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Brains and Beakers: Secrets Of Science Reporting

By Kendrick Calkins

Alexis Madrigal has been called “the perfect modern reporter.” He’s written for The New York TimesWired, and is now a senior editor of the Atlantic magazine, where he runs their technology section. He recently joined us at, Brains and Beakers, Youth Radio’s regular gathering where we hear from some of the biggest scientific thinkers, right here in our Oakland studios.

What exactly do whales see? Why is there sand in toothpaste? How do you come up with science stories from the comfort of your own home? Alexis shared his secrets of science writing with the newsroom at Youth Radio.

We’re journalists-in-training, and Alexis gave us some very simple advice on how to come up with our own unique story ideas: look closely at the fine print that’s all around us. To demonstrate this point, Alexis brought a tube of kids’ toothpaste and challenged us to pitch story ideas about it, on the spot. How does toothpaste get its distinct texture? Turns out, he says, it’s partly from a type of sand, and partly from something called diatoms, fossils of prehistoric algae. We also workshopped story ideas for the common Q-tip and Google Glass.

Alexis encouraged us to follow our interests– instead of the herd– to generate new and unexpected stories. My favorite example is his article on how whales see. We, as humans, see three base colors: blue, green, and red. But whales only see in shades of gray. To a whale, that expanse of blue we call the ocean looks like a black abyss with gray fish and gray seals darting by. Alexis also explained how his piece on whale vision is a good metaphor for thinking about stories.

After meeting with Alexis, I found myself seeing story ideas everywhere. I saw the leaves in my backyard and asked myself, why do the leaves from one tree decompose, but not the leaves from the other? I glanced at my dog’s heart-shaped tag accompanied by a bone-shaped one and wondered, what’s the point of the tags if he has a chip with all his information on it under his skin?

I have a new way to see the world we live in, and it’s full of stories.

More from Youth Radio’s science desk here, including past Brains and Beakers: Raps on Science, Green Chemistry, and the Science of Taste.