Dan Drollette Jr is the author of “Gold Rush in the Jungle: The Race to Discover and Defend the Rarest Animals of Vietnam’s ‘Lost World,’ ” and held a Fulbright Postgraduate Traveling Fellowship to Australia. He has written for publications ranging from Australian Geographic and Scientific American to the BBC’s “Future” column, and was most recently the editor of CERN’s online computing magazine, International Science Grid This Week. You can also check out his TEDx Talk in Frankfurt, Germany, on the behind-the-scenes story of the making of the book here.
I recently discovered one of the most thrilling – and terrifying – parts of getting a book published by a traditional, large, old-line print house: reading the reviews.
Most of the time they contain good and thoughtful insights about the thing you have sweated over for years. On rare occasions, you wonder how in the world the reviewer ever came up with their conclusions. Rarer still, sometimes a reviewer really connects with the content on a profoundly deep level, to the point where you want to stand up, cheer, and shout aloud “That’s why I did this!”
The latter feeling came over me after reading a review of a nonfiction book I wrote, “Gold Rush in the Jungle: The Race to Discover and Defend the Rarest Animals of Vietnam’s ‘Lost World,’ ” by Christie Wilcox of Discover Magazine. Wilcox said she related so strongly to the protagonists that it made her cry in public.
First, some background: The book is about how the discovery of an abundance of rare, unusual wildlife in Indochina has created a ‘biological gold rush,’ drawing everything from biologists seeking a once-in-a-lifetime discovery to hunters aiming at prize trophies for the black market. (In the process, Vietnam has become the major transshipment point for items such as illegal rhino horn.) The end result is that Vietnam’s fauna and flora have never been more valuable, nor more vulnerable. Ironically, Vietnamese biologists say that “the peace is more dangerous than war” when it comes to protecting their country’s natural heritage.
A marine biologist herself, Wilcox writes the magazine’s “Science Sushi” blog, where she explains that what she liked most about the reporting was that it exposed the passion that drives field biologists to attempt to study, fight for, and rescue extremely rare, new-found mammals — “the kind of passion that drove me to become a biologist in the first place,” she said.
What appealed to her most is the portrayal of scientific humanity:
“The fragile and emotional side of biologists is exactly what society needs to see . . . Too often, scientists are seen as egotistical misanthropes, but as one of them, I know better. I have felt the pain of loss that Drollette depicts as botanist Steve Perlman explains how rare plants become like friends, and when one dies, he thinks ‘Yeah, I’m not coming here again. I’ll go out and get drunk or something, because I’ve just lost a friend.’ I empathize with Alan Rabinowitz’s account of how, when he was young, animals helped him overcome stuttering, as my own pets and the natural world around me as a child were my way of coping with a broken home and a tough social situation at school. People that go into science, especially conservation biology, usually do so from a very passionate place . . .”
This was a very illuminating reminder to me as a writer of popular science. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of merely reciting dates, findings and factoids. We need to remember to show the adventure of the process of science – accompanying researchers into the field when we can, in an effort to try to give a sense of the blood, sweat, sorrows, joys and revelations of their work.
In the publishing trade, they call this approach “show, don’t tell.”
I know that as a rule, revealing much about oneself to the popular press is anathema to researchers – I found it very telling that while I was working as a magazine editor at CERN, I discovered that the French word for translating academic research into everyday language is “vulgarization.”
But despite its opprobrium among scientists, everyday readers do appreciate such popularizing – human beings identify with what other human beings are trying to do, and like to participate in the ride vicariously. And in an era of ever-shrinking budgets, the more the public appreciates the work of researchers, the more willing they might be to see their tax dollars go to research.
We should try to put flesh on dry statistics – in print, online, by social media — and explain why, for example, a biologist from Germany would leave his home to start up a new life in a developing country in order to save a rare, leaf-eating monkey few people have heard of.
Understand, the story is NOT a “look at me” story about us journalists ‘daring’ to go into the field with researchers on occasion, it’s about us using every journalistic tool we have to show why researchers spend years at the extreme cutting edge – dodging landmines, enduring bouts with tropical disease, dealing with over-vigilant communist authorities, tracking down the last of a species on a remote jungle cliff — to fulfill a quest.
It’s about connecting the dots between the raw fieldwork and the dry abstract. It’s about the human side of research.
It’s about passion.
It’s about showing, not telling.