The RRJ recommends you check out “The Unseen” by Raffi Khatchadourian, from the June 20, 2016 issue of The New Yorker
Most people I know don’t care about science. At least, they care pretty peripherally, in the “actually you hate cilantro because of your genes” way. They might buy into a cleanse. Maybe they’ll enjoy watching The Martian, or know some stuff about the hippocampus, but they don’t really care about science.
Until I read “The Unseen,” I was one of those people.
As one of three daughters, I was the least interested in science. Well, I was as not-science-y as a child of two smart X-ray technicians can be (thanks for all the talk about cancer and pneumonia over breakfast mom and dad). In fact, I took every humanities class offered and dropped the science courses as soon as I could. I ended up as the only family member to pursue an undergrad that wasn’t in science. I know quite a lot about cell biology because of countless hours spent proofreading my sister’s papers about caspases and fluid-phase uptake, but honestly, how much can you truly relate to endocytosis?
Raffi Khatchadourian’s “The Unseen,” published in June by the New Yorker, is about people who are hard to understand (scientists) talking about rocket science (in this case, microbiology). It tells the story of Kim Lewis, a distinguished professor filled with beautiful quotes and analogies, and of Slava Epstein, a travel and tango-addicted Russian-American who discovered “not a new species, not a new genus,” but a new class of ciliates. Both men are said to be “accustomed to ingenuity born out of limitation.” (How do I hijack this writer’s brain?)
These two scientists come together to tackle the Great Plate Count Anomaly (if you don’t know what that is look it up). They create a new device called the iChip, and share a Russian background, and in between all that, they discover a new microbe. Khatchadourian tells a gripping tale of immigration, resistance, genius, struggle and, above all, pure excitement. It is about fantastically nerdy scientists doing fantastically nerdy things. Both the story, as well as what these scientists have been able to achieve and the exact ramifications of what that means for humanity, are nearly unfathomable if not for Khatchadourian’s masterful guidance.
I was so excited, I cried. I gripped the bars of the train, not for balance but for composure (I found none. Sorry, surrounding TTC riders), and wept. I wasn’t sad, exactly, as much as I was shattered into a million pieces by the boundlessness of the human experience despite its tiny population compared to the earth’s dark matter, microbes, which outnumber us by one to 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000-to-one (or so). I was so excited I started believing that good science writing, the craft of taking really complicated things and making them poignant, was the ultimate self-actualization of a feature writer. I was so excited I started hungrily consuming science journals and trying to teach myself physics. I was so excited I went and got a job as a science journalist (hey send me tips I’m an intern at Vice’s Motherboard now). If that’s not geekdom at its finest, then I don’t know what is.
So yes, I credit Raffi Khatchadourian with initiating my speedy descent (rise?) into nerdom. If he ever reads this, I’d like the record to show that I meant that as a compliment.