NYT’s “Basics” column needs an editor

Back to basics

In January, The New York Times launched a new column in its Tuesday science section called “Basics,” written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Natalie Angiers. As the name implies, Angiers uses the column to outline certain rudiments of science—a worthy ambition, as there is ample evidence that the public needs a primer on a variety of subjects, from biology to physics.

But Angiers’ column, which appears every other week, often fails to deliver clarity because her writing is anything but basic.

Tuesday’s column about the prevalence and utility of nitrogen on Earth is a good example. Angiers begins, as she often does, by recalling some recent event in her life that inspired the work at hand, and she has trouble getting to the point before the story jumps. It is a very suburban approach, which only seems to work because Angiers writes so cleverly and so casually about complicated scientific topics. Unfortunately, her cleverness is, at times, too clever by half. To wit: this week, while comparing nitrogen to other fundamental elements, Angiers refers to “those lovely liquid ménages à trois of oxygen and hydrogen we call water.”

Yes, sex sells, but is this really how she explains chemical bonding in water in “basic” terms?

One of the most common pitfalls in Angiers’ writing is a tendency to personify anything. In an attempt to describe nitrogen’s distinct character, she writes, “It sits between smug, know-it-all, be-it-all carbon, with its nucleus of six charged particles, and restless, hot-head oxygen, with eight protons to its name.” What’s so disappointing about this sentence is that Angiers is an accomplished and talented writer who can, and often does, do better. Just one line farther into the column, she has this gem: “That midway position allows nitrogen to bond with other atoms in either stable or provisional partnerships, combining some of the architectural rigidity of carbon with the supple reactivity of oxygen.” Voila! But wouldn’t this sentence have been just as eloquent and understandable without the earlier personification?

This weekend, the Times also ran the first chapter of Angiers’ upcoming book, The Canon, which, like “Basics,” is a title dedicated to making science entertaining and relevant. No one can knock Angiers’ commitment to the cause. “Give me a chance,” she writes, “and I’ll take the jet stream personally.” At other points in the chapter, Angiers shows a similar flair for the type of wry humor that can be so important to science writers. To the “vital” scientific issues of the day, including climate change and missile defense, Angiers adds “the tragic limitations of the dry cleaning industry.” That is funny in a very visceral and, dare I say, basic way. But the rest of The Canon, according to some critics, does not always live up to this standard. In early May, K.C. Cole gave the book a tepid review in the Los Angeles Times. Although Cole calls the work “much-needed” and hopes that “a lot of people” read it, she also dings Angiers for overwriting. One of Angiers’ sentences, for example, describes dark energy as a “provocateur … so studiously seditious it hides behind dark glasses.” What? “Science is sufficiently enthralling not to need such gaudying up,” writes Cole, “so much sugarcoating gives the impression that on its own, it’s a bitter pill.”

A critic must give credit where credit is due, and indeed some of this could be a matter of taste. Angiers has an impressive track record of illuminating and explaining complicated science. She knows her stuff, otherwise the Times would never have given her such leeway with voice and approach. Making science attractive is, in fact, very difficult, and Angiers is one of the most capable writers in this regard. But there is a certain point at which her hip and casual tone obfuscates more than it clarifies. To fix that, Angiers should rely more on her simple and compelling sense of humor, and less on a bag of flashy adjectives and metaphors. After all, the basics of science are one thing, and the basics of language another.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.