February 20, 2018
I used to like writing. Before I started graduate school at UT, I was actually enrolled in a part-time science writing graduate program at Johns Hopkins. I didn’t finish, but it was fun, taking classes at night and figuring out the best and most creative ways to write about science.
Now, as I work to finish my PhD, writing is my least favorite thing.
For a long time, I assumed this was just what happens. You have an imposing deadline, and therefore the work you need to do to meet that deadline is especially onerous. But today I was thinking, How could something I loved now be something I hate? And I actually figured out the answer.
Scientific, peer-reviewed articles are boring now. Not the science, but the writing itself. Sure it’s clear, and the science itself might be creative, but the writing style we now have come to expect (and insist on) has no soul.
It wasn’t always this way. Take one of the most seminal papers in all of geology: History of Ocean Basins, by H. H. Hess (1962). This paper outlined what would later be known as seafloor spreading, a fundamental component of plate tectonics. It starts with the following paragraph (emphasis mine):
“The birth of the oceans is a matter of conjecture, the subsequent history is obscure, and the present structure is just beginning to be understood. Fascinating speculation on these subjects has been plentiful, but not much of it predating the last decade holds water. Little of Umbgrove’s (1947) brilliant summary remains pertinent when confronted by the relatively small but crucial amount of factual information collected in the intervening years. Like Umbgrove, I shall consider this paper an essay in geopoetry. In order not to travel any further into the realm of fantasy than is absolutely necessary I shall hold as closely as possible to a uniformitarian approach; even so, at least one great catastrophe will be required early in the Earth’s history.”
(Did you catch the pun in the second sentence?)
According to this, Hess used the term “geopoetry” to describe his (at the time) outlandish ideas because he wanted his audience to suspend their disbelief and — in the absence of tons of hard data — allow him to speculate imaginatively, as if writing poetry.
I think geopoetry could also be a good term to describe the way Hess, and other scientists of the era, used to write. In reading older papers, there seems to be more creative freedom, especially when establishing a voice. In my own first paper (and in pretty much every paper I’ve read in the last few decades), there is no voice. At least no voice that is playful, or witty, or charming, or entertaining. Why is that? Why can’t I even imagine adding a pun to an introductory paragraph of a peer-reviewed paper? (And god forbid you have a cutesy title.) And why do I feel like I can’t do that? Is there some sort of creativity police that will revoke my geology pass for using alliteration?
I’m sure most scientists are experiencing great discomfort by now (based on my assumption of how far their eyeballs have surely rolled), but I’d like to know: Is it possible to be clear and conversational? To be informative and mildly entertaining?
I understand that we want our science to be clear and direct. But would it be so bad if the writer had fun while doing it?
Last month, Susan Hough published an article in Seismological Research Letters that gave me hope. It was titled, “Do Large (Magnitude >= 8) Global Earthquakes Occur on Preferred Days of the Calendar Year or Lunar Cycle?” and had a cheeky, one word abstract (“No.”) that delighted many on my Facebook newsfeed. In addition to the DNGAF abstract, the paper was written in a way that seemed to reflect the author’s voice without sacrificing scientific objectivity or clarity.
According to Wikipedia, Susan Hough has written five books and published over 100 peer-reviewed articles. Needless to say, I have considerably less books and peer-reviewed publications (0 and 2, respectively) than Susan. So maybe I should just shut the hell up and get back to writing, my new least favorite thing.
Cover image: Harry Hess, explaining seafloor spreading in 1968 at Princeton University, the best school in the Ivy League and perhaps the world. (Credit to Fritz Goro, Time Life Inc.)