Who is a science writer?

August 28 was Orientation Day at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, New York University, where I’ve enrolled with the Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP) for the 2014 fall term. It was an exciting day for many reasons. The first such moment was meeting the wonderful people who are to be my classmates for the next 16 months and, if things work out as promised, friends for life as well. We were introduced to each other – 13 in all – by Dan Fagin, the SHERP program coordinator and, incidentally, this year’s winner of a Pulitzer Prize (general non-fiction category).

Dan’s icebreaker for the class centered on what made a good science writer, at least as far as SHERP was concerned. He had brought with him a burnt pine cone from somewhere near the Hamptons. We knew its seeds had been released because its scales were open. What was particularly unique about the specimen at hand was that it was a pine cone that had adapted through evolution to release its seeds in a hostile environment. Dan explained that it had, over the centuries, acquired a resin coating that would pop only when burnt off by a forest fire. On one level, he said, it was a news story about burnt pine cones, but on a deeper level, it was a story about evolution.

Then came a more interesting perspective. Dan said it was possible the cone’s seeds were sterile. How? “It has to do with something that has changed since the last ice age, something that humans have done different for the last 150 years. What could it be?”

“The seeds could’ve been sterile because of humans putting out forest fires. These pine cones were evolutionarily adapted to releasing their seeds during naturally occurring forest fires, like when lightning strikes. But humans have learnt to put out forest fires,” and that means the resin wouldn’t have had the time to melt completely. “In the same way, the job of a science writer is to peel off the different layers of a story to reveal” deeper truths. “On one level, this is about a burnt pine cone. On a deeper level, it’s about evolution. On a still deeper level, it’s about how humans are influencing the natural world around them.”

For all my success, such as it is, in making it to one of the better science writing programs in the USA, Dan’s introduction was doubly empowering, and I now look forward to classes doubly eagerly!

(I’d promised my friends @AkshatRathi, @pradx and @vigsun that I’d let them know as much as possible about life studying science writing at NYU. Consider this blog post the first in the series.)