Observations of a Science Editor: If Romantic Scientists Pilfered Fiction’s Toolbox, You Can Too

Jamie Zvirzdin

Adapted from a lecture given at Bennington College in June 2015

It is no secret that science writing is often abysmally inaccessible, even for the initiated—like a bizarre ancient ritual that even its most faithful modern practitioners don’t understand but pretend they do. As a science editor, I can edit only as far as I can deduce what is on the page. For six years I helped researchers from various European universities write STEM articles for major newspapers. The nonprofit in charge of this initiative, Atomium Culture, seeks to increase the knowledge base of the public as well as the collaboration between universities, businesses, the media, and policymakers in the European Union. Sounds officious, I know, but really, it is a brilliant cross-disciplinary idea. My work at Atomium Culture—infiltrating American though I was—gave me the opportunity to straddle the gap between the science and literary worlds. Overall, the collaborative experience was quite positive, but if I had known what I do now about the writing of scientists in the nineteenth century, I might have been a better bridge.

Five years ago I also took a part-time job with a well-established textbook publishing company, CRC Press, a division of Taylor and Francis. My job was (and still is) proofreading STEM textbooks. Yes, I am the sorry sap who reads every equation and punctuation mark in those upper-level textbooks on partial differential equations and string theory and composite engineering materials. (I also make sure to point out where authors assume the reader is male, which is my greatest pet peeve.) Fortunately, editing textbooks is an oddly soothing (and educational) task for me, and it’s given me a long time to think about what engaging and memorable science writing looks like. In many of the textbooks I read, I see some of the same issues I saw in the newspaper articles: the dryness of the writing makes my bones brittle and my eyelids heavy, the abstractions and nominalizations—two great autological words that are themselves examples of the words they describe—never fully ground me in reality; the patriarchal presumption and condescension irritates my inner democratic vigilante; and even though I’m paying close attention, the information isn’t memorably told, and I don’t hold onto it. Even in the upper echelons, from colleague to colleague, science writing could use a little literary love.

David Simmons-Duffin, a physicist, demonstrated this fact by compiling a list of physics jargon from arXiv, an online scientific paper aggregator. He then created a program called snarXiv (http://snarxiv.org/) that generates the titles and abstracts of fake science papers.

There’s a game Simmons-Duffin created to see if you can tell the difference (arXiv vs. snarXiv), and lo and behold, even physicists struggle to know which is the real title. Give it a try: “Analytical Result for Dimensionally Regularized Massless Master Double Box with One Leg Off Shell” or “Holomorphic Branes at the GUT Scale and Equations of Topological QFTs Surrounded by an E_6 Singularity in Models of Cosmic Rays” (answer is revealed at the end). My old boss from my cosmic ray days, Pierre Sokolsky, is a distinguished professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Utah, and when I asked him to play the game, he got 68 percent correct. Pierre said that some of the technical vocabulary is necessary, no question, but he also said that many of these papers have become unnecessarily abstract. I could not agree more: when I played arXiv vs. snarXiv, I was right 50 percent of the time, which is as good as a monkey.

Science writing, as it currently stands, is the sticky note that loses its ability to adhere to the walls of our minds, and more often than not, it flutters forgotten to the ground; literary arts is the thumbtack that will drive the message into the wall and keep it there.

On and off through history, the two disciplines—as we now think of them—have had a troubled relationship. In the seventeenth century, some Enlightenment thinkers wanted to eliminate classical rhetoric from formal scientific writing, as rhetoric—with its ornaments of speech—came to be seen as ostentatious, unclear, and elitist. This pushback was the beginning of academic writing, which, ironically, is now often described as ostentatious, unclear, and elitist. Seeking to set the rules of scientific writing for his time, Thomas Sprat said in the 1667 History of the Royal Society of London that ornaments of speech were “in open defiance against Reason” and that it is “this vicious abundance of Phrase, this trick of Metaphors, this volubility of Tongue, which makes so great a noise in the World.”


Much more recently, Robert Day and Barbara Gastel, the authors of How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, seventh edition, have been transplanting this same colorless sentiment to new science students since 1979:

In scientific writing, there is little need for ornamentation. The flowery literary embellishments—the metaphors, the similes, the idiomatic expressions—are very likely to cause confusion and should seldom be used in writing research papers. Science is simply too important to be communicated in anything other than words of certain meaning.

However, as arXiv vs. snarXiv shows, those words of certain meaning have already lost their meaning to a vast majority of people, even among experts in the same field.

