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New York Times Science Essays

I blame a rattlesnake for my career.

Fifteen years ago, my brand-new college biology degree qualified me for a series of minimum-wage jobs looking for strange animals in strange places. The work was temporary, itinerant and, as soldiers say of war, alternately boring and excessively thrilling. But the scenery was unbeatable. During a stint with a university research project in the desert near Tucson, Ariz., I got to hike through saguaro forests from dawn to sunset. Most of my co-workers, biologists all, lived for the sight of a tortoise scraping slowly over a granite boulder, or a pack of javelinas snuffling peacefully as they napped in the shade. In the evenings, eager to see even more critters, my friends cruised empty back roads, looking for snakes that had slithered on to the asphalt for warmth.

I often rode along with them, and one night we came upon a diamondback rattlesnake, resting in a fat and perfect coil. My friends were thrilled, and they leapt out of their pickups to circle the snake like REI-clad matadors. I stood back, away from the headlight beams, and watched. The snake was gorgeous, even regal in its growing annoyance, but I found myself paying more attention to the scientists around it. What had brought them to this particular place and this very odd hobby? What inspired them to draw closer and closer to the snake, cameras poised, even as it raised its head to strike? The snake, I realized, was interesting. The people, dubious habits and all, were fascinating.

Science writing has a reputation for bloodlessness, but in many ways it is the most human of disciplines. Science, after all, is a quest, and as such it’s one of the oldest and most enduring stories we have. It’s about searching for answers, struggling with setbacks, persevering through tedium and competing with colleagues all eager to put forth their own ideas about how the world works. Perhaps most of all, it’s about women and men possessed by curiosity, people who devote their lives to pursuits the rest of us find mystifying or terrifying — chasing viruses, finding undiscovered planets, dusting off dinosaurs or teasing venomous snakes.

In its crudest form, science writing simply translates the latest results from the academy: Coffee is good for you, bean sprouts are not, and your sex life is much, much worse than you thought. Better science stories put new results in context, synthesizing and analyzing what came before, what might come next, and why you should care.

The most memorable science writing also puts humans back in the equation, introducing the reader to both the people behind the science and the people affected by it, for better and worse. It transcends the genre, becoming not just good science writing but just good writing, and as such it unlocks entire fields of research to the rest of us. It’s what Richard Preston did for virology with the fast-paced drama of “The Hot Zone,” what Rebecca Skloot did for cell biology in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” and what John McPhee did for geology in “Annals of the Former World,” a collection of books that spans a generation.

It’s essentially what Dr. Watson does for Sherlock Holmes: By reacquainting the head with the heart, we science writers tell the story of the frustrations, false starts, triumphs and breakthroughs that lead to the solution — or, in many cases, to even more questions.

Which is not to say we science writers are sidekicks. Like the scientists we cover, we’re driven by curiosity, and we too are trained to observe and investigate. It’s our job to point out the fallibility of science as well as its fascinations.

And while some scientists are themselves fine writers, science writers are seldom experts in the fields we write about. Most of us have dabbled a bit in science ourselves, but we’re more or less professional amateurs, best at explaining complicated things with both maximum simplicity and maximum accuracy. “The goal is to show how some new discovery looks to an interested outsider, writing for other interested outsiders, using metaphor instead of mathematics,” writes George Johnson in “A Shortcut Through Time.” Doing so is an absorbing puzzle, one whose solution is always just out of reach. There’s always more to learn about the science at hand, and there’s always a more graceful way to communicate it.

That night in the Arizona desert, my friends eventually backed away from the rattlesnake, leaving it curled in peace on the pavement. They rolled down the road in search of their next cold-blooded quarry, still talking about the beauty of the diamondback. They felt they’d gotten a secret glimpse of a unique creature in its element, and they were elated. I felt the same way.


Michelle Nijhuis, the co-editor of “The Science Writers’ Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish and Prosper in the Digital Age,” writes about science and the environment for National Geographic, Smithsonian and other publications.

Draft is a series about the art and craft of writing.

“The most amazing thing is that he started this essay when Europe was on the brink of war and there he is, musing about a question about a scientific topic that is really a question out of curiosity,” he said in an interview.

Churchill first defines what life is, then details the requirements for life to exist and progressively expands his reasoning to the existence of life in other solar systems, Mr. Livio said. “He’s really thinking about this,’’ Mr. Livio said, “and though he didn’t have all the knowledge at hand, he thinks about this with the logic of a scientist.”

