The Science Writer Every Science Nerd Wants You to Read

The Science Writer Every Science Nerd Wants You to Read

On a gray Montana morning, I sat with the science writer David Quammen in the office of his Bozeman home, each of us in opposite corners and wearing masks. Quammen’s rescue Python, Boots, was looking at me from his enclosed enclosure. An air filter whirred in the background: Quammen had only just recovered from COVID a couple of days before, and by the next day, he would test positive again in a case of Paxlovid rebound.

What a hacky, clickable headline this profile could end up having, I said: “David Quammen, Chronicler of COVID, Gave Me COVID.”

Thankfully, our precautions worked. Quammen, 74, is the favorite science writer of many people who don’t usually read science writing. Quammen is also a favorite science writer for many scientists, and he’s regarded as a key figure in science writing. Quammen, who covers everything from treatment-resistant bacteria to space telescopes is one of the most geeky writers. Quammen is perhaps most well-known for his world-trotting exploits. It’s ironic, then, that his subject tracked him down in this location. As I looked around the room, I took note of details like the framed portrait of Charles Darwin with his white beard and the desk dotted with Post-it Notes. He sat watching as I worked. “Offices are information-rich environments.”

Quammen’s newest book, Breathless, which was recently shortlisted for the National Book Award, is the definitive account of how a little bundle of nucleic acid and protein called SARS-CoV-2 came to so upend our world, and the work of scientists to understand what it is, where it came from, and what to do. This was the only room where it was written.

This new book is in many ways a culmination and evolution of Quammen’s books over the past decades. It’s also a clear break from them: a science story that refused to stay at a safe distance, that has almost all the wonder and joy leached out of it, and that we all lived through and many of us would just as soon forget.

Let me come clean: I’m a fan. Quammen’s influence on the entire genre can be felt far and wide. The viral New York Times articles about bizarre animals, with clever headlines ? There’s some Quammen DNA in there, and in many other places.

His first nonfiction book, The Song of the Dodo, which was published in 1996, is seminal: a set of swashbuckling pilgrimages to Madagascar, Mauritius, the Amazon, the Aru Islands, and more, braided with the intellectual history of evolution and extinction and rapacious colonialism; all of it suffused with discovery and tragedy; and pulled together, like the rest of Quammen’s work, by the snarky, conversational tone of a guy who majored in English in New Haven and somehow can name-drop Heraclitus or Absalom, Absalom! without sounding pretentious.

The most pressing question I had for him about his new work had a setup like this: Song of the Dodo, like most great science or environmental writing, is propelled by both Oh wow and Oh no. The origins of the awe inspiring creatures found on islands leads us to think about the sixth mass extinction.

Or consider 2012’s Spillover, which introduced popular audiences to the dangers of new diseases crossing over from animal to human populations. Quammen woven together different detective stories about mysterious illnesses, accompanied by a Cassandraesque warning that overcrowding on ecosystems and forcing stressed animals into markets might lead to another pandemic. And now, of course, the new Breathless is a sort of Spillover sequel, wringing grim excitement out of the race to understand the SARS-CoV-2 virus, dedicated to its victims’ surviving loved ones.

To me, though, COVID would seem to threaten the entire format. Perhaps one of the greatest living science writer’s longtime hook–as I started to sketch out to the man himself in his office–was to find enchantment in the places that might feel unknown to most readers, in the jungles and bazaars. He would then use his curiosity and love of color to help illuminate ecological and evolutionary cycles that were extremely important.

But this virus wasn’t one ounce enchanting. Although it is strange to admit, for most of this pandemic the only emotions that drove me to keep informed were duty, self-protection and fear. Here was an evolutionary story with almost no wonder left and much less safe distance for the audience to have fun with the intellectual history of remarkable ideas. It came into our homes, even our bodies. We were all the characters in this story. It was difficult to write without destroying the balance. Or, a variant on the same question: In a year when things are getting so visibly, evidently worse, how could one of biology’s great modern chroniclers write about the bleak outlook for biodiversity? Oder about climate change?

We debated this issue. He said that environmental degradation is something that has happened his entire life. It wasn’t his intention for the conclusion of his work to say that there was all this out there at a safe distance. But it has always been beneath the surface of every one of our lives. Yes, he wanted even the ugliest story to read like a “guilty pleasure.” But this had always been about creating literary art out of hard facts for serious ends. Quammen was unable to believe that my perception was wrong. He felt that these past years had destroyed the comfort of the science-book readers’ comfortable reasoning that “Yeah, but this stuff won’t really matter for me.”

