On Beauty in Technical Science Writing

Via Chris Woolston at Nature, I ran across last week’s discussion about the role of beauty in technical scientific prose. Writing over at The Tree of Life, Stephen Heard offers several examples of beauty in scientific writing, and he calls on the community to encourage beauty in scientific writing:

[E]xamples 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.

I’ll second the idea that we should encourage beauty in scientific writing, but with a big caveat: we absolutely shouldn’t try to do this by making our technical writing more belletristic. We don’t need to drop in hokey metaphors or cloying phrases — that’s what would happen if you encouraged most scientists to write beautifully.

Good technical writing can be clear, compelling, and pleasurable to read, without resorting to the tools of literary writing that really require a different set of skills to execute well. It’s easy to see this when we turn to other fields and read as laypeople – as in a well-written legal brief or court decision (PDF). I like Heard’s idea to gather examples of beautiful prose from technical papers — it’s hard to write well without reading well.

One of my favorite examples isn’t particularly technical, but I think it still makes the point. Both Darwin the scientist and Melville the novelist wrote about the Galapagos. When you compare Darwin’s more precise, scientifically-motivated description against Melville’s literary one, Darwin’s prose holds up quite well:

Here’s Melville, in his story The Encantadas:

In many places the coast is rock-bound, or, more properly, clinker-bound; tumbled masses of blackish or greenish stuff like the dross of an iron-furnace, forming dark clefts and caves here and there, into which a ceaseless sea pours a fury of foam; overhanging them with a swirl of gray, haggard mist, amidst which sail screaming flights of unearthly birds heightening the dismal din.

And now Darwin, from The Voyage of the Beagle:

The entire surface of this part of the island seems to have been permeated, like a sieve, by the subterranean vapours: here and there the lava, whilst soft, has been blown into great bubbles; and in other parts, the tops of caverns similarly formed have fallen in, leaving circular pits with steep sides. From the regular form of the many craters, they gave to the country an artificial appearance, which vividly reminded me of those parts of Staffordshire where the great iron-foundries are most numerous.

Like Melville, Darwin also draws a comparison with iron-foundries, but he does not make vague observations about “blackish and greenish stuff.” Darwin’s words, while not always technical, are usually specific, and descriptions are often given in geometrical terms of symmetries, regularities, lines, and circles.

Technical prose can and should be beautiful, but in its own way.

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