In my four years at Smithsonian magazine, freelance science writer Michelle Nijhuis has been on of my favorite writers to work with. She tells wonderful, deeply reported stories that give a peek into the world of science—for example, how ecologists use the work of Henry David Thoreau to study climate change. In addition to Smithsonian, Nijhuis’ work has appeared in many other publications (including High Country News, where she is a contributing editor) and several books. She is a 2011 Alicia Patterson fellow and also blogs at The Last Word on Nothing. Here’s what she had to say when I asked her why she liked science:
Like my fellow science writer Ann Finkbeiner, I was an English major—until, that is, the time came for me to actually major in English. In college, I discovered that studying literature was less about enjoying words on the page and much more about dissecting them. Worse, dissection led to more complications, not fewer. If I was going to pull something lovely apart, I thought, I wanted to find answers. So I fled to the biology building—where I found a few answers, a lot more questions and a new way of understanding the world.
I like science because it is a process, a journey, as we writers like to say. It’s not a list of facts but a method, honed over centuries, of asking questions, testing possible answers and asking yet more questions. Scientists are trained to doubt and criticize, habits that can make their company difficult, but never dull. So in study after study, they observe and analyze and report, picking away at their uncertainties. If they’re lucky, they satisfy themselves and their colleagues and some part of the world at large, and finally arrive at something close to an answer. If not, they pass their questions on to the next generation, and the one after that. It’s a tradition of discovery that, bit by bit, adds up to knowledge. Like anything else practiced by fallible humans, science isn’t a perfect process, but it is a very powerful one—our clearest view of nature’s true complexity.
I like science, but I’m not a scientist. I loved studying biology, and a biology degree gave me a chance to hike around in strange places and see amazing things. As I’ve described elsewhere, though, I found I was less interested in doing science and more interested in understanding how and why it got done. What possesses some people to, for instance, spend decades studying the sex life of snails, or the hibernation habits of cave-dwelling bats, or the parenting skills of Atlantic puffins? And what do their journeys mean for the rest of us? These days, as a journalist, I get to watch the process of science at work, and I get to tell its stories. And while my profession is much more art than science, I still practice the science habit: I ask questions, and question the answers.