The Science Writer Every Science Nerd Wants You to Read
A visit with David Quammen, who confronted in COVID a story that refused to stay at a safe distance
On a gray Montana morning, I sat with the science writer David Quammen in the office of his Bozeman home, each of us in opposite corners and wearing masks. Quammen’s rescue python, Boots, who was staring at us from inside his enclosure, arched up and flicked his tongue in my direction. An air filter whirred in the background: Quammen had only just recovered from COVID a couple of days before, and by the next day, he would test positive again in a case of Paxlovid rebound.
What a hacky, clickable headline this profile could end up having, I said: “David Quammen, Chronicler of COVID, Gave Me COVID.”
Thankfully, our precautions worked. Quammen, 74, is the favorite science writer of many people who don’t usually read science writing. He also happens to be the favorite science writer of many science writers, a foundational figure. Among the kinds of people who cover anything from space telescopes to treatment-resistant bacteria, Quammen is a writer to geek out over. He’s perhaps best known for his globe-trotting adventures, which makes it more than a little ironic that, this time, his subject has tracked him down here rather than the other way around. I scanned the room, jotting down details such as a framed portrait of a white-bearded Charles Darwin and the desk peppered with Post-it Notes. “Smart,” he said, watching me work. “Offices are information-rich environments.”
Quammen’s newest book, Breathless, which was recently shortlisted for the National Book Award, is the definitive account of how a little bundle of nucleic acid and protein called SARS-CoV-2 came to so upend our world, and the work of scientists to understand what it is, where it came from, and what to do. It was written almost exclusively in this room.
In many ways this new work is a culmination of the kind of books that Quammen has been producing for decades. It’s also a clear break from them: a science story that refused to stay at a safe distance, that has almost all the wonder and joy leached out of it, and that we all lived through and many of us would just as soon forget.
Let me come clean: I’m a fan. Quammen’s influence on the entire genre can be felt far and wide. Those viral New York Times stories about wacky animals with punning headlines? There’s some Quammen DNA in there, and in many other places.
His first nonfiction book, The Song of the Dodo, which was published in 1996, is seminal: a set of swashbuckling pilgrimages to Madagascar, Mauritius, the Amazon, the Aru Islands, and more, braided with the intellectual history of evolution and extinction and rapacious colonialism; all of it suffused with discovery and tragedy; and pulled together, like the rest of Quammen’s work, by the snarky, conversational tone of a guy who majored in English in New Haven and somehow can name-drop Heraclitus or Absalom, Absalom! without sounding pretentious.
The most pressing question I had for him about his new work had a setup like this: Song of the Dodo, like most great science or environmental writing, is propelled by both Oh wow and Oh no. In that case, the origin of awe-inspiring creatures on islands drives us to consider the incipient sixth mass extinction.
Or consider 2012’s Spillover, which introduced popular audiences to the dangers of new diseases crossing over from animal to human populations. There, Quammen braided together detective yarns about mystery illnesses with the Cassandra-esque warning from scientists that encroaching on ecosystems and cramming stressed creatures into markets could lead to the next pandemic. And now, of course, the new Breathless is a sort of Spillover sequel, wringing grim excitement out of the race to understand the SARS-CoV-2 virus, dedicated to its victims' surviving loved ones.
To me, though, COVID would seem to threaten the entire format. Perhaps one of the greatest living science writer’s longtime hook—as I started to sketch out to the man himself in his office—was to find enchantment in the places that might feel unknown to most readers, in the jungles and bazaars. Then he would leverage this curiosity and color in order to illuminate evolutionary and ecological cycles with grave importance.
But this virus wasn’t one ounce enchanting. I feel oddly guilty admitting it, but for much of the pandemic, the only feelings driving me to stay informed have been duty, self-protection, and dread. Here was an evolutionary story with almost no wonder left and much less safe distance for the audience to have fun with the intellectual history of remarkable ideas. It came into our homes, even our bodies. Many of us were the story. How could you write about it without breaking the Oh wow, Oh no balance? Or, a variant on the same question: In a year when things are getting so visibly, evidently worse, how could one of biology’s great modern chroniclers write about the bleak outlook for biodiversity? Or about the climate crisis?
We went back and forth on this point. Environmental degradation has been happening his whole life, he said. He hadn’t meant the takeaway from his work to be that all of this was out there, at a safe distance, an oddity to be discovered on safari; it had always been under the surface of all of our lives. Yes, he wanted even the ugliest story to read like a “guilty pleasure.” But this had always been about creating literary art out of hard facts for serious ends. If my sense was that the past few years had shattered the affluent science-book reader’s comfortable rationalization that Yeah, but this stuff probably won’t matter for me, Quammen’s answer was to say no: The idea that we were at a safe remove had already been a fantasy.
