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scintific writing

kathleen keeler kkeeler at unlinfo.unl.edu
Tue Feb 25 13:34:21 EST 1997

muriel lederman (mstorrie at vt.edu) wrote:
: I respond to Nina Dudnik's post -

<snipping very nice comments on scientific writiing>

: I suggest that part of the reason that Barbara McClintock's work was
: under-appreciated was that she was a terrible writer. I read her paper with
: Harriet Crieghton that localized genes to chromosomes - four pages in PNAS.
: I knew what the paper was going to say, and yet it took me 45 min to get
: throught it! 
: Muriel Lederman           lederman at vt.edu   

I don't know.  I had the same reaction to Mendel's papers (in 
translation):  hard going.  I wonder if its just talking about 
something new for which there is no established jargon.

In McClintock's case, what she was trying to say in the transposable 
elements papers was contrary to all established ideas.  Very 
different from Watson and Crick, who elucidated something everybody 
was trying to find out. The people who make great leaps forward make 
great stories when they are right, but pose a real problem before 
confirmation appears:  how can other responsible scientists embrace a 
result that's inconsistent with the rest of what we know--at least without 
confirmation.  Only when it fits into the structure of science can most 
people sign on.  

   I remember one of my professors (Department of Genetics, Berkeley, 
about 1970) talking about the transposable elements papers.  
McClintock's credibility was good enough that he didn't doubt they 
were true (a real credit to her considering how far out the ideas 
were!) but had no idea where the information fit/ what it meant.  
Though, yes, in defense of your point, the opacity of the papers 
meant we didn't all run out to read them but did easier things until 
molecular genetics made it obvious what they meant.

And yet, people in scientific writing tell us that clarity of thought 
is required for clarity of expression.  If you encounter something 
quite novel experimentally, maybe it would be very difficult to tell it 
with great lucidity until its significance and generality is 

Kathleen Keeler
Biological Sciences,
U. Nebraska
Lincoln NE 68588
kkeeler at unlinfo.unl.edu

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