Saturday, August 21, 2010

Albert-Lazlo Barabasi's new book, "Bursts," and the problem with 'science writing'

While I was riding long-distance buses around Central America, I read Albert-Lazlo Barabasi's new book, Bursts. My friend, Larry Liebovitch, had recommended that I read Barabasi's first book, Linked, but I hadn't gotten around to it. Now I regret my oversight.

It's easy to say that Barabasi writes well for a physicist, but that doesn't do him justice. In truth, he writes well for a novelist. More impressive, the book has a complex novelistic structure with multiple storylines interwoven in a way that successfully builds the tension to climax and denouement. He combines a fascinating historical narrative with excellent science journalism about the work he's been doing on the timing of human activity and patterns of human movement, especially Levy flights. And he doesn't just report on the social physics as a reviewer, he went and interviewed the other physicists and provides all manner of human interest stories about them. I was entranced by some of the background stories about people I know, like Gene Stanley.

This is some of the best science writing I've ever read. The only things that even come close are John McPhee's writings and the book 1491. And Barabasi has the advantage of actually being a distinguished physicist who was involved in the original research, so there's no question that he understands the technical details and the intellectual issues. To this we have to add the advantage that he is a Hungarian from Transylvania. Why would this matter? Well, he chose to interweave throughout the book a remarkable historical narrative about Hungary and Romania from the sixteenth century, and since he's from that region, he was able to use a wide variety of primary and secondary sources in the original languages. The historical episode he traces--a Crusade nominally against the Ottomans in eastern Europe--is fascinating, and I'm surprised I didn't know anything about it.

The other book I brought with me couldn't have offered a sharper contrast. The Best of the Best American Science Writing was a disappointment. The book is a compilation of the essays from previously published collections of essays from the annual series The Best American Science Writing 2006, 2007, etc. As I read this book, I couldn't help but think, "When did the term 'science writing' come to mean dumbed-down human-interest features journalism about science?" With the exception of a few essays, such as Ernst Mayr's, almost all the stories were mere pablum, and in my opinion some were not even well written while others were wrong or, sadly, even anti-scientific. The scientific content of most of the essays was almost nil, and I don't think I have a blinkered view of what constitutes science. Forgive me for being old fashioned or narrow-minded, but I still think of "science writing" as reports or commentaries by scientists about original research. The current belief that actual scientific discourse is unreadable and needs to translated into some other genre is both false and deleterious because it deprives society of direct access to critical information and ideas. It is false because many scientists can write well and exert great effort to communicate clearly and creatively. So there isn't any need for translators who dumb stuff down. The portrait of the scientist as illiterate is as false as any stereotype. The average scientist is probably an average writer, and since science is an international collaboration, many scientists who publish in English are writing in a second language, which doesn't make for great prose. In addition, good writing is not usually a key criterion for publication in science journals. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of original scientific articles are published each year, and in that thick forest there are many beautiful trees: well-written, interesting, and intellectually significant essays. Why no one publishes an anthology of those, I don't know. In support of my argument, I only need to point to Barabasi's book. He's a physicist, for heaven's sake, perhaps the most impenetrable of the sciences. English must not be his first language. It might be his third or fourth. His work is largely mathematical. How could he write a book of general interest about it? But he has. And the book makes intellectually important points that his peer-reviewed articles don't. Only in the book does he describe the broader significant of his research and reveal that it is an organized program of investigation. The individual articles only hint at these broader themes.

So, if any publisher out there wants to start a series of the best of real science writing, let me know. I'd be happy to edit the first volume or two. Click on the title of this post to go to the Amazon page for Barabasi's book.

PS. My admiraton for Barabasi's book has nothing to do with the fact that he cited my Levy flights article! I swear.

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