Thursday, January 6, 2011

Science Writing as Flirtation

As I've said before, I do enjoy good science writing.  And as a non-scientist, I rely on the honesty and literary nous of the authors translating science for me.  I can do my own research, of course, but I'm no specialist.

Enter Lawrence Krauss, author of The Physics of Star Trek (which I recommend).  In a recent article for the Wall Street Journal, 'The Lies of Science Writing', Krauss reminds readers that the language of the translator can be deceptively transparent. They're often using metaphors, not the mathematically reality of scientists.

Now, ordinary language is itself profoundly metaphorical: we speak of 'going forward', 'feeling down', 'raising ambitions', 'dropping prices', and so on - all metaphors taken from embodied experience.  Many of our seemingly straightforward and banal words and concepts smuggle in a host of metaphors.

Scientists do this too: not simply poetic metaphors, but basic conceptual frameworks - cosmos as machine, brain as computer, to give the obvious examples.  They influence hypothesis, experiment, discussion and dissemination.

The point isn't that science is a sham, or its achievements bogus.  It's not that science is 'just another language', and as real as every New Age fantasy.  Rather, it's that metaphors are more profound and common that we often realise - even in the sciences.

Nonetheless, Krauss' conclusion is bang on:
When used effectively, an apt metaphor can enhance the real purpose in writing about science for the public: provoking interest and a desire to learn more. Good teaching, after all, is really a matter of seduction.
In other words, writers like Krauss aren't offering a definitive scientific conclusion: Here, take this truth and bugger off.  Instead, they're sucking in the reader; giving a hint of what's in store for the curious, patient mind.

Good science writing's an introduction or flirtation, not a final consummation.


lawphys said...

Thanks. Glad you liked the piece. FYI will be in Melbourne as a Miegunyah Fellow this year.. probably August, giving some public lectures etc..

Damon Young said...

Yes, I liked the column and your Trek book. (Which, as a Trek nerd, I was ripe for.)

I hope you enjoy Melbourne (city and university). If you want to talk science/writing/philosophy/schmaltzy sci-fi over a coffee, do drop me a line.