JR Minkel, You Are Missed Already

Let me share what is probably the worst thing JR Minkel ever wrote:

Who is this JR Minkel?

I’m a lab technician and freelance journalist based in Nashville, Tennessee. From 2006 to 2008 I worked as a web news reporter for Scientific American. Before that, I wrote for a number of popular science magazines. I’ve written one book, Instant Egghead Guide: The Universe. This is my blog. It reflects my current interest in the role of science in our collective construction of meaning.

See what I mean? Too flat, too colorless. It completely misses the verve, the spark, the vitality of its subject. He let his natural modesty overrun his truth-telling journalistic instincts and he left out all the good stuff. It ought to have a flavor more like, “Who is this JR Minkel? I’m a post-modern intellectual samurai and science-writing stealth weapon is who—and if you give me that look again I’ll deconstruct your questionable gender identity faster than you can spell ‘Derrida,'” except not that, because it should be what JR would write which would just be better. Aren’t you paying attention at all?

This past week, those of us who knew JR have been sore at heart with the knowledge that we lost him, irrevocably. JR had family and friends who were genuinely close to him; I won’t insult the honor of those relationships by pretending that I knew him better than I did. I was one of his bosses back during the days he worked at Scientific American, but we also talked a lot about things that had nothing to do with the job because we had a similar sense of humor and we shared an interest in martial arts. Over the past year or so, as I became more active again in social media, we struck up our acquaintance all over again. I always admired him.

Boing Boing noted his passing by calling him a “rising star,” a description he deserved. Look at the clarity and concision with which he handled this story on epigenetics for SciAm last year, “How Acquired Diseases Become Hereditary Diseases,” for example.

One of the primary goals of genetics over the past decade has been to understand human health and disease in terms of differences in DNA from person to person. But even a relatively straightforward trait such as height has resisted attempts to reduce it to a particular combination of genes. In light of this shortcoming, some investigators see room for an increased focus on an alternative explanation for heritable traits: epigenetics, the molecular processes that control a gene’s potential to act. Evidence now suggests that epigenetics can lead to inherited forms of obesity and cancer.

But if you want a more true sense of who he was—and how much potential he was still grooming—go to his brilliantly named web site A Fistful of Science. That’s where you can see his self-deprecating humor and honesty, and the breadth of his interests. He was a postmodern libertarian-turned-socialist who had gone through a few personal epiphanies on the subject of gender politics and believed we should all wake up. Read what he wrote on “Gender performativity for science geeks (aka: Let them wear drag).” Or “Forget science vs. postmodernism; give me pushback against the status quo.” Or “Why I don’t buy – or maybe just don’t care – that xenophobia is an evolutionary adaptation.” Or (and you know I enjoyed this one) “Want: Ray Kurzweil to proselytize about climate change.” Or any of the rest.

Was JR original in a way that only highly smart people can be? Or was he smart in a way that only highly original people can be? I never cracked that nut.

Back before PLoS Blogs started, when I was writing more for my own web site, JR was at least indirectly responsible for two of my most popular posts (both of which I’ve since ported here to this site, where they enjoyed waves of popularity all over again.) JR brought to my attention an article on the subject of insects as a food source because he knew I’d eaten insects at an entomology banquet in the 1990s, which inspired me to write about it. And because I knew of his interest in the science underlying the martial arts (which I think he at least toyed with writing a book about), I had him in mind when I wrote my post about the physics of karate board-breaking.

At the time of his death, JR had plans. He had asked me to write him some recommendation letters for doctoral programs, which of course I’d been happy to do. Here’s what he said about his goals:

My overarching interests are social change in general and climate activism in particular. I believe that deliberate social change has to emerge from individual change, in the sense that individual minds have to come to view the world in new ways. I want to understand how individuals make the cognitive switch from being politically inactive or unaware to politically active and engaged. […] My idea is to conduct a series of case studies of individuals who have made the cognitive switch I’m talking about. My goal would be to publish these stories and/or use them to develop more effective ways of reaching out to those who are politically undecided.

Damn. Society would have been better off if he’d done that research. Someone else will need to do it now.

The most poignant and frank statement about JR was—of course—something he wrote last summer for Ed Yong’s terrific post at Not Exactly Rocket Science “On the Origin of Science Writers.” This is closer to the real answer to “Who is this JR Minkel?” All the brains, honesty, generosity and vulnerability are on display there. They always were.

I got into science writing on a whim. I was an undergraduate working in a biology lab, and one of the post-docs showed me the web site for the UC Santa Cruz science writing program. She must have known it would speak to me, because I immediately decided I would become a science writer. I had always been a good writer, and I had an interest in geeky things like evolution and philosophy of mind. This was primarily because of my dad, a long time Sci Am subscriber whose bookshelves were stocked with science and science fiction.

