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NPR Science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce's new book takes a personal turn

NPR Science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce has a new book called, “Transient and Strange: Notes on the Science of Life.”

It’s a "collection of powerful, emotionally raw, and unforgettable personal essays, [involving her family] that probe the places where science touches our lives most intimately," according to a review on her website.

Recently, KJZZ host Tom Maxedon had the opportunity to talk with her for KJZZ’s “Word” podcast about literature. The conversation began by discussing how she approaches her reporting in general, knowing that many audiences might not have a strong science background.  

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Oh, that's not a problem. Because science is something that I think a lot of people do have a certain amount of background in, whether it's school or mucking around in the woods, or just observing things. It is always possible to find some touchstone, something that you can use to sort of ground people into understanding what you're talking about. I mean, so many things that people have experience with in their life, you can use as metaphors. You can use as sort of like a comparison of things. And so, I think that people are actually pretty informed about science, or at least scientific thinking. And I find it just wildly fun to talk about some of this stuff. I there's very rarely something where I think, wow, that's just like, too complicated. We can't do that.  

TOM MAXEDON: I love how you mix metaphor and observation and personal anecdotes in your new book, “Transient and Strange: Notes on the Science of Life.” Like the opening chapter, for instance, you describe your son's interest in tornadoes, and how one might depict such on TV. How did you come up with that approach for this book?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, I didn't really set out to write a book, I was writing some essays for a website that a friend of mine runs, and I found the whole thing much more interesting and engaging than I had anticipated. You know, for NPR, I do a lot of straight reporting. But this kind of writing — personal essays — is very different.

And so that essay, in particular about my son's phobia that he developed of tornadoes, and just sort of trying to deal with that, and trying to figure out like, how to talk to him about tornadoes, and this sort of threat of random obliteration, which is a real threat. And like, what am I going to tell him? It's never going to happen? Like, I don't know that, but at the same time, it seems very unlikely.

So as part of that, I got really interested in the history of tornado science. And I called up one of the nation's top tornado experts to talk to him about like, what does he think I should tell my kid, and so it just, it turned out to be like a very curious and interesting way of writing about things. And I found it super fun. And I hope people get something out of it.

MAXEDON: You took me to a place in the last section that I certainly did not expect to travel as it's couched in the topic of eugenics, and the anecdote that you use about kidneys. Talk to us a little bit about that, and how delicate it was for you to approach that topic.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Sure. You know, I've reported on the Human Genome Project and genetics, basically my whole career. And I also have an appreciation of the history of genetics, including some dark aspects of its history, namely, the eugenics movement, which I think a lot of Americans are not as aware as maybe they should be about this painful chapter in science and medicine and the effect it had on many thousands of Americans.

And so, this essay is a story about me and my husband contemplating having kids and thinking about the various options we had to avoid passing on a gene that could cause serious kidney disease, and it was very difficult for me to go through that process without reflecting on some of the connections between what happened in history and what people are faced with today, when they have to make these, you know, very personal, very difficult decisions.

And so, you know, it was a strange essay to write. It is very personal, obviously, but I can only report on sort of what I experienced and my reflections, and people will make of it what they will.

TM: Nell, thank you so much for joining us. I appreciate it.

NG: Thanks for having me.

You can hear a longer conversation with Nell Greenfieldboyce and Tom Maxedon on KJZZ’s “Word” podcast about literature.  

Tom Maxedon was the host of KJZZ’s Weekend Edition from 2017 to 2024.