He said as much after we left his house and drove out that drizzly morning to do some hiking, both of us wearing masks in his RAV4 with the windows cracked. “You realize that ecology and conservation and evolutionary biology are not small subcategories of the field of biology, which is a small subcategory of human science, which is a small category of human endeavor,” he said. “It’s the other way around.”
The haunting first sections of Breathless drift among various disease researchers who had worried that something like this would happen, or who knew enough to start worrying when a mystery pneumonia cluster popped up in Wuhan in the final days of 2019. First, we meet someone smart. Then we watch as they take a tilt at the emerging virus, chipping off some hard-won fact or insight. Understanding builds up piece by piece as we watch over these experts’ shoulders.
In theory, it’s hard to imagine anyone better positioned to write this story. In the course of exploring how viruses leap from animals to people, Spillover had devoted an entire section to the original SARS outbreak of the early 2000s, a more fatal, less transmissible coronavirus that got snuffed out by good public policy before escaping into endemicity. Revisiting that reporting is eerie, and good luck getting a visa approved to do it now. He wrangled bats in a cave in southern China with coronavirus-hunting researchers, then visited a farm full of bamboo rats, the kind of market animal that could act as an evolutionary or geographic intermediary between a bat virus and humanity.
Toward the end of January 2020, Quammen weighed in on a then-emerging virus for The New York Times with his own uncertainty about how big a story this would be. “Six months from today, Wuhan pneumonia may be receding into memory. Or not.” He left home for a month in Tasmania researching Tasmanian devils beset by contagious face cancers, but spent much of that time answering media requests for commentary on the worsening situation. By mid-2020 he had dropped the devils and committed to a COVID book, he told me. But writing it demanded abandoning his typical approach.
For one, he needed to do his reporting over Zoom. His operating principle since The Song of the Dodo had been to hop on a plane. “If you’re writing about Komodo dragons, go to Komodo,” he said. The pandemic precluded travel, though, and he couldn’t see himself getting to the scrubbed, shut down Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market anytime soon. But perhaps he didn’t need to. Readers could be assumed to know much of the background and the dramatis personae already; no need to spend much time introducing Tony Fauci.
Then there was the science itself, which refused to stay still. New variants kept evolving into existence as he wrote. (The book ends with the rise of the original Omicron strain, for example.) Scientists, journalists, and politicians battled over whether COVID came from “a natural” origin or a lab leak, a debate that consumes Breathless’ s penultimate section. And considering that the virus had touched so many people and places—and with his reader’s confidence in institutional authority likely shaken—Quammen has difficulty finding a single trustworthy point of view to put at the center of the narrative.
Eyeing these constraints, Quammen settled on a reporting structure he hadn’t tried before: what he called a “Greek chorus” of Zoom interviews with 95 experts across the world, who are dutifully listed and credited in the back of the book. “More than fifty years ago, when I first read Faulkner and fell under his spell, the single impression that struck me most,” he writes on the book’s final page, “was that the truth of any event or person is fragmented.”
The result is a gripping, first-draft-of-history account of a virus’s first two years on Earth, pieced together from various lines of scientific evidence and then enlivened by metaphor. Quammen seems to know exactly how far into the weeds he can go—pretty far—before offering a change of pace. A few images hit me especially hard, none more so than an excursion into the conservation woes of pangolins, another possible intermediary mammal for coronavirus spillover. Quammen quotes a paper that described an illness in pangolins as rendering the animals “mostly inactive and sobbing,” before dying in custody “despite exhausting rescue efforts.” His response: “Sobbing might be taken as a metaphor for respiratory struggle, but then again, sometimes a sob is just a sob.”
Breathless, like the virus it depicts, is a dramatic culmination of an idea that Quammen introduced many of us to in Spillover: that the science story of viral ecology could very easily become the biggest story on planet Earth. Once that happened, though, it wasn’t just a science story, a complexity that Quammen acknowledges while still mostly sticking to technical matters. Politics and public health and a zillion other dimensions came into play, as did a new, forced intimacy that almost all of us bring to the subject matter. A subtle refrain echoes throughout the book, typically after a flourish of scientific detective work. “Meanwhile,” Quammen will write, “people were dying.”
On the way to Montana with my advance copy of Breathless, another gimmick had occurred to me. Here I was flying out to Quammen in much the same way Quammen might approach a Komodo dragon: as a larger-than-life character who might shed insight on an underlying reality. In this case, the matter of What It Means to Write and Read Science Today.