In my imagination, being a science writer meant I would become a famous essayist like Stephen Jay Gould. It didn’t occur to me I would be doing journalism until I found myself in the department of journalism at NYU, as a student in the Science and Environmental Reporting Program. After graduating, I freelanced successfully for five years, mostly for magazines, then took a job writing daily news for SciAm.com. Now I’m working in a biology lab again and freelancing a little on the side.

I am probably a bit unusual among the people posting their stories here, in that I don’t know how much longer I will remain a science writer. I’m just not in a position to write the kinds of stories I would want to read, at least not for pay. For someone starting out, I would recommend they follow Ivan Oransky’s advice. Take a job at a publication that values strong reporting. Learn from your editors. The writing will come, if you work at it — it’s the reporting that’s key. You have to stay skeptical, particularly when reporting on biomedicine and human behavior. The more you can separate hype from reality, the better you will serve your readers.

Good luck.

You, too, JR.

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19 Responses to JR Minkel, You Are Missed Already

  1. Nikhil Swaminathan says:

    Boy definitely had some talent, didn’t he? And what you quoted of his planned research is better formed that what he told me. I wish he’d undertaken it, as well. This is all such a shame.
    Thanks for writing this, John. You were someone JR held in extremely high regard. I’m sure he knew it was mutual.


  2. Ed says:

    Thank you for this. There are plenty of us who only knew JR peripherally but were aware of his humour and talent. A post like this seems a more fitting tribute than a standard obit.

  3. Ivan Oransky says:

    Beautiful, John, a fitting and bittersweet tribute. As incredibly flattering as it is that someone with JR’s talent and potential would cite my advice, it also made me wince in sadness. I was hoping — and planning — to heed the advice of this rising star for years to come.

    Farewell, JR.

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  5. David Kroll says:

    Heartbreaking, John, but a lovely tribute. I never had the pleasure of knowing JR – my condolences to all of you who did.

  6. gregdowney says:

    I agree with David; it’s sometimes sad that we only learn more about the more human side of the talented people whose voices we read when they leave us.

    It reminds me of something one of our fellow PLoS bloggers said as we were communicating for launch that really took me by surprise: I can’t remember who it was now, but they emphasized how sharing our own stories with our readers was important. I had never thought of that, preferring to mostly hide behind my writing.

    In contrast, checking out JR’s website deeper, he really shared a lot of himself, his sense of humor, and his personality in his writing. I’m sure that those of you who know him personally have a much fuller sense, but I can’t help but like him more, the more I read of his writing. It’s a great reminder to recognize the humanity behind all the things we read in this informavore virtual world.

    My condolences to his family and close friends.

  7. Brandon Keim says:

    Thank you for this, John.

    Bye, J.R. Godspeed.

  8. Wendy Sullivan says:

    John, I am JR’s sister. I wanted to let you know what a comfort your words have been to our family. There were three things laid with him during the viewing. Two items of personal family significance, and several pages of the outpourings online of his friends, family and colleagues. Your words were on the top of these pages. We had been asked to encapsulate JR for the pastor who barely knew him and we tried, in our grief and confusion to do so. I picked up the pages that you had written and it was as if my brother were standing before me again. This was my brother at his best. This was my brother when all systems were go, all pistons firing. At our request the pastor changed her eulogy to include your description of him, as well as his own description of himself. The eulogy was richer and more genuine for it. Thank you so much for taking the time to use your abilities and gifts to put into words what we had been unable to. You gave me my brother, for one more moment, as I want to remember him.

    • John Rennie says:

      Wendy, thank you very much for taking time at this difficult moment to write to me. Your note leaves me at a loss for words, except to say that I’m grateful if what I pulled together was helpful to you and your family.

      As you know, tonight many of us who loved JR will be getting together to celebrate him together, in one of his favorite places. We’ll be thinking of you.

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  10. Jose Maria says:

    You are unique, dear John. Friend of your friends, kind, and smart colleague. I can testify of tour generosity from Spain. I used to be an enthusiastic reader of Minkel stories, and I remember the article you quote as a model of science writing. My condolence to the family.

  11. Roger Budd says:

    Love you Mink

  12. Heartworks says:

    Thank you John for your words. As a long time friend of JR’s it was your words that brought me to tears at the memorial service. JR grew so much over the 12 plus years I knew him. He was kinder, more loving, and sadly, more troubled in the last year than all the time before. I miss him so much. He was Just Right.

  13. Brad Cunnin says:

    Thanks, John, for the eulogy and directions to some of his words. His website has gone down, as of 17 April. It there a way that we can contribute to paying to keep it up? I tried online, but you need passwords, etc. I wonder if you would mind using a bit of your status to contact the domain holder, and let us fund it’s resurrection, as a tribute to JRM? It can’t be much. Perhaps his family would/estate would allow that? Thanks, again. (And for your years at SA, too)

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