Every year, I pick my favourite science features—or ‘longreads’, as they have been rebranded as—from the previous 12 months. It’s always hard. Despite much hand-wringing about how the internet is killing journalism/reading/attention/civilisation, I see a constant stream of great long pieces, written by writers who are at the top of their game, and published by organisations willing to pay well. So, without further ado, here are my favourite dozen from the year, and a dozen more runners-up. In no particular order:
1) One of a Kind, by Seth Mnookin, for The New Yorker. A magnificently told, and often heartbreaking, story about a family trying to solve their son’s unique genetic mystery.
“That fall, Bertrand was rushed to the emergency room after suffering a series of life-threatening seizures. When the technicians tried to start an I.V., they found Bertrand’s veins so scarred from months of blood draws that they were unable to insert a needle. Later that evening, when Cristina was alone with Matt, she broke down in tears. “What have we done to our child?” she said. “How many things can we put him through?” As one obscure genetic condition after another was ruled out, the Mights began to wonder whether they would ever learn the cause of their son’s agony. What if Bertrand was suffering from a disorder that was not just extremely rare but entirely unknown to science?”
2) How “Titanic” is helping a South Pacific tribe understand why their island is disappearing, by Brooke Jarvis, for Matter. In this beautiful, moving piece, Jarvis meets the people most affected by climate change.
“A large, brown bone washed against my calf. At first I thought it belonged to some sort of marine mammal, maybe a dugong, and picked it up. But then I saw what was clearly a human jaw, five teeth still embedded in the bone, in the water next to me. I stared at the bone in my hand, shocked to realize that I was gripping a person’s femur. Once I started to see them, it seemed there were bones everywhere. Vertebrae swirled around my feet.”
3) Arrested development, by Virginia Hughes, for Mosaic. This is an amazing story about girls who seem stuck in permanent infancy, and a scientist’s quixotic (and possibly futile) quest to study them. It’s a textbook example of covering uncertain science, with a protagonist who is fascinatingly painted but never glorified as an iconoclast. “Science is often too slow, and life too fast.”
“Walker, now 74, believes that the key to ending ageing may lie in a rare disease that doesn’t even have a real name, “syndrome X”. He has identified four girls with this condition, marked by what seems to be a permanent state of infancy, a dramatic developmental arrest. He suspects that the disease is caused by a glitch somewhere in the girls’ DNA. His quest for immortality depends on finding it.”
4) How mistakes can save lives: one man’s mission to revolutionise the NHS, by Ian Leslie, for New Statesman. An utterly compelling story of the cost of medical mistakes, and how we might fix them.
“Martin Bromiley is a modest man with an immodest ambition: to change the way medicine is practised in the UK… Bromiley doesn’t fit with our preconceived ideas of a natural leader. He speaks with a soft voice. He doesn’t command your attention, though you find yourself giving it. Neither is he a doctor, or a health professional of any kind. Bromiley is an airline pilot. He is also a family man, with a terrible story to tell.”
5) Reared by puppets, by Lizzie Wade, for Aeon. A fantastic piece about the stewards of condor—people who are saving endangered birds using hand puppets—and whether their approach causes more problems than it solves. (Aeon)
“The condors wouldn’t leave Les Reid alone. In the late 1990s, a pack of them regularly showed up at his house in Pine Mountain Club, California, a small community northwest of Los Angeles. They clambered around on his roof, making a racket. They perched, one by one, on his large patio umbrella, seeming to enjoy the slow slide down its slippery surface and onto the deck below. Once, Reid, a former member of the Sierra Club’s board of directors, came home to find that eight young condors had ripped a hole in his screen door and were enthusiastically tearing apart his mattress. When he’d walked in on them, one of the birds had a pair of his underwear dangling from its beak.”
Posted by F. Sheikh