Deborah Blum's creative science writing

if you have read The Poisoner’s Handbook, or any of Professor Deborah Blum‘s science features, you’ve probably marveled at how she spins a gripping story woven through with well laid-out scientific concepts. 

Professor Deborah Blum
Professor Deborah Blum

Take, for instance, her Slate feature about the US Government’s little-known Prohibition-era bid to stop people drinking – poisoning the industrial alcohol bootleggers were stealing and selling as hard liquor.

Here’s how Blum starts that fascinating piece:

It was Christmas Eve 1926, the streets aglitter with snow and lights, when the man afraid of Santa Claus stumbled into the emergency room at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital. He was flushed, gasping with fear: Santa Claus, he kept telling the nurses, was just behind him, wielding a baseball bat.

How could you not read on? This is the power of creative writing, but Blum of one a rare breed of writers who can employ this style to science writing, to great effect.

Here’s another from Slate about unpasteurized milk:

Worshippers at the milk shrine—to indulge in yet more hyperbole—stand before only one image of that perfect food. It’s golden, creamy, foamy, fresh from grass-fed, family-farm cows. It doesn’t cause but cures illness. Raw milk, with its legion of followers, has become a poster child of the food rights movement, giving emotional power to the idea that all of us deserve access to untainted, unprocessed, healthy food.

Prof. Blum, now an academic at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, won a Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting in 1992 for a series known as The Monkey Wars about the ethics of primate research. She turned that series into a book and has covered topics as diverse as gender and the paranormal in books since then.
She will be in Wellington giving a one-day masterclass as part of workshops on creating science writing and digital story telling in November. Here is how Victoria University is pitching the workshops:

1.       CREW352: Creative Writing Workshop (Science Writing): International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University of Wellington, 18 November-22 December 2013.Offered for the first time, this workshop provides expert support for writing projects with a science focus.  You’ll be working with leading science writer and Listener columnist Rebecca Priestley and noted essayist and poet Ashleigh Young, exploring the diverse range of nonfiction science writing possibilities: essays, articles, memoir, travel narratives, biography. As part of this course you will also attend a one-day masterclass by Deborah Blum, Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist and author of the New York Times bestseller The Poisoner’s Handbook. Limited to 12 places. More information.

2.       The Digital Storyteller: 9am to 1pm, 27 November 2013, Victoria University of Wellington. “The rise of digital publishing has opened up a new world for writers and some exciting opportunities,” says Deborah Blum, professor of science journalism, best-selling science writer and Pulitzer Prize winner. “It’s changing the way we write about science and opening new opportunities”. This half-day masterclass, taught by Professor Blum, will focus on both long-form narrative storytelling and on the new platforms for telling such stories, including the rise of e-single publishers and digital magazines. With a focus on writing about science, topics will include the geometry of story structure and other tools for crafting a narrative piece, marketing stories, and the new publishing options. Limited to 10 places. More information.

These look to be great workshops and a rare opportunity to gain advice and insights from great local writers like Dr Rebecca Priestley and Ashleigh Young as well as the visiting Prof. Blum. Places are tightly limited so get in quick.

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