regarded as one of the pioneers of the “green revolution” and won a Nobel in 1970.

A new strain of wheat rust emerged in Africa in the 1990s, and the rise of his old nemesis, stem rust, drew him again into the battle. Stokstad traveled to Ciudad Obregón, an agricultural capital in Mexican state of Sonora, for a conference to review recent research results on stem rust.

Borlaug, nearly 95 and in a wheelchair, was there. “It was amazing to see him… sitting at the front room of the conference room avidly taking notes on the latest findings,” Stokstad recalled. “Equally impressive was the awe and reverence for Borlaug expressed by the 300 scientists who were attending the conference from all over world.”

Stokstad’s piece appeared on 8 May 2009; a few months later, in September, Borlaug died. “Erik caught something fascinating about him—a man who could have long ago retired but is still passionate about using science to fight poverty throughout the world,” Cohen said. “It’s a fitting tribute and memorial to this key figure.”

Daniel Wegner is an author, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, and a AAAS Fellow. His research has focused on the role of thought in self-control and in social life, and his writing can bring a wry humor to bear on questions of human consciousness and will.

In “How to Think, Say, or Do Precisely the Worst Thing for Any Occasion,” a Review article published 3 July 2009, Wegner explores the “ironic processes of mental control” and whether they can be controlled.

The article begins:

“There are many kinds of errors. We can fall short, overreach, or skitter off the edge, of course, but we can also miss by a mile, take our eyes off the prize, throw the baby out with the bath water—and otherwise foul up in a disturbingly wide variety of ways. Standing out in this assortment of would-be wreckage, though, is one kind of error that is special: the precisely counterintentional error. This is when we manage to do the worst possible thing, the blunder so outrageous that we think about it in advance and resolve not to let that happen.

“And then it does.”

Wegner’s article “was so much fun and so lively,” said Groopman. “It represents the kind of irony that’s experienced in the regular world, so to speak, the day-to-day world—and how scientists engage with it.”