Science’s Online News Editor David Grimm profiles research using radioactive isotopes from atomic bomb fallout to pursue an astounding variety of scientific questions. His story for Science, which was included in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2009, reveals how sticking with an elusive story can bring a big payoff. “The Mushroom Cloud’s Silver Lining” appeared in Science on September 12, 2008.
Here, Grimm tells TON co-founder Jeanne Erdmann the story behind the story. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Where did you get the idea for this piece?
We had run a few small items in ScienceNOW and in the magazine about researchers who used radioactive isotopes from atomic-bomb fallout to do things like date fat cells or determine somebody’s birth date. Then in April 2008, [Science’s European News Editor] John Travis mentioned that another paper was about to come out and wondered whether it would be worth running a news story in the magazine about the technique. I said I wanted to take a bigger look, rather than just publishing a news feature on the next result.
What were your first steps in developing the idea?
Early on, John thought the story would be about the technique itself, but his concern was that this could be just some wacky technique that hardly anyone thought was promising. Once I looked at all of the papers, my heart sank because every one was by the same group. I emailed John and told him the story wasn’t going to work the way he envisioned it. He suggested doing a profile of Jonas Frisén, the bomb pulse technique’s developer; but when I spoke with Frisén, I learned that his graduate student, Kirsty Spalding, was the driving force. So I wrote a discouraged email to John saying that the story couldn’t be about Frisén after all. John thought it would still be a good story if the technique was controversial. But when I spoke with other researchers they were mostly enthusiastic. Every time John said, “This is what I think the story should be,” I would find out that that wasn’t the story, and I would get discouraged, thinking, “I’m not giving John what he wants.” But he kept saying, “I think there’s a story here; make a few more calls.” Then I had this really good conversation with Spalding, which led to this eureka moment where I realized the story wasn’t what John thought it would be; it was much, much better.
How did that conversation turn the story around?
All of a sudden the whole story unfolded. She said that when she first came to the lab, Frisén had been trying to date DNA with the bomb-pulse technique but everyone in his lab thought it was too difficult. Naively, Spalding thought it sounded fun. To make the technique work, she needed a lot of brain tissue, so she went to a horse slaughterhouse. I had this vision of her in a slaughterhouse digging through horse brains. Spalding also mentioned chance encounters with a medical examiner after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, working with police detectives to solve cold cases, and collaborating with a group trying to figure out how the body makes new fat cells. All of these stories came out in that hour-long phone call. I put down the phone and said, “This is the best story I’ve ever had.” I was excited and then really nervous because this is the kind of story that doesn’t come around very often. The science is powerful and hits so many fields. I called John and said, “This is an awesome story.” The more reporting I did, the more great stories I uncovered about how this technique was being used.
How did you balance the reporting and writing with your day job as editor of ScienceNOW?
My job is insane. It’s like running a small newspaper everyday. So when I’m writing a story like this, it’s a question of finding that half hour here and there for an interview or to read a paper. I worked on the story for more than four months, including on weekends, in addition to editing ScienceNOW.
The story has a lot of different elements. How did you figure out the structure?
The structure was tough. I knew I had the main character, Kirsty Spalding. After that it was a question of how I would follow her from section to section; there were so many great stories, so I decided to write the piece as four mini-profiles, each starting with one event. Then I had Spalding snake her way through each section. I ended up turning the story in at five and half pages; even at that length, there was so much that didn’t get in, and then it was edited down to four pages.
I got nervous when I turned the story in, because I was worried John wouldn’t think it was as cool as I did. In fact, I frequently worry about this when I turn in stories. But he seemed to like it a lot.
What challenged you most in writing the story?
The hardest things were the lede and the ending. For the lede, I liked the forensic aspect because I thought that would draw in the most readers. One source remembered a case from Vienna few years ago, where the technique was used to date the time of death on two elderly women found mummified in their home. Through a university source involved in police work, I tracked down the name of the Austrian medical examiner that worked on the case. He barely spoke English and was rude over phone, but I pestered him until he sent the case file. Then I had to get help translating it from one of our German-speaking staff members, Gretchen Vogel. All of this took three to four weeks, just to get the lede, and then a lot of detail was lost during editing.
For the ending, I wanted someone who had worked with atomic bombs who could take a step back and reflect on the good that came out of it, because some of those guys have some guilt. I called a PIO at the University of Nevada to try to find someone. I’d also been to an atomic bomb museum in Nevada recently and I remembered the visit, so I called there and left messages. After three weeks, I found someone who was retired but still came into lab at Los Alamos every day. That interview didn’t end up as interesting as I hoped, but I got some good quotes.
Would you have done anything differently?
If I had it to do over I would have fought harder for the story to be longer. I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I tend to be more attached to my copy than the average writer. I think the story lost something at four pages, but the edits also improved parts of the story.
How did you learn the story was selected for the Best American Science Writing series?
I was attending a workshop in California and was checking email late at night. I saw one with “Best American Science and Nature Writing” in the subject line. At first, I thought it was an ad for the book, but I did allow myself, for a second, to get excited. Then I opened the email and learned the story was indeed selected. I’ve never been that happy about almost anything. I was excited about the recognition but also happy the story was going to get a wider audience. That’s really why I was so nervous writing this, because I knew it was the kind of story that could end up in Best, and I hoped that I could do it justice.
A glimpse behind the scenes:
Jeanne Erdmann is co-founder and editor-at-large of The Open Notebook. Follow her on Twitter @jeanne_erdmann.