Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Writing science

Science writing in its highest form isn't shrouded in mystifying jargon meant to segregate the uninitiated commoners from the scientifically-literate elite. Perhaps only a fool would think that science will one day be expressed entirely in colloquial terms but I believe we should always strive to come close to that ideal. A real understanding of science should mean that it is possible to communicate the most important ideas of a scientific concept with language comprehensible to an educated audience. Einstein once said, "you do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother." That's probably setting the bar too high but the point is we should at least try to make science as accessible to many as we can.

One example I particularly like of what science writing should look like comes from David Mermin, a physicist at Cornell University, who wrote a reply to this question from a ten-year old boy:"Why is it that when I look at one side of a spoon, I see my reflection right side up, and when I turn the spoon over I see my reflection upside down?" His answer goes as follows:

"To make it easier to picture, think of an enormous spoon, as big as your head, not counting the handle. You can understand how a curved mirror behaves by thinking of it as built up out of lots of little flat mirrors. So suppose the enormous spoon is a wooden one, made to reflect by gluing a lot of little flat mirrors to both its surfaces, like mosaic tiles on the inside and outside of a dome.

Now imagine holding the spoon vertically some distance from your face, and looking directly into the bowl part of the spoon, with the middle of the bowl at the level of your eyes. As you lower your eyes toward the lower part of the bowl, the little mirrors that you see will tilt upwards, so you see in them the upper part of your face. But as you raise your eyes toward the upper part of the bowl, the little mirrors that you will see will tilt downwards, so you see in them the reflection of the lower part of your face. In other words, you see yourself upside down.

On the other hand, if you turn the spoon so you're looking at the outside of its bowl, then as you lower your eyes, the little mirrors that you see tilt downwards and you see a reflection of the lower part of your face, and as you raise your eyes the mirrors that you see tilt upwards and you see a reflection of the upper part. So reflected in that side you look right-side up. "

It doesn't seem so but that is serious science writing. Mermin himself remarks that producing such a piece requires a lot of careful thought--to overcome the grave inadequacies of ordinary language in expressing scientific thought, to weed out possible ambiguities and sources of misconceptions, to avoid technicalities that are often useful only in hiding what isn't completely understood--and can be quite agonizing. It is writing very different from the published journal articles observed from everyday research, the output of "writing up" science. The distinction has to made: "writing science" is about the refinement of well- established scientific truths, used for conveying ideas in particular contexts while "writing up science" involves organizing new results in a manuscript presented as an important contribution to the research community. Both are important and scientists should try to do both.

Many scientists deplore writing for the masses because they feel "dumbing down" science just leads to something mostly incorrect. This prevailing elitist attitude makes it rather unwise for a scientist to dabble in popularizing science (at least early in his career) lest colleagues will think less of him, or worse he receives ridicule for consorting with "pedestrian" science. (With the increased number of popular science writers this is less of a problem but the practice is still generally frowned upon.) Granted, the act of simplification demands a sacrifice in precision (and sometimes a considerable amount at that) but I don't know of any other way of conveying to everyone's benefit the intellectual fruits of hard-earned basic research. I find it a little ironic that in the so-called technological and information age, people have no idea how their electronic gadgets work, and worse, don't care to know how they work. I guess some credit has to go to engineers for developing essentially blackbox devices that we enjoy using without mcuh hassle. That said, even just understanding how everyday devices work reveals so much about how nature works and how we humans have managed to harness its potentials. If science is a human endeavor for understanding nature, then it's something meant to be shared by everyone. 

I'm always annoyed by scientists who complain that people don't show enough appreciation for science yet they themselves make no effort to help others understand and recognize the value of what scientists do. They complain that people misconstrue what science is about and yet they make little effort in educating the public about how the scientific method works and what sort of objective truth it can establish. Teaching science should always be part of a scientist's obligations since he is among those who know about it the most. He can't really expect any one else to do it for him. Too much of general science today are written by journalists who try their earnest but are simply lacking in expertise. Writing science should be done more by scientists and perhaps will hear less news of the LHC generating earth-swallowing black holes or other sensationalist crap.

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