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The Mind of a Scientist = The Mind of an Artist/Musician

Fri Jan 24 09:27:43 EST 1997


> The only conflict I've run into so far is that I get frustrated with the
> very poor quality of scientific writing. Sometimes I think in an attempt
> to sound "scientific", scientists make their language far more awkward
> than it needs to be. "The drier the more scientific" seems to be the
> unstated understanding. 
> Emotion is absolutely not allowed. God forbid you be excited about your
> work. A paper must appear to  be completely impersonal. I'm sure there is
> a reason for this, but I wonder about it sometimes.

  The standards for scientific writing (get to the point, be clear, and
the like) were established by the Royal Society in Newton's time. If you
have to plow through a lot of scientific papers, you begin to appreciate
the writers who don't fill their work with extraneous material.  But even
within the constraints of scientific writing, some authors manage to write
papers that are lucid and a pleasure to read, whereas others make you want
to train your puppy on the paper.  Some journal editors try to improve the
quality of the writing that they accept, but the vast majority seem not to
see that as a responsibility; some of them have so poor a command of their
native language that they lower the quality of material that they publish.
  A scientist should take time to read (well-written) fiction or essays,
because the best way to learn to write well is to read good writing.  One
of my post-docs was incredulous when I told him to read novels, but I was
quite serious.
  As far as impersonality goes, in some fields of science the first person
is used and in some the third person is used, which is clearly less
personal.  Occasionally one comes across humor in a scientific paper, but
it is usually subtle. Quite a lot of fine scientific speakers manage to be
hilarious while discussing first-rate research -- if you ever have the
opportunity to hear May Berenbaum speak, make sure that you do so!
  Many of us get very emotional about our work when we talk about it. The
risk of getting emotional about your work in print is that someone might
prove you wrong!  If you read between the lines of an Introduction or a
Discussion you are quite likely to discover how fond a scientist is of a
particular idea or result.


     I realize that not all scientific papers are death in paper form, but
sometimes a one line anecdote would make a 10 page paper feel like 3. Also, with
some subjects, impersonality is necessary, as it is a painful or controversial
subject. However, some people need a class or a ghost writer. That's it! Face
it, these people may have wonderful senses of humor but it does not transfer to
their writing.


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