Writing Science for the Masses

In Packing for Mars, author Mary Roach transforms complex scientific details into understandable and stimulating prose—a combination that encourages scientific literacy among the general populace.  Accordingly, CALS sponsored a roundtable discussion entitled “Writing Science for the Masses” as part of the 2014 CALS/Centre County Reads Community Read programming.

Our three invited panelists—Amy Teitel, space historian and blogger at Vintage SpaceAlison Fromme, writer and collaborator on The Science Writers’ Handbook; and A’ndrea Messer, Senior Science and Research Information Officer at Penn State—reflected on the task of translating the esoteric language of science into an accessible form.

Teitel recounted her journey from a child fascinated by space exploration to a successful freelance writer on the subject. Her current book project, which she conceptualizes as “the prehistory of spaceflight,” examines the historical developments that were necessary to usher in the era of space exploration. Fromme discussed how she uses narrative to transmit scientific research to broader audiences and also how she incorporates lessons learned from her time as a high school science teacher into her writing. Messer described both the challenges and pleasures of negotiating multiple writing projects at the same time, and then gave an overview on how the field of science writing has changed over the course of her career. All three writers shared insights into their writing processes, starting from the thrilling first germination of an idea to the final culmination of publication.

In attendance was an incredibly diverse audience, including professors from science departments, graduate students studying scientific communication, undergraduates focusing on technical writing, members of Penn State’s own Research Communications division, and interested members of the Centre County community.

In the spirit of the curiosity that guides Roach’s Packing for Mars, the panel ended with an animated question and answer segment. Audience members asked questions ranging from the ethical underpinnings of scientific reporting, to how to represent oneself as a freelance writer, to the importance of scientific literacy in modern education. By providing a forum for science and literature to meet, the roundtable illustrated the immense possibilities for continued cross-pollination between the two fields.

Amy Teitel, Alison Fromme, and A'ndrea Messer share a laugh during the Q&A.