From Cecil the Lion and the climate negotiations in Paris to the very first up-close images of Pluto, 2015 was packed with major science news. But peppered among the big stories were some unique pieces of work that told bold tales in challenging ways. As the year comes to a close, here are my picks for great science stories that may have slipped past your radar. Some of the stories on this list brought new light to a familiar area of science; others used science to address a familiar issue in a new way. Taken together, they show the vast breadth of what science journalism can achieve.
“Insomnia that kills,” by Aimee Swartz
The Atlantic, February 5, 2015
Swartz’ piece could have made the list for its unique subject matter alone: a deadly genetic disease so rare that only 28 families in the world carry it. Known as “fatal familial insomnia,” the illness prevents sufferers from sleeping until they slip into dementia and death. Swartz goes beyond the inherent fascination of the disease itself by following the story of a woman who carries the gene as she and her husband uproot their careers to find a cure before her symptoms set in. It’s the kind of story that proves fact is more interesting than fiction.
“Rewilding our language of landscape,” by Robert Macfarlane
The Guardian, February 27, 2015
In an essay likely to be heartbreaking to those of us who grew up wandering outdoors, Macfarlane details his efforts to document a language of nature that’s disappearing with each generation of children who grow up isolated from it. The latest edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, he notes, dropped words like acorn (!), fern, and nectar, while adding attachment, celebrity, and voice-mail. Though not strictly a science story, Macfarlane’s commentary is particularly poignant at a time when humans are making crucial decisions about the kind of world in which we want to live—decisions that dominated the media for much of this year.
“How PTSD became a problem far beyond the battlefield,” by Sebastian Junger
Vanity Fair, May 31, 2015
Junger’s exploration of post-traumatic stress disorder stems from a simple observation: Today’s American troops have some of the lowest rates of combat but the highest rates of post-traumatic stress disorder in American military history. Like many good scientists, Junger ties together decades of existing evidence into a startling new theory: Perhaps it’s the fault of the modern world they come home to. Using research and expert commentary from fields including anthropology, epidemiology, and psychiatry, Junger posits that combat provides a type of comradery upon which the human brain was built. When soldiers return home to our more isolated lifestyle, they lose that social structure and experience a sudden disruption in brain chemistry. It’s a beautiful and disturbing theory, and one of the best examples of how science can illuminate every corner of society.
“The Lost Girls,” by Apoorva Mandavilli
Spectrum, October 19, 2015
Autism is often thought of as a male disease, diagnosed in boys nearly five times as often as girls. But Mandavilli’s investigation shows that girls on the spectrum can face unique social challenges; as adults, autistic women experience higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide attempts than autistic men. What’s more, the assumption that boys are more prone to the disease has affected how experts research, diagnose, and treat it, leaving many afflicted girls suffering unnecessarily. In a nuanced and thoughtful piece, Mandavilli is able to bring fresh information to an oft-discussed health issue, telling one girl’s deeply personal story along the way.
“Landlocked Islanders,” by Krista Langlois
Hakai Magazine, November 16, 2015
Despite being one of the most important stories of the year—and, perhaps, the decade—climate change is a difficult one to tell. It’s slow-moving, amorphous, bureaucratic, and based in science that most non-experts find opaque. It takes stories like Langlois’ to truly communicate what’s at risk. Here, Langlois shows the plight of the residents of the Marshall Islands, many of whom have already fled their idyllic Pacific home. (Disclosure: I have been a Hakai Magazine contributor.) While a generation of Marshallese children grows up in small-town Oklahoma, those still on the island face frequent floods from rising sea levels and the threat that their homes will be permanently unlivable by the end of the century. Langlois’ piece is rich with moments—like when Oklahoma-born Marshallese kids ask her what it’s like to swim in the sea—that personalize the threat of climate change in a much-needed way.
“Whale Fall,” by Rebecca Griggs
Granta, November 18, 2015
Griggs’ story about polluted and dying whales could have easily taken the form of a traditional piece of narrative journalism. There are the first-person observations of a whale washed ashore; quotes from government wildlife officials pondering what to do with it; detailed explanations of the way pollutants move through ecosystems. But Griggs expands the story into a memoir-like personal narrative, which is at once haunting and engrossing and revelatory. She writes, “The most polluted animals on the face of the earth were thought to be American killer whales in Puget Sound, a place where the starfish had been observed actually melting. The data supported a highly improbable hypothesis, even given the levels of contaminants in the area: that the whales had been chewing batteries or drinking flame retardant to supplement their marine dinners.
“I thought of the humpback in the dump. The whale as landfill. It was a metaphor, and then it wasn’t.”
“Whale Fall” isn’t conventional journalism, and yet it ranks among the best pieces of science writing this year.