Monday, August 14, 2006

Metaphors in science writing

Roald Hoffmann on science writing:

Science writing is inherently pedagogical. And the scientist-writer will be able to both express and understand the specialized science he or she does more clearly as a consequence of the act of writing. Let me explain.

Our minds are full of inchoate ideas, inklings and partial explanations. Once verbalized, at a research-group meeting, for instance, or in the process of writing a paper, the ideas become real. Being human, we then marshal support, adduce arguments. The scientific paper explains. It has to teach—and to teach one must use those slippery words, eternally straying, lacking fidelity to the idea. But it is only with words that the removed reader may be reached. I see no dichotomy between teaching and research, only a continually varying set of audiences.

Good science writing has the audience firmly in mind—it teaches you (and a good editor can help so much) to teach others. This is not the mindless teaching of techniques or arid tables of dates and names: That requires neither acuity nor imagination. Rather, the act of skillful writing schools its author in ways of explaining structure and significance, of explaining ideas. Which is just what you need to do good science.

On popular science writing, this is what Anant, a good friend and colleague, has to say (in a post about the importance of publishing):

I think we owe it to the general public to explain what the important milestones in our field are.


  1. Anonymous said...

    Dear Abi,

    Thanks for the kind mention and the quote
    from my earlier post.

    Of course, no good deed goes unpunished.
    We had slogged with many students and have
    written an article for Current Science and
    submitted it for their 'Research News'
    section about 7 weeks ago. It has been
    sent to two (!) referees, as though our
    article has been submitted to Nature or
    Physical Review. They may yet reject
    our article. Serves me right for wanting
    to serve the larger community!


  2. Anonymous said...

    Very nice article. May be, off and on,you can tell us the names of some of the articles and books. When I was in college, I enjoyed the books of James Jeans, A.S. Eddington and George Gamow. strangely, it was a slightly technical topic, Cantor's Set Theory and E.T.Bell's 'Men of Mathematics' that converted me to mathematics. Now there seem to be many in science like Oliver Sachs, Richard Dawkins, Matt Ridley,.. I am still looking for some readable authors in economics; Heilbronner is good but dated.