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Posted at 12:18 PM ET, 04/04/2012

The best American science writers (?) [updated]

I habitually check the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, a terrific cheat sheet on what’s happening in the wide world of science — what’s hot, what’s breaking, who’s busting which paradigm, what particles are allegedly disobeying the laws of physics, and so on. There’s a new item at KSJT, by Paul Raeburn, about the Best American Science Writers. Paul’s initial attempt at a list is meant as an invitation for others to weigh in, so let me oblige.

First, let me complicate matters. I think there needs to be two lists: Scientists who write about science, and journalists who write about science.

Among the scientists who write about science, Carl Sagan, E.O. Wilson, Freeman Dyson, Paul Davies and Jared Diamond come immediately to mind, along with Stephen Jay Gould, who Raeburn mentions. And also Lawrence Krauss, whose new book “A Universe From Nothing” is a best-seller and utterly fascinating (though I wish someone would fix this dark energy problem before it gets completely out of hand). But none of them are really “science writers;” to my ear, that term is reserved for journalists. These folks are scientists, and although they are deft at the keyboard, they are scientists foremost. This often means they don’t use narrative in their writing, the way a journalist might. They’re more likely to be didactic.

But there are no absolute rules. Sagan wrote a novel. And the best of them aren’t afraid to venture outside of their professional speciality — think Tim Flannery, a paleontologist who writes widely on climate change. Diamond is, according to the back cover of “Guns, Germs and Steel,” a “professor of physiology at the UCLA School of Medicine,” and I think he’s an expert in tropical birds. But he writes about the rise and fall of entire societies, and does it quite brilliantly.

Raeburn mentions my main man John McPhee (who is on a broader Best-100 writer list that inspired the item), although “science writer” doesn’t quite do justice to McPhee’s eclectic range of interests. He wrote a book about a tennis match. He’s written about fishing and interstate trucking. His wonderful piece “Atchafalaya,” which we all re-read last year during the Mississippi River flood, is as much about engineering, culture and history as it is about nature. Still, given his extensive writing on geology, he has to be on the science-writer list.

Also Malcolm Gladwell. No one thinks of him as a “science writer,” necessarily, but he used to be just that at The Washington Post, and he teases apart abstruse theories better than anyone. I think if he keeps plugging away at his writing gig he might one day become pretty successful.

I’m a big fan of, and fortunate to be friends with, Richard Preston (“The Hot Zone”), who produces McPheeish literary nonfiction with a scientific bent. He most recently is co-author of “Micro,” the unfinished final novel of the late Michael Crichton.

James Gleick’s on the list for sure. His latest book is “The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood.” I’m on page 355 and am fully absorbed, though occasionally wishing I could download from the Internet about 20 extra IQ points.

Timothy Ferris is great — he comes at science writing from the journalism side, though he’s also an amateur astronomer. “Coming of Age in the Milky Way” is one of my favorite books.

Writers to watch in the future include Alan Weisman, who wrote the terrific book “The World Without Us” (my eldest daughter gave it to me as a present, so that might put a thumb on the scale, but I think objectively it’s great).

I’m going to stop there because if this list gets any longer it will start to look like an attempt to be comprehensive, and is just off the top of my head. I know I’m forgetting a bunch of names. So let me say about the ones I’m forgetting: They’re really good, too. They’re definitely on my list. I just can’t remember their names at this exact moment. (Oh, wait: Oliver Sacks!)

And of course, Bob Wright!!!!!!

Update: So, just reading the comments here and via Twitter, maybe this wasn’t the best list of all time, even in the context of being off the top of my head. Some obvious names got overlooked. Also some genders. Science writing isn’t an all-male profession, though you wouldn’t know it from my initial list. And I forgot some of my favorite writers. I drew up my list by looking at my bookshelf, which groans with books written at least 20 or 30 years ago. I need to get out more. Also I must check out this thing people keep telling me about, called the Internet.

One obvious omission was Dava Sobel, who has had huge success with books such as “Longitude” and “Galileo’s Daughter.” In the category of ”scientists who write about science” I should have mentioned Lisa Randall, whose latest book is “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” and explains why the LHC won’t create a black hole that’ll eat the planet. I haven’t read Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” but it’s been camped on the NYT bestseller list for many months and last year won the Pulitzer Prize. Oh, and Marcia Bartusiak: She wrote “The Day We Found the Universe” — heres’s my review of it.

Whenever I have to write anything about physics I check what my smart friend Jennifer Ouellette has already written on the subject. She’s written a bunch of entertaining books and blogs up a storm. [She suggests we read Janna Levin, “A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines.”]

Some other names that my correspondents have suggested include Natalie Angier, Sharon Begley, Deborah Blum, Laurie Garrett, Robin Henig, Gina Kolata and Elizabeth Kolbert.

A couple of people gave a shout-out to the prolific Carl Zimmer.

And although I don’t think anyone mentioned him, surely Brian Greene is a Saganesque superstar these days.So is Neil DeGrasse Tyson (who was one of Sagan’s students back in the day, and spoke at his memorial service).

I’m not quite sure what to do with Bill Bryson and Michael Pollan. Love them both, but I don’t think of them as science writers, exactly. Pollan wrote a book, for example, about building a little writing shed in his back yard. He wrote about his garden. He writes about eating. This is more like the science of everyday life. Bryson’s book “At Home” is a room-by-room survey of his own house in England. He sold a zillion copies of “A Brief History of Everything,” but that’s infotainment more than pure science writing. Bryson and Pollan may belong to the category of “explanatory journalists.” That’s a looser definition that would include Sylvia Nasar and Witold Rybczynski.

Lists like this have to be collaborative, so add some names in the comment thread, please.

By  |  12:18 PM ET, 04/04/2012

 
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