How Storytelling Can Serve Science

How Storytelling Can Serve Science

Science June 25, 2014 / By Dr. Jonathan Wai
How Storytelling Can Serve Science

A conversation with Thomas Lin, editor of Quanta Magazine, on how storytelling can serve science

The New York Times recently had their report on innovation leaked, which opened a window on the organization's strategic thinking.  In it, they talk about the enormous challenges of being the established paper of record in an era of digital disruption, and assert that while their “core mission remains producing the world’s best journalism,” many sites such as Huffington Post and Flipboard often get more traffic from the journalism produced by the Times itself.

There are, of course, different definitions of what it means to innovate.  Some people, like Business Insider’s Henry Blodget, are experimenting with very different methods, such as his famous slide shows, and he has even claimed that “journalism has entered a golden age.”  Then there’s BuzzFeed, which has taken over the internet with quizzes and cat videos, because a lot of people today don’t have the attention span or interest for much more than that.  From this perspective, innovation may be more about doing than about talking.

Then there’s Thomas Lin’s view of innovation: focus on high quality, analytical, meticulous, long-form journalism that attempts to illuminate underdog areas of science—mathematics, theoretical physics, theoretical computer science, and the basic life sciences.  Thomas, a former New York Times journalist, teacher, and engineer, is now editor of Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent division of the Simons Foundation.  I had the opportunity to ask Thomas some questions about his goals in reinventing the boundaries of science journalism in the current media landscape.

JON: You describe the stories you direct in Quanta as a product of “journalistic alchemy,” taking on the challenge of building a bridge between less known areas of science and public understanding. How did your journey as an alchemist begin?  How has that journey led to where you are today?

THOMAS: Even in today’s crowded, fragmented media landscape, Quanta Magazine is a bit of a different animal. We are an editorially independent, foundation-based publication that covers some of the most esoteric mathematics and science poking at the limits of human knowledge. Why report on big fundamental theories? The assumption is that readers want stories they can connect with, so you see a lot of health, medicine, technology and environmental news in general interest publications – all of which are important – but almost nothing on meaningful advances in math and basic science unless a new particle like the Higgs is discovered. I’ve seen really smart editors get hung up on the idea that every science story has to have a practical application. It’s like the scene in “Particle Fever” when this economist asks David Kaplan, the theoretical particle physicist behind the documentary, what economic gain will come of spending billions to build the Large Hadron Collider. David answers that he honestly doesn’t know what the return might be, that it could be absolutely nothing, except to maybe know everything. That captures the kind of science that inspires us at Quanta. I happen to think there’s broad interest in the great scientific mysteries – our job is to translate these complex ideas into stories that are engaging and accessible.

My path to Quanta was anything but linear. I grew up in rural Oregon – literally on a tree farm – with physicist-engineer parents who taught me to think like a scientist. Cornell University’s College Scholar Program was perfect for a mixed up kid like me – I was able to study physics and math while indulging a love of literature and the English language. I caught the journalism bug late – after a couple of years as an engineer and about five as a grade-school teacher. My dream gig was The New York Times, and I feel lucky to have been a small part of that incredibly talented newsroom for more than seven years. Initially I wanted to cover education. But after four years working on the national section, a spot on the science desk opened up. I hadn’t set out to become a journalist out of college, and later on when I changed careers it wasn’t to cover science, but in retrospect it made a certain kind of sense. It wasn’t easy leaving Science Times, but the chance to help the Simons Foundation build a science news site like Quanta was irresistible. I love what we’re doing and the fact that we’re learning something new every day. This is my new dream gig.

What elements go into the stories at Quanta?  What aspects are visual, verbal, and numerical?  How are they different from traditional stories on the web?  What makes a highly technical science story go viral?

In some ways Quanta is more like a traditional print magazine in that we produce in-depth, analytical news features that benefit from multiple rounds of rigorous editing, copy-editing and fact-checking. We’re also different from other news sites, of course, in the subjects we tackle – the running joke internally is that the harder a subject is to understand the more we’re likely to cover it. And here’s the kicker – our most popular stories usually involve the most difficult concepts.

Take two of the stories that went “viral” over the last year: one, by Natalie Wolchover, was about a mathematical object called an “amplituhedron” that could radically change how physicists think about space and time, and the other, by Erica Klarreich, was about a centuries-old conjecture about the gap between prime numbers. Each article was viewed more than a million times online, including on, which is one of our syndication partners. The amplituhedron even found its way into Conan O’Brien’s opening monologue.

And why shouldn’t technical science stories go viral? How else are we nonscientists to satisfy our curiosity about how nature works, how we and other living organisms came to be and what the universe we inhabit is made of?

At a time when much of journalism is driven by ad-revenue, the Simons Foundation has given you the opportunity to preserve and perhaps even invent a new form of science storytelling without the pressures of snappy headlines and the raw need for traffic.  What is your vision and mission for Quanta?

Quanta aspires to illuminate the deep dark recesses where some of the most interesting and important theoretical work is done. We want more people – everyone from scientists and engineers to undergrad and grad students to the general public – reading and learning about research developments in mathematics and basic science. And we want to provide enough substance for our more technical readers to then explore the academic papers on their own, and for our non-technical readers to understand not just that a particular advance or discovery was made but how it was made, what the implications and limitations are, and more generally, how science is really done. We think everyone should have access to this information and we’d love to see society as a whole become more scientifically literate.

