Friday, January 16, 2015

The best writing in science papers: Part II

Guest post by Stephen Heard (

Over 2 years ago now, Jonathan 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.  Well, now there is, as Jonathan has kindly allowed me to guest-post this.

Jonathan’s Part I identified the butterfly-taxonomy papers of Vladimir Nabokov as containing flashes of beautiful writing, and I agree (although my favourite bits differ from his).  But Jonathan wondered if picking Nabokov (an acclaimed novelist) was “a bit unfair” and he later told me he’d never done a Part II because other examples were too hard to find! 

Actually, other examples can be found, and not only in the papers of scientists who are also accomplished novelists.  I collected a few in my recent paper “On whimsy, jokes, and beauty: can scientific writing be enjoyed”.  For example, here is Nathaniel Mermin on a surprising result in quantum mechanics:
      “There are no physical grounds for insisting that [Alice] assign the same value to an observable for each mutually commuting trio it belongs to – a requirement that would indeed trivially make her job impossible. The manner in which the nine-observable BKS theorem brings Alice to grief is more subtle than that. It is buried deep inside the mathematics that underlies the construction that makes it possible, when it is possible, to do the VAA trick.”
Here is Bill Hamilton setting up a simulation model of antipredator defence via herding:
      “Imagine a circular lily pond.  Imagine that the pond shelters a colony of frogs and a water-snake…Shortly before the snake is due to wake up all the frogs climb out onto the rim of the pond… [The snake] rears its head out of the water and surveys the disconsolate line sitting on the rim… and snatches the nearest one.  Now suppose the frogs are given opportunity to move about on the rim before the snake appears, and suppose that initially they are dispersed in some rather random way.  Knowing that the snake is about to appear, will all the frogs be content with their initial positions? No…and one can imagine a confused toing-and-froing in which [desirable positions] are as elusive as the croquet hoops in Alice’s game in Wonderland.”
And here is Harry Kroto describing the structure of C60 buckyballs:
     “An unusually beautiful (and probably unique) choice is the truncated icosohedron...All valences are satisfied with this structure, and the molecule appears to be aromatic.  The structure has the symmetry of the icosahedral group.  The inner and outer surfaces are covered with a sea of π electrons.”
Finally, read this by Matthew Rockman – too much, too good, to even excerpt here.

So, “regular” scientific writers can achieve beauty, too (and please share your own favourite examples in the comments). But I’d have to agree with Jonathan that we don’t do so very often. Why not? I can think of three possibilities:

It could be that writing beautifully in scientific papers is a bad idea, and we know it. Perhaps readers don’t respect scientists who resist the conventional turgidity of our writing form. I don’t think this is true, although I’m aware of no formal analysis.

Or it could be that beauty is a good idea, but well-meaning reviewers and editors squash it. In my paper I argue that beauty (like humour) can recruit readers to a paper and retain them as they read; but that reviewers and editors tend to resist its use. But again, there’s no formal analysis, so I was forced to make both halves of that argument via anecdote.

Or it could be we just don’t have a culture of appreciating, and working to produce, beauty in our writing. I think this is most of the explanation: it’s not that we are opposed to beauty as much as it doesn’t occur to us that scientific writing could aspire to it.

All of which makes me wonder: if we wanted to make beauty more common in scientific writing, how could we do that?  Well, that could make for a really long post.  I’ll mention a few thoughts, and encourage you to leave more in the comments.  

First, we could write with small touches of beauty in our own papers.  Of course, that’s not as easy as it sounds, because most of aren’t trained or oriented that way.  To oversimplify, it’s a chicken-and-egg problem: most of us come from science backgrounds that lack a culture of beauty in writing.  Perhaps we even came to science as refugees from the arts and humanities where beauty is more valued.  That’s true for me, at least; and I know a fair bit about how to write functionally, but almost nothing about how to write beautifully.  But if there’s a path to writing beauty, it probably starts in reading beauty, wherever it can be found.  Nabokov? Sure... but also science blogs, lay essays and books about science and nature (for a start, sample the science writing of Rachel Carson, Lewis Thomas, Karen Olsson, Barbara Kingsolver, or John McPhee), and really, anything we can get our hands on.  And when we read, we can be alert for language that sparkles, so as to cultivate an ear for beauty and to build a toolbox of techniques we can deploy in our own writing.  (For some other thoughts on this, see Helen Sword’s book “Stylish Academic Writing”).

Second, and much easier, we could encourage beauty in the writing of others.  As reviewers and editors, we could decide that style and beauty are not incompatible with scientific writing.  We could resolve not to question touches of style, or unusual but beautiful ways of writing, in the work we are judging.

Finally, we could publicly recognize beauty when we see it.  We could announce our admiration of beautiful writing to the authors who produce it or to colleagues who might read it.  What Jonathan and I have done with these posts is a small start on this, and I’ve promised myself I’ll praise wonderful writing whenever I can.  Thinking bigger, though, wouldn’t it be great if there was an award for the best scientific writing of the year?  I don’t mean the best science – we have plenty of awards for that – but the best writing to appear in our primary literature.  Such awards exist for lay science writing; if one existed for technical writing I’d be thrilled to make nominations and I’d volunteer to judge. 

As Jonathan and I both found, examples of beautiful scientific writing do seem to be unusual; and those that exist aren’t well known.  I don’t think it has to be this way.  W could choose to change our culture, a little at a time, to deliver (and to value) pleasure along with function in our scientific writing.


By the way: I became interested in beauty in scientific writing while working on a guidebook for scientific writers.  It’s not available yet, but to learn more about it, see my web site.  For more of my (somewhat scattered) thoughts on writing and on doing science, visit my blog.

UPDATE 1/25/15

Now posted on Heard's Blog.


  1. I've always enjoyed CA Thomas's "The Rule of the Ring" -- not just the so very apt epigram from JRR Tolkien, but the wonderful conversational tone of the whole piece. Here is a link (assuming they are allowed): The Rule of the Ring

  2. I think one reason we don't see much beautiful scientific writing is that it's just plain hard. We know how much effort it has taken us to learn our own profession how can we expect to just sit down and do what a talented writer of beautiful prose can do without putting in the same practice and training.
    It's like the creation of any beautiful thing, yes there is inspiration, but there's also a tonne of craft and skill that allows that inspiration to reach its final form.
    I'd love to write beautifully, and occasionally there is a phrase that I'm proud of, but mostly I'm satisfied if I can write coherently and clearly.

  3. In scientific writing, beauty IS coherence, clarity and concision. Applying the standards of literary aesthetics to science communication is effectively valuing rhetoric above function, which is anathema to its purpose. Please, by all means, write beautiful analysis, and persuasive hypotheses, but don't clutter the primary literature with scientists' efforts at prose style.
    (Also, I think it's time we considered the death penalty for forced pun article titles.)

  4. Covered by Nature News here: