‘Hot Carbon,’ by Professor John Marra, Nominated for PEN Literary Science Writing Award

Professor John Marra, author of "Hot Carbon: Carbon-14 and a Revolution in Science"

Professor John Marra’s (GC/Brooklyn, Biology, Earth and Environmental Sciences) nonfiction book, Hot Carbon: Carbon-14 and a Revolution in Science, was nominated for the 2020 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award.
 
Marra’s book, published by Columbia University Press, was longlisted alongside works by David Wallace-Wells, Nathaniel Rich, and Bill Bryson. The award, which will be announced in March, carries a $10,000 prize and recognizes a book that exemplifies literary excellence and communicates complex scientific concepts to a lay audience.
 
Through a series of narratives, the book tells how carbon-14, a radioactive isotope of carbon, has touched almost every field of science. Though best known for its use in carbon dating — which has revealed new chronologies of human civilization and geological time — carbon-14 is used in fields ranging from oceanography to climatology, and has been applied to studies on nuclear testing, the peopling of the Americas, elephant poaching, and the flax plants used for the linen in the Shroud of Turin.
 
Marra, who is also the director of Brooklyn College’s Aquatic Research and Environmental Assessment Center, has used carbon-14 in his research for almost his entire career, he said. When he realized that no one had told the story of carbon-14 from its discovery, which earned Nobel Prizes for Melvin Calvin and Willard Libby, he decided to do so in a way that would reach a nonscientific audience.
 
“Translating complex scientific ideas is necessary whether talking to students, writing for scientific peers, or in teaching,” said Marra. “Sometimes the trick is to use an analogy to make things more familiar to those unacquainted with the topic or idea. And I find it fun to think of these, although I admit I’m still learning!”
 
Marra particularly enjoyed writing about how carbon-14 was used to cover the pathway of carbon in photosynthesis. “It was a puzzle for me to try to present it for a non-scientific audience, while at the same time be scientifically correct,” he said.
 
For scientists who are considering writing for a nonacademic audience, he advises: “Tell stories, write about people as much as information, and write in an accessible — not scholarly style. Steer clear of jargon. Some redundancy is okay. Of course, that doesn’t mean repetition. It means finding alternative ways to make the same points.” 

Submitted on: DEC 20, 2019

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