Science books by scientists often win the Pulitzer for non-fiction, but this year’s winner, Tom’s River, is a work of science journalism, and showcases just how much a great journalist can accomplish. The book details a long, complicated investigation into what appeared to be an unusual “cluster” of childhood cancer in a New Jersey shore town with a history of chemical pollution.
There’s a nice excerpt here in Salon, which gives a sense of how unwieldy the subject was and the impossibility of a neat, clear-cut conclusion. The author, Dan Fagin, confronts the complexity of the situation, making it comprehensible by digging deep into the history of the region as well as the history of epidemiology and statistics.
According to his bio, Dan Fagin spent 14 years as an environment reporter for Newsday. He is now the director of NYU’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.
The New York Times featured a review that was both glowing and tantalizing:
Mr. Fagin, an experienced environmental reporter who now teaches journalism at New York University, could have braided together three or four standard narrative strands into a perfectly serviceable book, starting with factory air so polluted it dissolved the nylon stockings off women’s legs and ending with dying children, anguished parents, industrial cover-ups.
Instead, he chose to weave entire tapestries of gorgeous subplot, among them a short history of the European dye industry, a longer exploration of industrial waste management, a detailed review of the molecular basis of cancer, and a careful history of occupational health, whose parent, the slightly deranged 16th-century iconoclast Paracelsus, presciently pointed out that any substance could be a poison in the right dose.
It’s a good day for science journalism when a book like this is honored. Congratulations to Mr. Fagin.