On Becoming a Science Writer
Posted by Richard Conniff on December 9, 2011
It seems to me now that my entire science education consisted of one year, seventh grade, with Dr. Kowalski, who, among other ingenious assignments, had each of us purchase a whole chicken, strip it to the bone, and then reassemble the skeleton.
After that, I had a high school physics course taught by a summertime Good Humor Man, and a biology course taught by a newly-consecrated Irish Christian Brother, who found alm0st everything in biology deeply mortifying (and honestly who can blame him?). In college, I visited Science Hill just twice, first as a protester, and next for my job as a projectionist. I mostly studied poetry.
My turnabout came at the age of 25, when a magazine agreed to let me write about mosquitoes, and I suddenly found myself appalled and delighted by the incredible surgical tools in a mosquito’s proboscis. I also managed to work a poem (by D.H. Lawrence) into the story, a practice I have tried to indulge ever since.
Other stories about animals and behavior followed. Dr. Kowalski’s assignment even came back to me, when I found myself in Venezuela testing chicken caracasses on piranha populations, for my book Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals. (They could be a lot quicker than me at the business of stripping a carcass to the bone.)
My advice to prospective science writers?
Sorry, just kidding. Read poetry. We need more people to recognize that the “two cultures” idea is bunk. And, really, take more science courses than I did. Lots more. I hear they are better now.