I read two articles online this week that truly stood out as great writing, both by authors I have read before and found to be great writers.
No news there. Nor is there in the idea for my first title for this post, it was going to be “Great Writing is Great Writing (duh).”
Why remark on it? Because I can. Here.
I would have guessed I read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild back when I was a Geology graduate student, something likely a followup from Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire.
But that’s not possible, since Krakauer’s book came out in 1997. And my blog comes to the rescue, on a search I find I read it on a trip to visit my Mom in Florida in May 2005 — I wrote:
I enjoyed reading cover to cover Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild (thanks to a friend for a great gift!). What a riveting and well told story! I’m not giving anything away but I read the book in one day.
More odd, for a book I enjoyed so much, I cannot find it, and so I can only guess it was maybe my hiking and long time graduate school friend Uwe who gave it to me?
It does not matter, but I was turned on to the riveting, in depth, well researched, and personal hooking writing of Jon Krakauer, leading to reading also “Into Thin Air” and “Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman”.
I’ll leave it to Wikipedia to refresh you or introduce you to Chris McCandless, the enigmatic subject of Into The Wild, who dropped every connection to “normal” life to end up dying, starving, in an abandoned bus in Alaska.
Needless to say, it was not much of a hook to want to read this week Krakauer’s How Chris McCandless Died: An update to ‘Into the Wild’:
The debate over what killed Chris McCandless, and the related question of whether he is worthy of admiration, has been smoldering and occasionally flaring for more than two decades now. Shortly after the first edition of Into the Wild was published in January 1996, University of Alaska chemists Edward Treadwell and Thomas Clausen shot down my theory that the cause of McCandless’s death was a toxic alkaloid contained in the seeds of the Eskimo potato plant, Hedysarum alpine, also known as wild potato.
“Dogged pursuit” is an understatement to this new addition by Krakauer- it’s great writing, great science, and a bit of an adventure itself to find what ends one might go to get closer to an answer, to a why.
A new lead came from a paper written not by Ronald Hamilton, not a scientist, but someone interested who made a connection to another domain of information:
Hamilton is neither a botanist nor a chemist; he’s a writer who until recently worked as a bookbinder at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania library. As Hamilton explains it, he became acquainted with the McCandless story in 2002, when he happened upon a copy of Into the Wild, flipped through its pages, and suddenly thought to himself, “I know why this guy died.” His hunch derived from his knowledge of Vapniarca, a little-known World War II concentration camp in what was then German-occupied Ukraine.
“I first learned about Vapniarca through a book whose title I’ve long forgotten,” Hamilton told me. “Only the barest account of Vapniarca appeared in one of its chapters…. But after reading Into the Wild I was able to track down a manuscript about Vapniarca, which has been published online.” Later, in Romania, he located the son of a man who served as an administrative official of the camp, and who sent Hamilton a trove of documents.
This alone is a story.
But yet, not the answer. Some prelinamary lab testing gave Krakauer enough confidence to write a New Yorker article How Chris McCandless Died. However, Krakauer was criticized for not being rigorous, not having peer reviewed science paper to back him.
Some might have just barked back defensively.
Not Krakauer, he pursued it farther, and his article goes into deep scientific explanation, “liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry”, and ultimately a different compound was identified as a toxic cause, and that peer reviewed scientific paper happened.
Our results confirmed the presence of L-canavanine (an antimetabolite with demonstrated toxicity in mammals) as a significant component of H. alpinum seeds…. In the case of Christopher McCandless, there is evidence that H. alpinum seeds constituted a significant portion of his meager diet during a period before his death. Based on this and what is known about the toxic effects of L-canavanine, we make the logical conclusion that under these conditions, it is highly likely that the ingestion of relatively large amounts of this antimetabolite was a contributing factor to his death.
I’m not doing the article justice, just read it.
The second one I said wow abut this week was Clive Thompson’s How to discover a new type of cloud, which honestly did not sound at the title like an amazing story.
I’ve been a long fan of Thompson’s articles in Wired- always his “How Twitter Creates a Social Sixth Sense” published in 2007 stuck out as to getting to the essence of why/how twitter captured many of our imaginations. He took a term I still cannot pronounce easily (“proprioception”) and made put into a new context and meaning:
It’s like proprioception, your body’s ability to know where your limbs are. That subliminal sense of orientation is crucial for coordination: It keeps you from accidentally bumping into objects, and it makes possible amazing feats of balance and dexterity.
Twitter and other constant-contact media create social proprioception. They give a group of people a sense of itself, making possible weird, fascinating feats of coordination.
In the cloud article, Thompspn describes how multiple people shared rather amazing photos of an unusual cloud type in a site called the Cloud Appreciation Society (the bold emphasis is mine)
This formation wasn’t listed in the International Cloud Atlas, published by the World Meteorological Organization since 1896. So Pretor-Pinney devised a name for this cloud?—?“asperatus”, derived from “a passage in Virgil describing a roughened sea”. He’s been working for years to get it accepted into the next edition of the Atlas. In this week’s New York Times Magazine, there’s a superb piece by Jon Mooallem detailing the whole story.
The discovery of asperatus clouds is a lovely side-effect of what, in my book, I call “public thinking”: When disparate folks publish their observations online, they quickly discover the other people who share their seemingly niche obsession.
As Thompson writes, citizen science, and using the network of the internet to harness that focus is not new. He notes, “what charms me about the story of asperatus is that the discovery was unintentional.” and explains further (again, my emphasis is bolded)
Pretor-Pinney didn’t create the Cloud Appreciation Society specifically so he could identify a new cloud formation. No, he created it because clouds are rad; because staring up the darkening sky brings deep aesthetic delight. (As Mooallem notes, this is the rare group of people who, when their annual convention takes place on a crystal-blue day of gorgeous weather, are utterly crushed.) As goes the koan of open-source software, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. Collect together enough people intrigued with some corner of culture or science or history, let them talk long enough, and odds are they’ll stumble into something the world hasn’t yet seen. Inquiry is often sparked by joy.
“Inquiry is often sparked by joy”, indeed. Such a simple correlation. More joy please.
Both this articles are somewhat related since science, but also an interactions, contributions to science from non-scientists, and information that might not have been connected before, enabled somehow to do so by our networked capabilities.
Both are great pieces of writing and would work on any medium, web site, print. Ironically, both are published on the medium.com platform, but I’d submit that the platform has little to do with the writing.
Yep, great writing is great writing, indeed. Keep doing it.
Top / Featured Image: The method was highly unoriginal. I searched Google Images (licensed for reuse, yep) on “writing” and saw lots of pens and paper and keyboards. I like this image because of multiple modes represented, as well as what looks like female and male hands.
The image is public domain from pexels. That means, well you can just used it. But notice this small thing- on the pexels site there is no creator credited, because, yes dummy, is it is CC0, so they do not have to according to the letter of the license.
The pexels page does have a link to (unidentified creator, but named) source leading to the photo on the original site that became unsplash.com – its first iteration as a tumblr, and here the photographer, Alejandro Escamilla, at least gets name credit.