Tuesday, March 27, 2012


There is a brill piece here by Adam Ruben about science writing. It is an entertaining and enlightning read. From one recently reminded that I was writing a thesis and not a novel, I feel his pain.

“You don’t write like a scientist,” he said, handing me back the progress report [...] In my dream world, tears would have come to his eyes, and he would have squealed, “You write like a poet!”

I asked for an example, and he pointed to a sentence on the first page. “See that word?” he said. “Right there. That is not science.” The word was “lone,” as in “PvPlm is the lone plasmepsin in the food vacuole of Plasmodium vivax.” It was a filthy word. A non-scientific word. A flowery word, a lyrical word, a word worthy of -- ugh -- an MFA student. 

This is beautiful!:

"But in his mind, “lone” must have conjured images of PvPlm perched on a cliff’s edge, staring into the empty chasm, weeping gently for its aspartic protease companions. Oh, the good times they shared. Afternoons spent cleaving scissile bonds. Lazy mornings decomposing foreign proteins into their constituent amino acids at a nice, acidic pH. Alas, lone plasmepsin, those days are gone." 

The list of rules for 'science' paper writing is complete gold:

1. Scientific papers must begin with an obligatory nod to their own relevance, usually by citing exaggerated figures about disease prevalence or other impending disasters. If your research does not actually address one of these issues, pretend it does, because hey, that didn’t stop you on the grant application. For example, you might write, “Twenty million children die of scabies every day. OMG we built a robot kangaroo!

And the breakdown of authorship is scarily apt:

FIRST AUTHOR: Weary graduate student who spent hours doing the work. 
SECOND AUTHOR: Resentful graduate student who thinks he or she spent hours doing the work. 
THIRD AUTHOR: Undergraduate just happy to be named. 
FOURTH AUTHOR: Collaborator no one has ever met whose name is only included for political reasons. 
FIFTH AUTHOR: Postdoctoral fellow who once made a chance remark on the subject. 
SIXTH AUTHOR: For some reason, Vladimir Putin. 
LAST AUTHOR: Principal investigator whose grant funded the project but who hasn’t stood at a lab bench in decades, except for that one weird photo shoot for some kind of pamphlet, and even then it was obvious that he or she didn’t know where to find basic things.

Read it when you have a mo!

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