Short on Science?

We’ve all been short of something in our lives. Patience. Of-a-load. Money. Time. Words. Breath. Sleep. Food. Are you finding yourself, or people around you, short on science? For the holidays, I received a 2-volume infectious disease text, an anthology of science writing, and a literary journal. Other members of the family received science and history magazines and a subscription to the Washington Post. How could I possibly need more to read? It’s an insatiable quest. My perceived science short-comings are alleviated through the science blogosphere, reading books and magazines I find in my explorations at the local library, the active online science writing community, and PubMed. All these people and things, combined, give a short-scienced individual a box to stand on—as a lift.

Read Science on the Blogosphere 
Support your favorite science blogs with your readership, comments, and donations. Many science writers return the favor by sharing a great story they've read with their readers and donating to other writers they admire.  

Many aggregators for online science writing are available:,, and Open Laboratory 2013, to name only a few of the good ones out there. Many good science blogs have blog lists of what they read; they are worth looking at. You could also check out some amazing, award-winning writers at PLOS Blogs, Guardian Science Blogs, Discover Blogs, Wired Science Blogs, and Scientific American Blogs. This is not an all-inclusive list, but a start.

In addition, support science programs you hear on the radio (like NPR or BBC) or podcasts or TV. Support your local school’s science and literacy programs. The Febrile Muse will donate 20% of its reader support to local programs, starting today.

Read great Literature with Science

To me, there is nothing better than reading literature that either has science or infectious diseases within the work. A new love for me is Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis (1926 Pulitzer Prize winner).

In the 1998 Signet Classic edition of Arrowsmith, E. L. Doctorow writes  in the afterword about the success of this novel.

“It did not hurt that the groundsong or lore of the novel consisted of accurate science reportage. Arrowsmith brought to the reading public of the 1920’s the news of science.”

I love the truth seeking Martin Arrowsmith, the depth of the characters (especially the apparently shallow ones), the love of science that oozes throughout the novel, and the language. I don’t want the story to go to its bitter end. Paul De Kruif (of The Microbe Hunters) was Lewis’s scientific advisor for the novel, and much of the science was inspired by the work of Felix d’Herelle and his peers (Koch, Pasteur and others).

The love of good science comes through when Martin’s idol, Professor Max Gottleib, says of careful note-taking during experiments, 
“…And the most important part of experimentation  is not doing the experiment but making notes, ve-ry [sic] accurate quantitative notes—in ink. I am told that a great many clever people feel they can keep notes in their heads. I have often observed with pleasure that such persons do not have heads in which to keep their notes. This iss [sic] very good, because thus the world never sees their results and science is not encumbered with them…” 
I guess the internet has changed this somewhat, but for the good, in most cases. Science may be more accessible now than it used to be.

Along with descriptions of laboratory work, Lewis describes epidemiology. When townsfolk falsely accuse some squatters six miles up the river for spreading typhoid, Martin's map-work led to a different yet correct conclusion. 
“Martin mapped every recent case of typhoid within five miles of Delft. He looked into milk routes and grocery deliveries. He discovered that most of the cases had appeared after the visits of an itinerant seamstress, a spinster virtuous and almost painfully hygienic. She had had typhoid four years before.”  
Another piece of literature that has made an impression  is The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Somehow she finds a way to weave malaria, a notably strong infectious disease, into a missionary family’s weakening structure.   The overall impact of this novel remains with me years after reading; the missionary father wanders still—ranting and raving.

Further reading on Felix d’Herelle can be found in the amusing collection of scientist stories, It Doesn’t Take a Rocket Scientist: Great Amateurs of Science, by John Malone. This book also contains a chapter on Gregor Johann Mendel: The Father of Genetics. It highlights the pea experiments rather well—perhaps a good reference for either you or your high schooler as you embark on genetics in biology.

Read Nonfiction
Nonfictional works on my to-read list, continuing my love of malarial disease, are The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years by Sonia Shah and The Miraculous Fever-tree: Malaria and the Quest for a Cure that Changed the World by Fiammetta Rocco. They draw me to them partly because of the covers (should I admit this?), but also  for the history of malaria and the exploration for cures. The first book starts out with the author  differentiating herself from her Indian cousins…on the basis of mosquito bites (she has them, her cousins don’t). The second book combines the roles of Pope Urban VIII, an apothecary, and Jesuit missionaries working with locals in Peru with the process of finding and bringing quinine to Europe. 

Read About and Look at the Art/Science Connection
Art and science are connected, and two books that illustrate this well are Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts by Diana Donald and Jane Munro and Ernst Haeckel: Art Forms in Nature published by Prestel-Verlag. I recommend that you scour them and plop them down on your youngsters’ laps, carefully (they are big). Better yet, look at them together. They are a feast for beauty-needing science readers of all ages.

No doubt, Darwin inspired multitudes of artists...and Haeckel was a scientist that displayed his science as art, by artistic principles, not scientific principles. This was rather radical for a scientist of this era. His work is a phenomenal example of art nouveau.

With eyes wide open, your readership of science bloggers, magazines, fiction and nonfiction books and artbooks…and I emphasize artbooks…science will be even more beautiful than you had imagined. A needed visual lift if you are short on science.


  1. I just added Arrowsmith to my to-read list. Thanks!

  2. I'm sure your to-read list is long....let me know what you think. Thanks for reading.

  3. The blogosphere is where I do a lot of science-related reading. I find that science blogs are pretty straight to the point and are a great way to learn something new, fast.

    I really need to pick up a book every now and then... Perhaps ill try Arrowsmith?


  4. You are welcome Jeff and Peter. Thank you for reading.


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