September 14

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Science is Story, Too by Christina Couch

I didn’t like science as a kid, or rather, I thought it didn’t like me. I was curious about the world around me, but back in the 80s and early 90s, science classes felt like spaces for someone else—places ruled by math and methodology where sensitive people who loved literature and theater and all things emotional didn’t belong. 

Back then, science media for kids wasn’t nearly as diverse across gender, race, body type, or sexual orientation lines as it is today, but really, my big hang up was connection. I delighted in learning anything strange or gross that I could tell people later, but science didn’t feel like a place for that. It was all equations and procedures completely severed from the people creating them or those affected by them.

But then I met a cigarette-smoking, artificially intelligent cartoon fish who changed my perspective. After spending all of college avoiding science or engineering, and years after covering human interest stories, I found myself at Northwestern University asking computer scientists to explain exactly how this animated fish might one day take my job. 

News At Seven was a software program designed in the mid-2000s, long before conversations about AI seeping into journalism were common. The program produced original broadcasts by scanning news sites throughout the day, pulling related images and videos, and compiling an aggregated mashup of timely information delivered to viewers through the lips of cartoon anchors—two human avatars and a moonshine-swigging fish.

The program was far less sophisticated than live writers and producers, but watching two virtual twenty-somethings evaluate the latest episode of Saturday Night Live in staccato-ed robo-speak sent a flurry of questions rushing through my brain: Who gets to feed stories into the AI news program, and who gets left out? Who’s held accountable if computers get the news wrong? And why is this cartoon fish drunk? 

Realizing for the first time that science and tech are actually imperfect, incomplete, and sometimes wacky endeavors created by equally imperfect people destroyed my textbook perception of these fields. Fifteen years later, I’m still fascinated by questions about the human choices and biases that shape research and technology, and I still love a good bizarre or gross tidbit. It shows in my work. I’m humbled by the fascinating people who have shared their stories with me—a man who holds multiple world records for longest living catsa formerly incarcerated scientist who’s debunking bad research that fuels drug policiesthe people (and one disembodied robotic head) who are rewriting the rules for our digital remnants after we die, to name a few. I use those narratives as springboards for diving into the scientific research and institutional mechanisms that underlie these stories. I personally connect to science better when living creatures come first, and had I understood that about myself earlier in life, I might have chosen different educational paths. 

A few years ago, my coauthor Cara Giaimo — a tremendous writer who covers the plant and animal kingdoms through a similar weird-forward lens —and I started talking about potentially writing a book for middle-grade readers. I found myself thinking critically about what type of science book I would have connected with as a pre-teen. Would science have felt less intimidating if I had come to it through stories about real people and animals, instead of by textbooks full of calculations and concepts that felt far removed from my world? Would I have been more enthusiastic about it if I’d known that complicated heroes and thorny moral questions are just as tangled in science as they are in good novels? We decided to give that approach a shot. 

Our book Detector Dogs, Dynamite Dolphins and More Animals With Super Sensory Powers profiles eight animals who use their sensory systems to help humans do jobs that we can’t. Among them, a dog who sniffs killer whale poop to help save a dying species, a fish that monitors your drinking water for harmful chemicals, a dolphin trained by the military to aid US Navy personnel, and a cow that scientists track to see if this four-legged forecaster can predict earthquakes. Each chapter follows a day on the job and dives into the biology that gives these creatures extraordinary senses, and the ethical issues that arise when people partner with animals. Plus, it’s packed with lots of surprising animal facts—if you’re interested in butterflies that thrive at bomb testing sites or the way that lobsters pee from just under their eyeballs, this book is for you.

We wrote this book for kids who love science and for those who haven’t quite found their toehold into it. In addition to profiling the people who care for these animals and researchers in those fields, we tried to make a book that would start conversations—something with original reporting that would be new to kids and adults alike, and that would provide opportunities to connect to each other and the material through activities that test out their own senses.

Mostly though, we wanted to make a book that treats middle readers as the sharp, curious, questioning, multi-faceted people that they are, and to show that under all of its technical complexities, that’s where science really starts. 

img_0739Christina Couch is a science journalist who loves writing about brains, organic and artificial alike. Her writing can be found in The New York Times, NOVA, Smithsonian, Fast Company, The Verge, Atlas Obscura, Hakai Magazine, and many more.