To achieve these goals we not only have to write compelling stories, we also need to think visually. We need to produce videos, visualizations and other interactive elements to add another dimension to the narrative, elucidate complex ideas and reveal meaningful patterns hidden in the data. We recently produced our first video, on the great mathematical physicist Freeman Dyson. It was a nice first step but we have a long way to go. Quanta is a young publication that’s still learning and growing. We’re now hiring a deputy editor, an art director and a web producer. So stay tuned!

You recently attended a conference where top science editors convened to discuss, in part, how certain areas of science which are traditionally not seen as traffic-producing might get better coverage.  In a way you have stacked the deck against yourself.  You write long detailed stories when attention spans seem to be shortened.  You write about areas of science that are highly technical and theoretical in nature which typically require some specialized knowledge.  Given that you are competing with Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus for the attention of the public, how do you and other editors think is the best way to promote the public understanding of underdog areas of science?

The Kavli Symposium on the Future of Science Journalism fostered a highly productive exchange of ideas, but if we had a bulletproof plan to “save” science journalism, we wouldn’t have to meet in Chicago in the dead of winter! My own probably unorthodox view is that Bieber and Cyrus don’t stand a chance against a really good science story. When CERN announced that physicists had discovered a Higgs-like particle at the Large Hadron Collider, I’d like to think it trumped the celebrity gossip columns that day. The basic questions that science strives to answer are exponentially more interesting and universal. And there are so many more great stories in theoretical physics than just the major announcements like the Higgs or primordial gravitational waves. Physics is mired in this thrilling state of deep uncertainty right now – to make progress, physicists say they’ll need to come up with a revolutionary new idea on par with quantum mechanics. The problem is that unless you’re fluent in advanced mathematics and have the science background to read academic papers or super technical blogs, these important research developments are effectively off limits. So we have to put in the work of translating the research into language the public can understand and enjoy, and then convince TV producers and news editors to run it front and center. All that said, most audiences are omnivorous: You can succumb to Bieber fever or the Cyrus virus and want to learn about cutting edge basic science too.

People often consider science writing as simply the art of communicating science to a broader audience beyond the academic community.  However, E. O. Wilson said “The ideal scientist thinks like a poet, works like a clerk, and writes like a journalist.”  Academic writing is often obscured by jargon.  But clear writing is the result of clear thinking.  What things do you think scientists can learn from journalistic alchemy?  For that matter, although the plural of anecdote is not data, is there a role for storytelling in science?

Scientific papers are, of course, written for other scientists and are an important part of the scientific process. They have to present the evidence and methodology with enough technical detail for others to review, replicate and build on the work. While many could be more clearly communicated, it probably isn’t necessary or desirable for academic papers to read like a popular article.

At the same time we have a long tradition of absolutely stellar scientist-communicators, including Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Rachel Carson, Richard Feynman, E.O. Wilson as you mentioned, Freeman Dyson, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Steve Strogatz, Brian Greene, Janna Levin, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michio Kaku and so many others. What these great storytellers have done for the public understanding of science is immeasurable.

The public does not often understand that many scientific findings are just preliminary.  Given that new headlines are coming out daily touting novel “discoveries” that have not yet been replicated, how is the best way to educate the public about how science actually works?  How can the public learn to be drawn to the signal rather than the noise?  And why is actual scientific understanding important for public understanding and policy debate?

Superficial, sensationalized science stories that hype new studies as a kind of definitive truth, however well-intentioned they might be, can mislead the public. And that sort of distortion is totally unnecessary. Science is incremental and provisional – we don’t know everything about anything – but that’s what makes it a good story: there’s always something new to explore, a single idea can spawn many others, and even wrong ideas or failed experiments can yield useful insights. Sometimes theory drives experiment, sometimes it’s the other way around. Often knowing how to ask the right question is more important than finding a specific solution.

And I don’t think it helps to put science on a pedestal. It’s a human enterprise filled with strong personalities and opinions, competing theories, lively debates and lots of mistakes. Still, skeptical, self-correcting, evidence-based science is by far the most successful and effective way – and there isn’t a close second – to learn and make predictions about the natural world.

I wish I knew how to draw more people to the signal and away from the noise. All we can do is try to produce responsible science journalism, maybe try to tip the balance so there’s a higher signal to noise ratio, and then hope people like it enough to share it with their friends. To reach more readers, we’ve partnered with, and, which reprint some of our articles for free. One of our articles was also published in the August 2013 issue of Scientific American.

Science literacy has broad social implications, for employment and economic activity, public health, environmental stewardship, and as a driver of innovation and a basis for evidence-based public policy.

How many writers are capable of bridging the gap between the academic areas you cover and public understanding and interest of those areas?  Could you speak about the skillsets of your writers and team?  Do you think Quanta might inspire a new generation of writers to take on the challenge of promoting less well known areas of science?

While I hope graduate science students enjoy reading Quanta, I don’t know that they need any additional motivation to become science writers. The job market in academia is taking care of that on its own. We’re seeing more and more doctoral candidates or full-fledged Ph.D.s apply their expertise to freelance writing, blogging and traditional journalism.

One of your writers, Carl Zimmer, has said Quanta is like the Pro-Publica for science.  Do you agree with this comparison?

It was generous of Carl to tweet that. Quanta Magazine is still a work in progress, but we definitely draw inspiration from the success of nonprofit public interest news organizations like ProPublica. (I’m also grateful to Dick Tofel of ProPublica for his valuable advice during Quanta’s early planning stages.) What they have done to produce and disseminate in-depth investigative journalism when so many other publications have scaled back on this important work, we aspire to do for “hard” science journalism, which also appears to be an endangered species.

© 2014 by Jonathan Wai

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Note: This article originally appeared on Psychology Today.

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