Image: The Writer in the Window, by Mark Heybo via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
Scientific writing has a reputation for being dull (among other things). By and large, it deserves that reputation (although there are admittedly exceptions). I’ve become very interested in why our writing is dull. I don’t have a definitive answer, but in today’s post I’ll begin to explore one possibility: that pressure for conformity has prevented most scientific writing from having voice.
What is “voice” in writing? Continue reading
Image: “Beautiful vineyard” by Sasmit68 via wikimedia.org, CC BY-SA 4.0
Last week I raised the apparently-dumb but actually rather interesting question of why humans consider flowers to be beautiful. Today, another question about beauty, this time with (I’m afraid) really unfortunate consequences. Have you ever heard someone talk about how beautiful a vineyard is? Have you ever been that someone? An awful lot of us would answer “yes” to both questions – and that’s a real problem for conservation.
It isn’t just vineyards, of course, and I’ll get to my broader point, but first I should back up my claim that humans think vineyards are beautiful – and that we shouldn’t. Continue reading
Image: Flowers, by Alvegaspar CC BY-SA 3.0 via wikimedia.org
If you watch science documentaries like Nova or The Nature of Things, you might get the feeling that what’s most exciting about science is all the questions scientists have answers to – all the things we’ve learned about how our universe ticks. (It’s built right into the title of The Nature of Things.) But what I love most about science, and especially biology, is how easy it is to ask a question that we don’t have the answer to. Why are there so many species of beetles*, but so few of snakeflies? Why does life use a basic set of 20 amino acids, not 18 or 26? And one that has me completely stumped: why on Earth are flowers beautiful?
“Why are flowers beautiful” might sound like a trivial question, but I don’t think it is. Continue reading
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? Continue reading
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a sentence I was tempted to be proud of. It’s part of the Introduction to a paper* about how the impact of insect herbivores on their host plants might evolve over time. We’d pointed out that insects frequently acquire new host plants and plants frequently acquire new herbivores, and to build on that, I wrote:
That herbivore-host associations are frequently reassorted means that some herbivore-host pairs are evolutionarily well acquainted, while others are strangers recently met.
And then I had second thoughts. Continue reading
Photo: Glasswing butterfly, probably Greta oto, on Asclepias curassavica; Eddy Van 3000 at flickr.com CC BY-SA 2.0
We could quit now, with our eyes on that glasswing butterfly: of course biology can be beautiful. Birds of paradise, lynx, ladyslipper orchids, Spanish moss*, orcas; can there be any doubt? But that’s not really what I mean. Is biology as a science beautiful, the way math is beautiful, and physics is beautiful? Continue reading
Photo: Lupines below Öræfajökull, Iceland (S. Heard)
In Iceland, in July, the landscape in many places is carpeted in blue. The fields of lupines (Lupinus nootkatensis) are almost impossibly beautiful*, and lupines are adored by tourists and by many Icelanders, too. But they’re not an Icelandic plant; they’re introduced and invasive. Thereby hangs a tale, and a conundrum for conservation biology.
I normally despise invasive species, as most ecologists do, but I have a lot of trouble hating lupines. Again and again I find myself smiling at a field of blue, and then catching myself with a start as I remember that they aren’t supposed to be here. I’ve had this reaction in Iceland, in New Zealand, and in my home of eastern Canada (and here’s a nice piece from Amy Parachnowitsch admitting to the same reaction in Sweden).
These beautiful lupines make obvious a serious problem in our efforts at nature conservation. It’s not a problem with conservation biology (which is the science of how to effect conservation, once we’ve decided to). It’s a problem of motivating conservation, and I think a deep philosophical one. That problem: why should we conserve natural ecosystems in the first place? Continue reading
Last summer I published the weirdest paper of my career. It’s called “On whimsy, jokes, and beauty: can scientific writing be enjoyed?”, and it asks whether humour and beauty are possible, and advisable, in scientific writing. (If this sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because I mentioned it here). I want to explain how I came to write and publish the paper. This is not entirely self-indulgent: I think story reveals some interesting things about us as scientists and about our publishing system. Bear with me and I’ll get to that.
I became interested in humour and beauty in scientific writing while working on my guidebook for scientific writers (Princeton University Press, Spring 2016; details here). Here’s how that happened.
One major theme of my book is that the scientific writer’s most important goal is to produce writing that’s crystal-clear and thus effortless to read. In fact, nearly every linguistic and structural convention we use in our writing – from punctuation to our IMRaD (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion) structure – exists only because it helps us achieve that goal. This is hardly a novel message: a long line of writers on rhetoric have argued for clarity, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, who put it this way: “The greatest possible merit of style is…to make the words absolutely disappear into the thought”.
But after writing 28 chapters hammering away at clear writing, I found myself wondering if I was missing something. Does this obsession with function leave us with text that’s clear but artless and dull? Or is it possible for scientific writers to offer their readers some pleasure along with functional text? And might this be a good idea? Continue reading
(Photo: Polyommatus bellargus (Lycaenidae), by Ettore Ballochi – CC BY-SA 3.0) Over 2 years ago now, over at the Tree of Life blog, Jonathan Eisen posted “The best writing in science papers: Part I”. I stumbled across that post and searched excitedly for Part II – only to discover there wasn’t one. So I wrote one (which Jonathan kindly let me guest-post there). It’s gotten a fair bit of attention, which is fun – so it’s time I posted it here.
I’m still titling it “Part II”. Jonathan’s Part I identified the butterfly-taxonomy papers of Vladimir Nabokov as containing flashes of beautiful writing Continue reading