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Press Pause

Explaining the Inexplicable

Readers of science reporting often find their heads spinning. Some of the science reporters do, too. A look at how the best of them make inexpertise an asset.

An image of a hydrogen atom, produced as part of a quantum mechanics project at the AlloSphere. Credit: Professor JoAnn Kuchera-Morin, Media Arts and Technology, University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB); Professor Luca Peliti, University of Naples, Italy; Lance Putnam, Media Arts and Technology, UCSB

In his most recent book, Long for This World, Jonathan Weiner shuttles readers through cultural and scientific histories of age and immortality. He uses narrative, analogy, character, and context to preserve the complexity of his subject. A lysosome becomes “a sort of floating garbage disposal.” Tokophrya, a single-celled organism, presents “the whole problem of life and death on the head of a pin.” The index of Long for This World names perhaps more writers and musicians than scientists: Woody Allen, Leonard Cohen, Annie Dillard, William James.

Weiner also structures much of his book around Aubrey de Grey, a biomedical gerontologist with a mighty beard and an impressive zeal for his field. During our chat, Weiner suggested his books benefitted from strong central characters like de Grey, whom he cast as an ideal protagonist. “He is, in some ways, an immortal character himself,” Weiner told one interviewer. “Yet, in other ways, he is quite contemporary.”

The relationship between a reader and a story is, Michael Cunningham once argued, a final translation in a chain of translations. Others come first—from a journalist’s effort to understand his subjects to his attempt to render in words what he sees in his head. But, for the final translation, the best journalists use every tool in the shed, to craft stories that carry readers easily through elaborate worlds. Complicated stories shouldn’t be dumbed down. Reporters need to develop better signposts and guides for navigation.

The best journalists use every tool in the shed, to craft stories that carry readers easily through elaborate worlds. Complicated stories shouldn’t be dumbed down.

The journalist Bill Buford, who has cooked alongside top-tier chefs, recently wrote about making a chartreuse. “For me, there were additional challenges, in knowing how to think about it,” wrote Buford—a challenge he shared with his audience. To conjure the complexity of the meal, Buford focused on its name, which references mountains, a monastery, a drink, a color. After he circumscribed the dish, he zeroed in. A chartreuse, he wrote, is “a game-bird confection that looks like a joke birthday cake.”

Mother Jones’s Andy Kroll spent much of the past year focused on so-called dark money groups and their influence in American politics. Rather than repeat a bureaucratic definition, Kroll defined the groups by what they are not: “They can dabble in politics, but it can’t be their ‘primary activity.’ In other words, they can’t be a political party, campaign committee, or a super-PAC in disguise.” To explain the rules governing dark money groups, Kroll compared them to “a Jackson Pollock painting: Five people can look at them and arrive at five different conclusions about what they’re seeing.”

Like Kroll, Buford, Weiner, and countless others, Rivka Galchen has a particular knack for explaining the nearly inexplicable. In 2011, Galchen wrote about quantum computing for the New Yorker. Much as Weiner used Aubrey de Grey, Galchen constructs her story around a physicist named David Deutsch. At the outset, we meet Deutsch, who “believes in multiple universes and has conceived of an as yet unbuildable computer to test their existence.” With Deutsch as her fellow explorer, Galchen approaches and then maneuvers around the thorny portions of her topic, to better show us its borders.

Physics, she writes, “advances by accepting absurdities.” Physicists, in turn, become “ontological detectives.” She gives as succinct a definition of quantum mechanics as one can imagine: “the natural history of matter and energy making their way through time and space.” Likewise, she swiftly describes Hugh Everett’s Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics—“In one universe, your cat has died, in another he hasn’t, in a third you died in a sledding accident”—and just as swiftly covers the scientific community’s objections to the theory.

How did Galchen create a story that was more compelling and less confusing than its subject? I reached out to her via email to ask.

“I knew I was never going to be an expert—even the experts were always making clear that they didn't feel that they were experts—and so I simply had no choice but to try and make that a strength.”

“I knew I was never going to be an expert—even the experts were always making clear that they didn't feel that they were experts—and so I simply had no choice but to try and make that a strength,” she told me. Scientists “tend to understand that their research is as if in a foreign language, and they know they have to be its translator. As a lay reporter, I find what I have to offer them is a sense of just how well, as a curious outsider, I understand their tongue.”

After she translates scientists’ work for her own understanding, Galchen must do the same for her audience. I flagged a section of her story, where she defined prime factorizations as “a process that is easy one way (easy to scramble eggs) and very difficult the other (nearly impossible to unscramble them).” Galchen recalled “scrambling eggs as a whole lab exercise in middle school science class, some session on reversible and irreversible chemical and physical processes.”

What is a familiar act for many of her readers—from solid shells to cracked, from whites and yolks to scrambled—is also a familiar symbol in some scientific fields, said Galchen. “A lot of the most wonderfully helpful metaphoric imagery is, within a particular field, quite common,” she wrote. “I can't quite remember, but I think the eggs scrambling image is not an uncommon one in the field of cryptography.”

Galchen received her M.D. from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, where she focused on psychiatry. Does medical training make writing about medicine easier, or harder, I wondered. Her answer? Both.

“I recently wrote what was really a pretty straightforward piece of medical journalism, about a doctor whom I admired,” said Galchen. “And I found myself oscillating between wanting to offer more context than anyone could possibly ever be interested in, and not wanting to take the time to define or clarify anything, but instead just take too much for granted.” A general interest story could disappoint a more informed reader, and vice versa. As she put it, “a topic is always somewhat over- and under-explained at once.”

Explanations have human limits. As readers, our understanding of quantum computing, or immortality, or a chartreuse, depends upon the quality of a writer’s description. It’s important to know what reporters think of their subjects, and why. But it’s equally important to know how reporters think of their subjects—the way they populate strange landscapes with familiar signs to better navigate them. As discerning readers, we should support the work of those journalists who take us to new vistas by way of familiar signposts—or, to quantum mechanics by way of scrambled eggs.

Brendan Fitzgerald is a reporter and writer based in Missoula, Mont. He worked as the communications manager for the Columbia Journalism Review, and spent six years as an editor at C-VILLE, an alternative newsweekly in Charlottesville, Virginia. He wrote the Press Pause column at The Morning News, and his work has appeared at The Believer, PopMatters, I Like You, and elsewhere. More by Brendan Fitzgerald