He said as much after we left his house and drove out that drizzly morning to do some hiking, both of us wearing masks in his RAV4 with the windows cracked. He said, “You understand that ecology, conservation, and evolutionary biology do not fall under the small subcategories within biology. This is because they are a very small section of science which is part of a larger category of human endeavour.” “It’s the other way around.”

The haunting first sections of Breathless drift among various disease researchers who had worried that something like this would happen, or who knew enough to start worrying when a mystery pneumonia cluster popped up in Wuhan in the final days of 2019. We meet someone intelligent. We then watch them take aim at the virus and gain some insight or hard-won knowledge. As we look over the shoulders of these experts, understanding builds piece by piece.

In theory, it’s hard to imagine anyone better positioned to write this story. In the course of exploring how viruses leap from animals to people, Spillover had devoted an entire section to the original SARS outbreak of the early 2000s, a more fatal, less transmissible coronavirus that got snuffed out by good public policy before escaping into endemicity. Revisiting that reporting is eerie, and good luck getting a visa approved to do it now. With coronavirus-hunting scientists, he wrangled bats from a cave in south China. He then went to a bamboo farm, which is a kind of animal that can act as an evolutionary and geographic intermediary between humans and bat viruses.

Toward the end of January 2020, Quammen weighed in on a then-emerging virus for The New York Times with his own uncertainty about how big a story this would be. Wuhan’s pneumonia could be disappearing in six months. Or not.” Wuhan pneumonia may be receding into memory. He spent a month researching Tasmanian devils with contagious facial cancers. Much of his time was spent answering media questions about the situation. By mid-2020 he had dropped the devils and committed to a COVID book, he told me. But writing it demanded abandoning his typical approach.

For one, his reporting had to be done over Zoom. His operating principle since The Song of the Dodo had been to hop on a plane. “If you’re writing about Komodo dragons, go to Komodo,” he said. The pandemic precluded travel, though, and he couldn’t see himself getting to the scrubbed, shut down Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market anytime soon. But perhaps he didn’t need to. Readers could be assumed to know much of the background and the dramatis personae already; no need to spend much time introducing Tony Fauci.

Then, there was science. It refused to stop moving. New variants kept evolving into existence as he wrote. The book concludes with Omicron’s rise, for instance. Politicians, scientists, and journalists fought over COVID’s origin. This debate consumes Breathless’s final section. Quammen is having trouble finding one trustworthy viewpoint to anchor the story, given the fact that COVID has affected so many people and places.

Eyeing these constraints, Quammen settled on a reporting structure he hadn’t tried before: what he called a “Greek chorus” of Zoom interviews with 95 experts across the world, who are dutifully listed and credited in the back of the book. “More than fifty years ago, when I first read Faulkner and fell under his spell, the single impression that struck me most,” he writes on the book’s final page, “was that the truth of any event or person is fragmented.”

The result is a gripping, first-draft-of-history account of a virus’s first two years on Earth, pieced together from various lines of scientific evidence and then enlivened by metaphor. Quammen appears to be able to tell how deep he can get into the weeds, which is quite a feat. A couple of images really hit home for me, including one that showed Quammen exploring the pangolin conservation problems, which is another potential intermediary animal in coronavirus spread. Quammen quotes a paper that described an illness in pangolins as rendering the animals “mostly inactive and sobbing,” before dying in custody “despite exhausting rescue efforts.” His response: “Sobbing might be taken as a metaphor for respiratory struggle, but then again, sometimes a sob is just a sob.”

Breathless, like the virus it depicts, is a dramatic culmination of an idea that Quammen introduced many of us to in Spillover: that the science story of viral ecology could very easily become the biggest story on planet Earth. Quammen admits that the story was more than a science story. However, Quammen focuses mainly on technical issues. Politics and public health and a zillion other dimensions came into play, as did a new, forced intimacy that almost all of us bring to the subject matter. The book is dominated by a subtle refrain that echoes through it, often after some scientific investigation. “Meanwhile,” Quammen will write, “people were dying.”

On the way to Montana with my advance copy of Breathless, another gimmick had occurred to me. As a bigger-than-life figure who could shed light on an underlying truth, I flew out to Quammen. In this case, the matter of What It Means to Write and Read Science Today.