Of course, this necessitated seeing him in his natural habitat, not just in the office. After our chat in his office, we drove south of town to the Gallatin River and pulled into a turnout by the side of the highway. Then we stood on the riverbank, trucks roaring behind us. This was an important place from his old white-water-kayaking days, he told me. When I asked him to annotate what he saw, he responded with three sequential stories about a boulder in the water named House Rock.
The first was embodied, kinetic, personal. As you move through a calm stretch of water toward this rock and the surrounding white water in a kayak, tension builds, like a roller coaster inching past the apex of the track. But long ago, a veteran kayaker had helped him thread a safe route through. This sealed what would be a 20-year passion for white-water kayaking, even though he’s since aged out of it, and it may explain why he had brought the city-slicker youngster writing his profile out here.
The second story was grim but memorable. One time, as he reached this spot, he saw a search team in orange vests pulling out the skeleton of a college student who had been killed about a year earlier in a drunken misadventure. Then, a little while later, a friend of Quammen’s spilled out of his boat right nearby. The friend caught himself in the rocks, and seemed to be rooting around before he joined the rest of their regular kayaking gang with a “gruesome smile.” In his hand, the friend held the college student’s missing jawbone, which they took back to town and gave to the coroner.
“And all that was probably more than you asked for,” he said, but of course we were also in Montana in fall with the forests already reddening, and in his head he held a browsable library of optional ecological context. “I also see, you know, these cottonwoods, and there’s an ouzel, a bird, working underwater here,” he said, pointing.
Quammen was using his old formula. Here the world had worn a little thin and we could see hidden things showing through. Here, adventure, raw narrative, and ambient nature were all frothing around a real place governed, like the rest of physical reality, by both contingent circumstance and the laws of science. Writer to writer, I found this and the rest of my time with Quammen inspirational, thrilling. I also thought, later on: I don’t know if there will be another David Quammen.
Science writing as a larger guild is in a tricky spot. It’s needed, yes. Future viral outbreaks are assured, ecosystems are collapsing, and the climate crisis rages on. But conspiracy-minded politics, the ceaseless chaos of social media, and a rising skepticism toward expertise make it harder than ever for anyone to establish themselves as a trustworthy source of information.
“I’m just an English major who has written a bunch of books and magazine articles,” Quammen told me. Any authority he had was only on loan, borrowed from the chorus of actual experts he had spoken with, their data, and their interpretations. “I’ve tried to give people what I think we need, which is thoroughness, respect for scientific expertise, respect for the provisionality of science, a little bit of skeptical humor,” he said. “And respect for a diversity of opinions.”
Another threat to the genre, more prosaic but no less consequential, is that the economics of it aren’t quite working out.
In quick succession after I left Quammen’s company, a gifted, entrepreneurial freelancer, Marion Renault—maybe the younger science writer I most admire—posted a series of tweets about how financial insecurity and the overall precarity of their work had forced them to step back from the business. Then Gimlet Media laid off the staff of a climate podcast. A few weeks earlier, six editors had been laid off at National Geographic, the outlet that about two decades ago had offered Quammen three round-trip business-class tickets to Africa for the story that spawned the idea that led to Spillover and subsequently Breathless. (He opted to fly coach instead and do more reporting, he said. Learning about that era in journalism felt like learning that in the Carboniferous Period, there had been so much oxygen in the air that dragonflies could have two-foot wingspans, I said.)
After the rock, we moved to a nearby parking lot, then started hiking uphill, Quammen testing out a pair of surgically replaced knees. On the way back down he pointed out to me a tiny spruce tree growing, improbably, atop a boulder. It reminded him of a landscape in Yellowstone National Park, a place where he has reported extensively, and where he would have taken me if recent, extreme rains hadn’t washed away parts of the most convenient road.
He described it instead. A wide open valley of grass and scattered boulders called “glacial erratics.” Each boulder has one tree nestled up right next to it, as if the rock had slid into a tree and stopped. “What does that represent?” he asked. “It represents the fact that this is such a severe environment that a Douglas fir cannot get started through the sapling phase without a rock to hide behind.”
Not to overburden those trees in that valley, but later the idea of the tree nurseries seemed to represent a lot of things, among them both the fragments of wonder still left in the natural world and the persistence of a scattered few good science writers to examine what’s happening out there. The tall, established trees were hanging on; for any new ones to have any chance, though, they needed luck, privilege, shelter. We kept walking. I asked him what he thought the fate of that ecosystem might be.
“It may be that you come through there 40 years from now, and you see all these big glacial erratics and standing next to each one of them is a dead snag of a previously living Douglas fir,” he said. We continued down, and I continued to prod him about science writing in a world ruled by more and more unhinged ecological, evolutionary, and environmental cycles, and he gently pushed back.
“Things are still funny, and joyous, and wonderful,” he said, turning out to the healthy forest around us. “This day—this day is not sad.”
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