Monday, February 16, 2015

Great Science Writing: Introduction

Some years ago, in these pages, I wrote about "the problem with science writing." Here is an excerpt from my rant.
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.
So, I was delighted to see a note in the journal Nature calling for beautiful scientific prose. The note is actually about a discussion surrounding a blog post on the topic, but still...better than a Tweet on the same subject.

The blog post, by biologist Stephen Heard, is actually in two parts. Part I is here and Part II, here. In the first part, he excerpts and discusses some of Nabokov's (yes, that Nabokov) scientific writings--he was a lepidopterist.

Heard starts by saying,
I have been wanting to start a new series here on my blog about examples of great writing in scientific publications.  There is a lot out there on great science writing.  But that is not what I am writing about here.  I mean actual scientific research papers where the writing itself is exceptional. 

I couldn't agree more. I discovered, after a little digging, that Heard also published a paper on this topic in Ideas in Ecology and Evolution (Vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 64-72) entitled "On whimsy, jokes, and beauty: can scientific writing be enjoyed?". Copies of the article are available online, including at the journal website. In the article, as in the blog posts, Heard argues that beauty and humor can recruit readers to a text and encourage them to read the whole. He recommends writing clearly but "with occasional nuggets of playfulness or glints of beauty."

While I agree with most of what he wrote, I think there is a stronger form of his theorem, if you will. Beautiful, metaphorical, and even humorous writing are modes of communication. I would argue that the use of a variety of tropes, including metaphors, similes, and even symbolism can actually improve the effectiveness of communication. So, playfulness, beauty, and humor need not be mere ornaments placed to adorn boring prose to relieve the reader's tedium; they can be, and in some cases, should be, essential elements of the rhetoric.

Let me offer just one example, from  "Disintegration of Uranium by Neutrons: A New Type of Nuclear Reaction" by Lise Meitner and O. R. Frisch (Nature Vol. 143, pp. 239-240, 1939). The article is the first report of nuclear fission, or perhaps it would be truer to say that it is the first correct explanation of the then newly observed phenomenon of nuclear fission. Meitner was a distinguished Austrian physicist who was only the second woman to receive a doctorate in physics from the University of Vienna. One of her collaborators received a Nobel prize for their work on fission, but she was overlooked.
On account of their close packing and strong energy exchange, the particles in a heavy nucleus would be expected to move in a collective way which has some resemblance to the movement of a liquid drop. If the movement is made sufficiently violent by adding energy, such a drop may divide itself into two smaller drops.
    In the discussion of the energies involved in the deformation of nuclei, the concept of surface tension of nuclear matter has been used and its value has been estimated from from simple considerations regarding nuclear forces. It must be remembered, however, that the surface tension of a charged droplet is diminished by its charge, and a rough estimate shows that he surface tension of nuclei, decreasing with increasing nuclear charge, may become zero for atomic numbers of the order of 100 (Meitner and Frisch 1939:239).
It seems to me that the use of the metaphor of a "drop," while highly evocative, is not merely an ornamental flourish. Rather, it is very precisely employed by Meitner to describe and envisage the phenomenon; moreover, it is used productively to explain and communicate the character of the phenomenon by analogy. Note that the comparison of an atomic nucleus to a droplet of liquid is not literally true: Meitner used a metaphor. A metaphor is rhetorical device, not an objective description.

So, even in this very staid physics article from 1939, which in general is written in the most conventional style, we witness the use of rhetorical devices to aid the reader's comprehension. I assert that metaphors, as well as allied rhetorical devices and tropes, are actually part of the traditional armament that scientists deploy in their writing. One could delve into the linguistics literature on metaphor to prove the significance as well as the ubiquity of metaphor in communication, but I hope that is not necessary.

I should say that I chose this article somewhat at random. It's obviously a very important article--it reports the discovery of nuclear fusion, after all--and presumably it is well-known to physicists, but less so to archaeologists like me.

The traditional ideal of scientific writing elevates clarity above all else, and uses simplicity to achieve clarity. But it also pretends to objectivity and authority. Guides to science writing, amazingly, still argue for the use of passive and neutral constructions to create the illusion of objectivity and authority. Saying "the reagent was added to the solution" is supposed to convey objectivity and authority, as opposed to the more natural and honest "I added the reagent to the solution." I think that using the first person and the active voice is clearer and more honest than a rhetorical pretense of authority. Authority comes from honesty and truth; it does not need to be dressed up and paraded out in an awkward voice. A scientist's first duty is to truth, and that trumps style. If the truth is that the reagent was added by an undergraduate who blew up the lab twice before he got it right, then that should be so stated.

I plan to occasionally post scientific articles with interesting prose to remind us of what we can, and perhaps should, be doing.

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