Last week I allowed myself to vent a little about one of my writing pet peeves: the all-too-common but always incorrect construction “an unrelated genus”. As a card-carrying nerd, I also allowed myself to segue from that into the beautiful and profound closing sentence of The Origin of Species:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. (Darwin 1859)
I suggested that this might be the most famous single sentence in our literature, and that raises two obvious but interesting questions. First, is it? And second, what are its competitors?
The answers to both questions surely depend on what I meant by “our literature”. Let’s (because it will make this the most fun) open the competition to all of the natural sciences, including mathematics; but let’s confine ourselves to the scientific literature as opposed to popular science or other forms of communication. (That immediately disqualifies “Eppur si muove”*.)
Despite opening the competition to all of science, I’m still going to nominate “There is grandeur in this view of life…” as our champion. Another contender would surely be:
It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material. (Watson and Crick 1953)**
Two points here about writing.
First, it has not escaped my notice that both of my nominations are from the very ends of things. “There is grandeur” is the concluding sentence of The Origin of Species, while “It has not escaped our notice” is the next-to-last sentence of Watson and Crick’s paper. We’re all used to being told how important opening sentences are to strong writing, but our closing sentences are as important, if not more important. The beginnings and ends of papers (and of paragraphs, for that matter) are “power positions”: readers pay close attention to them, and expect to find important things there. I’m not particularly good at opening sentences, myself; but I work hard to find good concluding ones***.
Second, it may matter that both sentences are interesting for their construction as well as for their content. Darwin’s is lyrical. Watson and Crick’s has a dry wit and false modesty that makes it stand out against a technical background. I’ve speculated elsewhere about the value of humour, whimsy, and beauty in scientific writing, and these sentences might – in very different ways – be evidence of that.
So I have two nominees, but my biological biases are showing, because I’m struggling to come up with strong contenders from other fields. A quick read-through of Einstein’s (1905) On the electrodynamics of moving bodies surprised me by not yielding any obvious nominations (and the idea of skimming the Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica tempted me only for a moment). So I’m throwing this open to readers. What have you got for me (please use the Replies)? Can you dethrone “There is grandeur in this view of life”? You’re up.
© Stephen Heard January 22, 2018
Darwin, Charles. 1859. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. J. Murray, London.
Einstein, A. 1905. On the electrodynamics of moving bodies. Annalen der Physik 17:891-921.
Newton, I. 1687. Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. Jussu Societatis Regiae ac Typis Josephi Streater, London. (How’s that for a publisher?)
Watson, J.D. and F.H.C. Crick. 1953. Molecular structure of nucleic acids: a structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid. Nature 171: 737–738.
*^Even if Galileo actually said it, which is doubtful. The same distinction might also seem to threaten the status of “There is grandeur…”, because The Origin of Species was a popular bestseller. However, there is no doubt that it was first a piece of technical work, in which Darwin aimed to communicate his insights to other scientists. It’s just that the boundaries between the scientific and popular literatures were less clean then than they are now, so a piece of scientific writing could end up on office desks and on bedside tables too.
**^This sentence is often described as a “throwaway line”, but of course it was anything but. It might well be the most important sentence in the whole paper, and I’m certain that Watson and Crick knew it.
***^You just skipped to the end of this post to evaluate this claim, didn’t you? No, don’t try to deny it; I saw you. And you were disappointed, too, I bet. I should know better than to set myself up that way.