My bookshelves are beyond capacity. As the year as a Knight Science Journalism fellow comes to a close, I take short jaunts back to the Cape, carrying boxes full of paperbacks and hardcovers that encapsulate the year. Sustainable Energy — Without the Hot Air by David J.C. MacKay and David Archer’s The Long Thaw: How Humans Are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth’s Climate from Dan Schrag’s The Consequences of Energy Systems class. The hefty tome Magnum Contact Sheets, Cotton Tenants: Three Families by James Agee and Walker Evans, and the playful Seeing Things: A Kid’s Guide to Looking at Photographs by Joel Meyerowitz, all for B.D. Colen’s photojournalism class. Sophia Roosth’s new book Synthetic: How Life Got Made.
Naomi Oreskes helped me discover the burgeoning field of agnotology — the study of doubt and the inquiry into why we don’t know what we don’t know (yes, Rumsfeld comes up frequently). We consumed books on a weekly basis about agronomy under Stalin (The Lysenko Affair by David Joravsky and The Lysenko Effect by Nils Roll-Hansen), the legacy of lead poisoning in America (The Lead Wars by Gerald Markowitz & David Rosner), Oreskes’ own Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Everything from Tobacco Smoke to Climate Science, and others. I highly recommend the anthology Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance, edited by Robert Proctor and Londa Schiebinger, for a start at unpacking the heavy influence of bias, politics, translation, and ideology on everything from race to evolution to the female orgasm.
Every Tuesday and Thursday, seminar speakers would arrive to the KSJ office. If they were authors, their books would appear in our mailboxes a few weeks before their visit. I’d suddenly get a crash course in quantum entanglement (David Kaiser, How the Hippies Saved Physics); economics, intellectual property rights and innovation (Heidi Williams); the GDP (Ehsan Masood’s The Great Invention: The Story of GDP and the Making and Unmaking of the World), and addiction (Maia Szalavitz, Unbroken Brain). Richard Harris (Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope and Wastes Billions) quantified how a frightening percentage of biomedical scientific studies fall apart on close scrutiny, and Regina Russo and Rebecca Goldin from Sense about Science showed how we can become journalist-statisticians to weed out the worst of the offenses.
I read my fellow fellow’s books, with Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-Extinction and the Precarious Future of Wild Things by M.R. O’Connor taking me deeper into a subject I know a bit about, and Mark Wolverton’s A Life in Twilight: The Final Years of J. Robert Oppenheimer leading me to a place altogether new, deep in the Cold War era.
Our group was constantly sharing information about this lecture and that conference, but also just the wonders that came across our eyes and minds. Mark just sent this piece about how Isaac Asimov managed to write nearly 500 books in his lifetime, and part of the equation was to consume voraciously. The author of that piece, Charles Chu, writes:
To have good ideas, we need to consume good ideas too. The diploma isn’t the end. If anything, it’s the beginning.
Growing up, Asimov read everything:
“All this incredibly miscellaneous reading, the result of lack of guidance, left its indelible mark. My interest was aroused in twenty different directions and all those interests remained. I have written books on mythology, on the Bible, on Shakespeare, on history, on science, and so on.”
Read widely. Follow your curiosity. Never stop investing in yourself.
Those seem wise words to hold onto, as I head out to teach nonfiction writing down in Sewanee, Tennessee this summer and also return to the wildlands of freelance journalism. My root interests — in the environment, conservation, energy, and how to live a good human life and still make room for the rest of the planet — remain, but the way I approach stories feels like it has been fundamentally altered in the best of ways this year. #grateful