I write book, magazine articles, and a blog on science, medicine, and culture, contributing regularly to publications such as the New York Times Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, Slate, Scientific American, and Scientific American Mind where I'm a contributing editor.
Sometimes people ask I write about science and medicine. For a long time I replied that I found intriguing the puzzles that scientists and doctors face and try to solve. That certainly holds; there's no detective story more gripping than the effort to crack a tough scientific problem or save the life of a patient whose illness defies the usual measures.
Yet as I write more about these subjects, whether it be a 19th-century argument about coral reefs (Reef Madness), a 20th-century argument about how to count fish (The Great Gulf), brain surgery for depression, or the biology of fear, I increasingly appreciate what science and medicine can reveal about our culture. I don't want to call it "science criticism," as one talks about art or literary criticism, but I think that looking at science and medicine and how they are done and received can show us as much about our culture as can critiquing books, movies, music, or art.
The way we view mood and its disorders, for instance, whether as scientists or lay people, reveals much about how we think about how the mind works, about our sense of responsibility for one's actions, about how tightly or loosely our characters are dictated by our biology, and about how much power we have to change our own thoughts and actions. Likewise, whether we favor fighting malaria with expensive vaccine programs or cheap (but effective) mosquito netting says a lot about our values and our sense of what sort of solutions are most valuable. There, as elsewhere, we tend to favor the expensive tech fix rather than the simple.
Or consider memory. One of my richest reading pleasures was reading Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, a splendid meditation on (among other things) solitude, loneliness, society, and the unique world that memory creates for each of us. I've rarely read anything so deeply immersive or so revealing about how our minds work. Yet my appreciation of Proust, and of memory, is only magnified by learning about the science of memory. We learn -- we memorize and recall -- via a gorgeous cascade of synaptic and genetic interaction that can sear into our minds the sound of a clarinet or the lovely swing of Ken Griffey -- or recall, in a flood of remembrance, the lights, voices, and very air that surrounded us years ago when we sipped a certain tea whose scent, now unexpectedly countered, takes us rushing back. The science behind such memories is as rich and informative about who we are as is the phenomenology -- the feel of it -- described so beautifully by Proust.
Thus my transformation from literature major to a writer who writes about science. I don't think "science writer" quite a fair label actually; like "southern novelist," it implies limits and a parochialism that may not hold. Good writing about science, like good writing about baseball, pig farming, politics, or art, is about just about everything.