Of course, this necessitated seeing him in his natural habitat, not just in the office. We had a great chat and drove to Gallatin River, pulling into the turnout at the side of Highway 127. Then we stood on the riverbank, trucks roaring behind us. This was an important place from his old white-water-kayaking days, he told me. When I asked him to annotate what he saw, he responded with three sequential stories about a boulder in the water named House Rock.

The first was personal, kinetic and embodied. Tension builds as you paddle through calm water towards this rock, and then the whitewater surrounding it in your kayak. It’s like riding a rollercoaster past its apex. A veteran kayaker helped him navigate the safest route. This sealed what would be a 20-year passion for white-water kayaking, even though he’s since aged out of it, and it may explain why he had brought the city-slicker youngster writing his profile out here.

The second story was grim but memorable. As he approached the spot, Quammen saw an orange-vested search team removing the body of a student from college who was killed in a drunken misadventure a year prior. A few minutes later Quammen’s friend jumped out of the boat. The friend caught himself in the rocks, and seemed to be rooting around before he joined the rest of their regular kayaking gang with a “gruesome smile.” In his hand, the friend held the college student’s missing jawbone, which they took back to town and gave to the coroner.

“He said that it was likely more than you wanted, but that they were in Montana in autumn with reddened forests, so he also had a library of ecological contexts in his head. “I also see, you know, these cottonwoods, and there’s an ouzel, a bird, working underwater here,” he said, pointing.

Quammen was using his old formula. Here the world had worn a little thin and we could see hidden things showing through. Here, adventure, raw narrative, and ambient nature were all frothing around a real place governed, like the rest of physical reality, by both contingent circumstance and the laws of science. Writer to writer, I found this and the rest of my time with Quammen inspirational, thrilling. I also thought, later on: I don’t know if there will be another David Quammen.

Science writing in larger guilds is a difficult task. It’s needed, yes. Future viral outbreaks are assured, ecosystems are collapsing, and the climate crisis rages on. It is becoming harder for people to trust their sources of information because of conspiracy-minded politics and the chaos that social media creates.

“I’m just an English major who has written a bunch of books and magazine articles,” Quammen told me. He had only one authority, which he borrowed from the actual experts with whom he spoke, along their data and their interpretations. “I’ve tried to give people what I think we need, which is thoroughness, respect for scientific expertise, respect for the provisionality of science, a little bit of skeptical humor,” he said. “And respect for a diversity of opinions.”

Another threat to the genre, more prosaic but no less consequential, is that the economics of it aren’t quite working out.

In quick succession after I left Quammen’s company, a gifted, entrepreneurial freelancer–maybe the younger science writer I most admire–posted a series of tweets about how financial insecurity and the overall precarity of her work had forced her to step back from the business. Gimlet Media then fired the climate podcast’s staff. Six editors were fired from National Geographic a few weeks prior. This outlet, which had given Quammen round-trip tickets in business class to Africa nearly two decades back, had provided Quammen with the opportunity to write the story that inspired Spillover, and later Breathless. He said that he chose to travel coach and did more reporting instead. It was like reading about the Carboniferous Period in journalism. Dragonflies had two-foot wingspans, so it was interesting to learn more. )

After the rock was removed, Quammen and I began hiking uphill. Quammen had just tested a pair surgically repaired knees. He pointed out to us a small spruce growing on top of a boulder as he was returning down. It reminded him of a landscape in Yellowstone National Park, a place where he has reported extensively, and where he would have taken me if recent, extreme rains hadn’t washed away parts of the most convenient road.

He described it. It was a wide valley with scattered boulders and grass called “glacialerratics”. Each boulder had one tree right beside it as though the boulder had stopped and slid into a tree. “What does that represent?” he asked. “It represents the fact that this is such a severe environment that a Douglas fir cannot get started through the sapling phase without a rock to hide behind.”

Not to overburden those trees in that valley, but later the idea of the tree nurseries seemed to represent a lot of things, among them both the fragments of wonder still left in the natural world and the persistence of a scattered few good science writers to examine what’s happening out there. They were holding on to the taller, more established trees. To have any chance of survival, any new plants would need luck, privilege and shelter. Then we continued walking. I asked him what he thought the fate of that ecosystem might be.

“It may be that you come through there 40 years from now, and you see all these big glacial erratics and standing next to each one of them is a dead snag of a previously living Douglas fir,” he said. We continued down, and I continued to prod him about science writing in a world ruled by more and more unhinged ecological, evolutionary, and environmental cycles, and he gently pushed back.

“Things are still funny, and joyous, and wonderful,” he said, turning out to the healthy forest around us. “This day–this day is not sad.”

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