Churchill’s interest in science stemmed from his early years as an army officer in British-ruled India, where he had crates of books, including Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” shipped to him by his mother.

He later became friends, at least for a time, with the writer H.G. Wells, whose novel “The War of the Worlds,” about Martians invading Britain, had been adapted by Orson Welles for a famous CBS radio broadcast in 1938 — a year before Churchill wrote his article. (Churchill once said Wells’s “The Time Machine” was one of the books he would like to take with him to Purgatory.)

Churchill argued that it was probable that extraterrestrial life existed somewhere in the universe. This was years before Frank Drake, the American astronomer and astrophysicist, presented in 1961 his theory about the number of communicative civilizations in the cosmos. “It is astonishing that Churchill wasn’t a scientist and yet he showed such an interest in science,” Mr. Livio said.

The manuscript was passed on to the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Mo., the site of Churchill’s famed 1946 Iron Curtain speech, in the 1980s by Wendy Reves, the wife of Churchill’s publisher, Emery Reves. It had been overlooked for years until Timothy Riley, who became the museum’s director last year, stumbled upon it recently. Soon after news of the discovery, two other copies were found in a separate archive in Britain.

Although the article was sent to Mr. Reves in 1939, it was not published. Churchill had revised it a number of times in the 1950s.

In his article, Churchill wrote: “I am not sufficiently conceited to think that my sun is the only one with a family of planets.”

“I, for one, am not so immensely impressed by the success we are making of our civilization here that I am prepared to think we are the only spot in this immense universe which contains living, thinking creatures,” he wrote, “or that we are the highest type of mental and physical development which has ever appeared in the vast compass of space and time.”

Largely self-educated in the sciences, Churchill had boundless curiosity for practically anything, an attitude he once described as “picking up a few things as I went along.”

He wrote about 30 million words in his lifetime, including wartime speeches, an African travelogue, a book on oil painting, a lengthy memoir, and even an essay on an imagined invasion of Russia when he was just 15. For his body of work, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.

Welding an active imagination with scientific thought, Churchill produced a few madcap ideas — which he called “funnies” — that he actually championed while he was prime minister, as a means to defeat Nazi Germany.

There was Operation Habakkuk, an imagined fleet of aircraft carriers made from wood pulp and ice to fight German U-boats in the mid-Atlantic. Then there was the Great Panjandrum, an enormous, rocket-propelled wheel packed with explosives. Churchill even invented a green velvet “siren suit” to be put on in a hurry during air raids.

While none of these ideas came into being (the giant wheel having run amok in the testing stage), science was not just a hobby for Churchill.

He was the first prime minister to hire a science adviser. Frederick Lindemann, a physicist, became Churchill’s “on tap” expert and once described him as a “scientist who had missed his vocation,” said Andrew Nahum, who organized an exhibition on Churchill and science at the Science Museum in London. He found a separate copy of the essay in the Churchill Archives Center at the University of Cambridge.

Churchill also met regularly with scientists such as Bernard Lovell, the father of radio astronomy and the Lovell telescope.

“Churchill presided over a culture that encouraged technological development,” Mr. Nahum said. Churchill had such a genuine interest in science, he added, that as chancellor of the Exchequer in prewar Britain, he complained to a friend of having to draft the budget instead of reading a book on quantum physics.

During World War I, when he was lord of the admiralty and later secretary of state for air and war, he encouraged military aviation, chemical warfare and tanks. During World War II, which he called in his memoirs “The Wizard War,” he supported the development of radar, rockets and Britain’s nuclear program.

Churchill founded in 1958 the British equivalent of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at Cambridge — Churchill College — which has since produced 32 Nobel Prize winners.

In the interwar period, Churchill wrote numerous scientific articles, including one called “Death Rays” and another titled “Are There Men on the Moon?” In 1924, he published a text asking readers “Shall We All Commit Suicide?” in which he speculated that technological advances could lead to the creation of a small bomb that was powerful enough to destroy an entire town.

Churchill’s recently unearthed article on extraterrestrial life was probably written in the same vein and was probably intended to be published as a popular science piece for a newspaper.

Two other scientific essays — one on cell division in the body and another on evolution — are stored in the museum’s archives in Fulton, Mr. Riley, the museum director, said in an interview.

Churchill had a “natural curiosity and general optimism about life,” Mr. Riley said. He had “a willingness to see technical and scientific advances improve not only his immediate world or his country, but the world.”

Correction: February 16, 2017
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article described Chartwell incorrectly. It was Winston Churchill’s home in Kent, England, not the location of the home.

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