I’m the biology features editor for the news team at Nature, the UK-based science journal. Longreads kindly asked me to offer up my five favourite couldn’t-put-down features for the year, and I was happy to comply. The focus on biology wasn’t intentional, but I did purposely keep features from Nature out of the running (it’s like choosing which child you love best!).
Autism’s First Child (John Donvan & Caren Zucker, The Atlantic, October 2010)
This profile of the first person technically diagnosed with autism is as touching as it is revealing about the troubles faced by doctors, patients and patient advocates when trying to determine a diagnosis.
Paper Trail: Inside the Stem Cell Wars (sub req’d) (Peter Aldhous, New Scientist, June 9, 2010)
Peter Aldhous went to town with a data-mining quest designed to verify a claim that several scientists had been complaining about: namely, that the publication of papers in a specific area of stem cell research was being manipulated by a cadre of influential scientists. It’s not exactly narrative form, but a stellar data visualization effort.
Depression’s Upside (Jonah Lehrer, New York Times, Feb. 28, 2010)
Jonah Lehrer deftly maneuvered this puzzling, but oddly compelling argument that depression has a purpose and benefit for the brain. It doesn’t soft pedal the real and relevant criticisms of evolutionary psychology, but still presents a nice picture of the “tortured genius” paradox (see also David Dobbs’ “Orchid Children” which missed making this list for a temporal technicality).
The Covenant (Peter J. Boyer, The New Yorker, Sept. 6, 2010)
Peter J. Boyer’s masterfully nuanced profile of NIH director Francis Collins was exquisitely written and did a nice job of really digging into someone whose faith–it would seem–has lots of potential to come into conflict with his job. It also happened to be timed quite well with the collapse of funding for stem cell research–something that The New Yorker couldn’t plan for, but obviously accommodated quite deftly.
The Brain that Changed Everything (Luke Dittrich, Esquire, Oct. 25, 2010)
This is just a stirring feature on one of the events of the year for neuroanatomy. It recounts the life and death and dissection of Henry Molaison, who lost the ability to form new memories after an operation to remove his hippocampus. The operation was performed by William Scoville and the piece is written by Scoville’s grandson.