Writing about Biology

I’ve been held up in my writing because I don’t know how to write about science.

This seems counter intuitive. I’ve been doing science for ten years, easily. That involves writing reports, conveying thoughts and plans, organizing data into manageable bundles. But this has always been for other people in my field, or people that I assume know more about the subject than I do, so the occasional hole in narrative is not rare.

On the other hand, writing science on a blog is a very open ended endeavor. Who am I writing for? Interested undergrads? People with no biology background at all? Myself?

Reading Janna Levin’s How the Universe Got Its Spots over the last few weeks, I’ve been inspired by the way physicists approach complex ideas. Although a lot of physics is unapproachable without an extremely high level of math, physicists have a tradition of “thought experiments” that can be easily utilized to make complex ideas about space and time more graspable. Imagine the speed of light is 25 mph. Imagine you have a twin on a train. Imagine you send a man with a stopwatch and a ruler to the other side of the universe.

It makes me jealous. Why haven’t we, as biologist, learned to talk about our field this way? But when I think of the actual subject to be explained, I realize broad thought experiments aren’t really the way to go about it. In biology we already have our unifying theory: evolution. It’s simple. It’s intuitive. It doesn’t need to be kneaded or morphed in order to be readily understood. The complexity of writing in biology comes from the innate microscopic messiness that has sprouted from millions of years of evolutionary divergence.

When you zoom in up close and personal on, say, DNA repair, you are not looking at a single process with an overlying theory or method – there are many mechanisms that have resulted from convergent and divergent evolution, all with implications which can be used to better understand our world. But in the end, you are looking at a small slice of what evolution has done – a band aide for one of the many problems created by the piecemeal system itself. In most cases, you won’t be able to extrapolate much from understanding this specific subsection, a reality that professors wrestle with every day when writing broader impacts for the NIH. So… In the end, what’s the point of knowing?

I want to know so I can marvel. As my favorite ‘armchair biologist’, Annie Dillard, wrote: “The creator goes off on one wild, specific tangent after another, or millions simultaneously, with an exuberance that would seem unwarranted, and with an abandoned energy sprung from an unfathomable font.” Whatever you feel about the ‘creator’, is it not amazing where we’ve ended up from one source? How wonderful would it be to follow just one of these tangents, just to revel in the specificity?


New York Reading

I find it very difficult to connect with a place before digging through its history. I moved to New York two years ago and it doesn’t feel like home yet; I am still more involved in California local goings on and politics despite the fact I very deliberately chose to move away over eight years ago. Being bi-coastal has its perks, but hopping from city to city means I often feel rootless. New York brings out these feelings more than any other place – it’s a city that changes so fast you’ll never really know it. Still, by the time I’m done with my PhD, I will have spent more of my cognizant years here than anywhere else.

So this summer I want to settle in to New York. I want to get involved in the politics and the history and really make it mine in some small sense. I hope these books will help with that process. If you guys have any other suggestions for books on New York, let me know!



The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York (Suleiman Osman)

There’s no point trying to understand New York before understanding gentrification. This book traces the origins of gentrification back to the 1960s and 70s, when young white college grads began their never-ending search for authenticity within the city.





New York Burning; Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan (Jill Lepore)

This book combines a few of my interests: learning about the history and making of modern New York City, studying the North’s complicity in slavery and black oppression, and reading everything Jill Lepore has ever written. I’m excited to hop in the way way back machine and take a look at New York before it was the defining US metropolis it has become.





Up in the Old Hotel (Joseph Mitchell)

The New Yorker at its best is a perfect balance of interesting people, the curious unknown, and really, really good writing. I am sorry to say I’ve never read any of Joseph Mitchell’s profiles, and I hope in this book I’ll get a little bit of everything that makes New York interesting and The New Yorker great.





Tales of Two Cities; the Best and Worst of Times in Today’s New York (ed. John Freeman)

New York is one of the most socially stratified cities in America. Sometimes its not enough to understand the social and political forces that led to a situation; sometimes its best to listen to those effected by it, just to spend some time considering what inequality mean for people living here now. This collection of reported pieces and essays contains some of my favorite writers and the promise of some really interesting narratives.




Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City (Jonathan Mahler)

I have to admit, I originally picked out this one for Book Riot’s Read Harder 2017 Challenge. All the same, I love the idea of getting involved in a very specific time and place, diving into what was happening for a small slice of New Yorkers forty years ago. The late 70s was a revolutionary time in New York, and I think this book will give me a greater understanding of the city I am living in now.