Image: European red squirrel, © Yvonne Findlay, used by permission.
Inspired by similar exercises from Small Pond Science and The Lab and Field, I present once more a few of the more interesting search terms by which Scientist Sees Squirrel has been found. These are all real, I swear!
“Yeah? Well, I’m rubber, and you’re glue, bounces off me and sticks to you”. Oh, wait – actually, that’s just the Latin name for a genus of thrushes, including that most unfortunately named of all birds, Turdus ignobilis debilis. The 12-year-old inside me is somehow disappointed (although he can console himself with this post about donkey farts). Continue reading
Most of my CV is pretty conventional. It recites my job and educational history, lists my papers and talks, my students and the courses I’ve taught… and I can hear you yawning from here. But my favourite part is comes at the end of my publication list, which has four sections. The first is “Book” (some day it will be “Books”, but so far there’s just The Scientist’s Guide to Writing), then there’s “Refereed papers”, then “Non-refereed works”, and then finally the good part: “And with tongue in cheek”. My tongue-in-cheek section lists two papers, and each is a joke. 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