Writing round-up, December 2019 and January 2020

With my freelancing hat on, I wrote less than I would have liked in December and January. With my Dad hat on, I’ve been grateful to have some down time ahead of what looks like an exciting 2020.

Just want to share a couple of stories from the recent weeks, then:

  • I wrote a thing about communication in wild orang-utans. I thought this was a fascinating bit of research, if decidedly un-sexy in terms of the stuff people are likely to click on. You try to write some stuff for yourself when you can.
  • And here’s a story on some fringe NASA research into growing off-world bases from fungi. I had some frustration with this one because I wasn’t able to pin down the current status of the research. I have an inkling it’s ended, but unfortunately NASA make you jump through all sorts of hoops to score an interview and what with timescales and deadlines, that didn’t happen.
  • And lastly, here’s a thing about using “solar umbrella”s to reduce the size of evaporation ponds. Evaporation ponds are a bizarre geographical feature of modern Anthropocene – I may compile a gallery of them photographed from the sky/space at some point.

Bonus update:


  • Insufficient fees to spend the time doing a detailed read of the research paper, and properly interviewing with both researchers and independent experts. Sometimes, as with the orang-utan story, I do this anyway, because it’s the right thing to do. Other times I do the unthinkable and lean too heavily on the press release. I always, as a bare minimum, try to at least check that the press release isn’t misrepresenting the abstract and conclusion of the paper, though. Research papers are peer-reviewed. Press releases aren’t, and can vary wildly in accuracy and quality.
  • As alluded to above, deadline pressure meaning there isn’t time to interview, or even fire off a few question to clarify points of fact. Again coming round to the view that straight-forward news isn’t my thing.
  • Just an observation, but several research press releases put out in recent months only contained quotes from a lead author when the lead author was male. (The lead author is typically the researchers who did most of the work.) In the cases of female lead authors, the quotes seem to come from senior or supervising authors – the people ultimately in charge of, say, the lab or research funding, but who are more hands off when it comes to the actual research. I might dig into whether any research has been done into quote attribution in press releases about scientific research and whether, as I suspect there is, there is a skew towards males, even over and above the predominance of males in the field of research.

It’s because of the first two frustrations above that, personally, I like to think of what I do at New Atlas more as science and technology blogging than journalism. I should probably change my WordPress category for these posts.

Author: James

Founded upon the observation of trifles