Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Science Writing

This May Term, I had the experience of taking a course called Writing Creatively About Science, taught by author Dava Sobel (Longitude, The Planets, Galileo's Daughter). We read and analyzed pieces ranging from New Yorker articles, nonfiction science books--like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (which I recommend to everyone who likes science, human stories, social and legal issues, or a good read), self-selected science writing and science fiction, and science-themed poetry. We looked at content, writing style, grammar, craft, and ways different authors treated their topics. I think everyone came away with a clearer understanding of what "science writing" means.

My conclusion: if artists are so stereotypically fluid and flexible, like water, they should logically possess some of water's fascinating properties. For example, being able to fit to the shape of their container as well as being able to sprawl across the floor in an abstract blob. They should also be able to hold heat during the day and release it at night, regulating the temperature of their surroundings. They boil, evaporate, and rain again in a predictable cycle. They can be ice or clouds.

My point being: science writing shouldn't scare people--writers or readers. It's an art just like any other writing you might do in your life--just with more fact-checking involved. If anything, good science writing requires more artistic and technical skill than fiction, because anyone can dish out information. Good science writers, on the other hand, can explain that information without condescension, present their topic in a way that's relevant, and make you care about something you've never heard of before. Nonfiction writing is still, essentially, storytelling.

People seem to have this idea that science and math are rigid and inflexible, whereas fiction and literature explore the great questions of life. But in reality, science, math, and literature are all different ways of exploring the same great questions. Are you afraid of Shakespeare? Are you afraid of reading The Science Times? Cast aside your fears! Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to the Dark Side--a.k.a. a view of the world where you are hiding in a box with literature or science (whatever your preference), and everything outside of that box is feared and hated.

Sadly, that seems to be the trend in the modern world. Specialists specialize in ever-more-specific topics, and readers rarely venture outside their comfort zones. The "Renaissance (wo)man" is unkindly known as the "jack-of-all-trades," and the education system grooms kids for job slots that fit their tested personality and aptitude types.

What is your box? And how can you explore the world outside of it?

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