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 πelectrons.”

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 aboutscience 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 writingto 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.

Fun read of the day: On whimsy, jokes, and beauty: can scientific writing be enjoyed?

This is such a fun paper: On whimsy, jokes, and beauty: can scientific writing be enjoyed? by Stephen Heard in Ideas in Ecology and Evolution 7: 64–72, 2014  I found out about it in an email from Heard, who sent it to me because he had earlier commented on a blog post I had written: The best writing in science papers part 1: Vladimir Nabokov in Notes on Neotropical Plebejinae (Lycaenidae, Lepidoptera).

Anyway – enough about me – what about this paper?  It has so many nuggets of interest I am not sure which to highlight so I will just go through some of it.  Oh – and it is published with a Creative Commons Attribution license (yay).

Abstract: While scientists are often exhorted to write better, it isn’t entirely obvious what “better” means. It’s uncontroversial that good scientific writing is clear, with the reader’s understanding as effortless as possible. Unsettled, and largely undiscussed, is the question of whether our goal of clarity precludes us from making our writing enjoyable by incorporating touches of whimsy, humanity, humour, and beauty. I offer examples of scientific writing that offers pleasure, drawing from ecology and evolution and from other natural sciences, and I argue that enjoyable writing can help recruit readers to a paper and retain them as they read. I document resistance to this idea in the scientific community, and consider the objections (well grounded and not) that may lie behind this resistance. I close by recommending that we include touches of whimsy and beauty in our own writing, and also that we work to encourage such touches in the writing of others.

OK – the title would have drawn me in anyway but the abstract definitely had me.

If scientific writers aren’t sure how to write better, it isn’t for lack of advice. Dozens of guidebooks discuss form, style, and goals in scientific writing (e.g., Montgomery 2003, Davis 2005, Day and Gastel 2006, Katz 2006, Matthews and Matthews 2007, Rogers 2007, Harmon and Gross 2010, Hofmann 2010, Pechenik 2010, Greene 2013, Heard unpubl.).

OK – I am going to have to look at some of these.

Heard documents a bit of a spat between Sprat and Boyle from the 1660s regarding scientific writing.  I especially like the Boyle quote:

To affect needless rhetorical ornaments in setting down an experiment…were little less improper than…to paint the eyeglasses of a telescope…in which even the most delightful colours cannot so much please the eye as they would hinder the sight…And yet I approve not that dull and insipid way of writing, which is practiced by many…for though a philosopher need not be solicitous that his style should delight his reader with his floridness, yet I think he may very well be allowed to take a care that it disgust not his reader by its flatness…Though it were foolish to colour…the glasses of telescopes, yet to gild…the tubes of them may render them most acceptable to the users (Boyle 1661:11-12, spelling and punctuation modern- ized).

Heard then goes through some different aspects of good scientific writing

  • Sightings (1): Playfulness in the scientific literature
  • Sightings (2): Beauty

Also – he then doscusses pushback against the “notion that whimsy, jokes, and beauty can have a place in our scientific literature.” which I have also seen in many contexts.

He ends with suggestions and I quote the whole section with some highlights:

If you write papers that are crystal clear and thus effortless to read, you’ll have achieved the primary goal of scientific writing and your work will be among the best of our literature. But if you want to reach for even more, if you agree with me that we can also offer our readers some pleasure in reading, what can you do? To begin, you can try to write with small touches of whimsy, humanity, humour, and beauty—without, of course, compromising clarity; and even knowing that sometimes, reviewers will make you take them out. I am not suggesting writing in which art shares the stage equally with content (as can be true in the lay literature). Rather, the goal that’s within our reach is clear, functional writing punctuated with occasional nuggets of playfulness or glints of beauty—to extend Boyle’s metaphor, not a telescope of solid gold but one lightly gilded. 

You can also work to encourage pleasure in what your colleagues write, in two complementary ways. First, when you review manuscripts, you can suppress the reflex telling you to question any touches of whimsy, humour, or beauty that you find; you can even (gently) suggest some be put in. Second, you can announce your admiration of writing that has given you pleasure. Announce your admiration to the writers who crafted the passage, to editors who might be considering its fate, and to students or colleagues who might read it. If we choose to, we can change our culture to deliver, and value, pleasure along with function in our writing.

This is a must read paper.  And I really wish more people would endorse the idea that scientific writing can include more than just science.  Of course, there are many who already endorse this notion but for those who do not – give it a try.