The eradication of smallpox.
The double helix.
It took about one minute for me to jot down a bare-bones list of watershed moments in 20th-century biology-discoveries that have transformed (or will transform) life on every continent in just about every way, as well as creating a whole new industry: biotechnology. I took a considerably longer time trying to figure out what could possibly have been going through the minds of the “experts “convened by the journalism department at New York University (NYU), who compiled and recently published a list of the century’s best 100 works of journalism.
According to NYU’s judges, the top choice was John Hersey’s Hiroshima. Also ranking high were Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Woodward and Bernstein on Watergate, Edward R. Murrow on the Battle of Britain, Ida Tarbell’s history of Standard Oil, Lincoln Steffens’ The Shame of the Cities, John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World, and H.L. Mencken on the Scopes trial. The list was heavy on muckrakers and literary journalism about important stories, and light-very light-on science and technology.
Having worked on a couple of these “Best of… ” exercises myself, I’m generally not inclined to work myself up into a froth of indignation. Although these lists can be obvious, myopic, self-interested, mystifying, encrusted with cronyism or just plain wrongheaded, they force us into a cultural argument about what we ultimately value.
What we don’t value, apparently, is science and its offspring, technology. The absence of science and technology is so glaring that the roster is virtually preatomic, pregenetic -our own little Dark Age. You could argue that Silent Spring was about environmental biology and that the Scopes trial was about evolution,
but it’s a stretch. From Hiroshima (number 1) to Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail (100), the list contains no moon landing, no transistor, no Earth-orbiting communications satellites, no vaccines, no double helix, no computer, no Dolly-no nothing!
The more interesting question is:Why? The list is crowded with a lot of literary heavy-hitters: Tom Wolfe, Joseph Mitchell,Hannah Arendt,Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag, to name a few.Wonderful storytellers and shrewd intellects. Which begs the question:Why don’t science and technology attract literary journalists?
It’s much easier, for one thing, to understand the drama of warfare or a homicide investigation or an important social trend like the civil rights movement than it is to get at the drama of finding a gene (not to say doing it before someone else). God help the writer trying to sell the importance of finding a gene in fruit flies. If I had a nickel for every time the phrase “and may ultimately lead to a cure for cancer and other human diseases” has been appended to an otherwise utterly basic discovery, I’d have that Tuscan farmhouse I’ve always wanted.
Some excellent writers have been attracted to the drama of science, and Tom Wolfe was acknowledged for The Right Stuff by the NYU panel. But Norman Mailer wasn’t acknowledged for Of a Fire On the Moon, and while John McPhee made the cut, you hear an awful lot of locker-room grumbling about how he’s gone off the deep end of geology.
But the larger problem, it seems to me, is that science and technology are not appreciated and told as stories.Not by most writers, not by most editors, and certainly not by the various panels of technophobic experts who can find a place for Grantland Rice in their lists. This most recent list may be accused of several glaring omissions. The rise of molecular biology, so ably documented in Horace Freeland Judson’s The Eighth Day of Creation, is a collage of stories, a campaign of intellectual brilliance that will tell us more about how we got to the 21st century than any 10 accounts of Joseph McCarthy or the four horsemen of Notre Dame.
Even more unforgivable, however, is the absence of James D. Watson’s The Double Helix. Though Watson is not, of course, a journalist, this book is as beautifully and shrewdly written as any entry on the list. Furthermore, it elevates the placement of hydrogen bonds to the level of suspense found in an international thriller, and it only involves the single most important biological insight during a century that will surely be viewed by our descendants as the Age of Biology. To overlook it is not a matter of scientific illiteracy; it is an issue of cultural illiteracy, and it’s a little harrowing to realize that the custodians of this particular pantheon-academics, broadcasters, media experts-simply didn’t get it in such a profound way.
Think back for a moment to the greatest story on the NYU list. One way of viewing Hiroshima is that the use of nuclear weapons is the most important story of our time.Another way to think of it is that all the work that led to the splitting of the atom under the University of Chicago stadium by Enrico Fermi was the most misunderstood and underreported story of our time. Remember that when you ponder the absence of an account of cloning from the same list.