In 1959, a British physical chemist and novelist named Charles Percy Snow diagnosed this fractured relationship in a controversial lecture called “The Two Cultures.” In this lecture, Snow said that as he spent his working hours with scientists and his evening hours with literary colleagues, he noticed a great rift between the two. In his words,

I believe the intellectual life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups. . . . Literary intellectuals at one pole—at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension—sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding. They have a curious distorted image of each other. Their attitudes are so different that, even on the level of emotion, they can’t find much common ground.

While I know plenty of people who work across disciplines and enjoy both the literary arts and the sciences, including myself, it is clear from any university course list that the two are still rigidly separated, liberal arts requirements notwithstanding. There was a time in our history, however, when these two cultures were one, and it was one of the most formative eras for both science and literature. It is this time period that holds the secret to communicating science effectively: through the literary arts, and more specifically, through the tools of fiction.


The Age of Reflection
In the nineteenth century, C.P. Snow’s issue did not really exist. There were no hard and fast demarcations between disciplines. At the beginning of the century, “science” was still defined as any sort of knowledge or skill. Philosophy was science. Boxing was science. As Editor Laura Otis says in the anthology Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century, “The notion of a ‘split’ between literature and science, of a ‘gap’ to be ‘bridged’ between the two, was never a nineteenth-century phenomenon. . . . The two commingled and were accessible to all readers.”

The Age of Reflection was a response to the mechanistic thinking of Enlightenment scientists—to the Thomas Sprats of the world. Romantic scientists, as author Richard Holmes refers to them in The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, were more likely to see things in a holistic light, so science (as we now think of it) affected literature, and literature affected science in a much more fluid way. Darwin, for example, carried a well-worn copy of Paradise Lost on board the HMS Beagle, and the writings of Thomas Hardy and George Eliot, among others, were profoundly affected by Darwin’s theories of natural selection. James Clerk Maxwell wrote poetry (really, really weird poetry), and William Bartram’s description of the flora and fauna of the American South became a source of inspiration for William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Blake.

As I read the writing of these nascent scientists, I was surprised by how included I felt, notwithstanding the white maleness of it all. Nineteenth-century scientists were still trying to establish their own credibility as professionals in the eyes of the public, so they had to write for the public, as well as for potential patrons. To do so, Romantic scientists used four primary strategies from fiction’s toolbox: they invoked the imagination, created fictional characters, alluded to common and literary texts, and used an astonishing number of metaphors.

Each of these strategies employs what I consider to be the tools of fiction. Fiction requires the reader to consider alternate realities and grasp new concepts—that is, to use the imagination. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “To imagine something is to form a particular mental representation of that thing.” Like fusion, when these mental representations successfully collide with each other, new energy and information are born. Good science and good fiction both require the freedom to imagine. Let’s examine these four strategies in detail.


Invoke the Imagination
As I read, I noticed that Romantic scientists often invited the reader to join them on a mental journey. It was a literal invitation to imagine.

For example, John Herschel, in Outlines of Astronomy, mused: “Suppose the reader to station himself, on a clear evening. . . . ” Herschel then painted a glorious night scene for the reader—he talked about “a vast concave hemispherical vault, beset with stars of various magnitudes,” and how “more and more [stars] will appear as the darkness increases, till the whole sky is over-spangled with them.” Only once he spirited his audience away to this beautiful place did he add the facts.

Charles Lyell, a lawyer and a geologist, said in The Present and the Past, “Let us imagine . . . ” and “Let the reader imagine . . . ” and “If we imagine ourselves. . . . ” I saw this particular phrase or some form of it frequently in my readings, including in works by Augustus De Morgan, Charles Babbage, and Charles Darwin. It is an invitation to join them on a journey, and as the reader, I appreciate that invitation. The reader becomes a coconspirator in the creative process. Using “we” and “us” as inclusive pronouns, as many of these nineteenth-century science writers did, creates a powerful shared narrative that is much more inviting than passive and authoritative missives dropped by gods in ivory towers.

And Michael Faraday, a scientist of little formal education who nevertheless made significant advances in electromagnetism and electrochemistry, said, “I am now about to leave the strict line of reasoning for a time, and enter upon a few speculations. . . . ” Faraday actually felt a little self-conscious about his “speculations,” but he defended this act of fiction by saying a most amazing thing. Forgive me for quoting all of it, but it is that good, and that important:

It is not to be supposed for a moment that speculations of this kind are useless, or necessarily hurtful, in natural philosophy. They should ever be held as doubtful, and liable to error and to change; but they are wonderful aids in the hands of the experimentalist and mathematician. For not only are they useful in rendering the vague idea more clear for the time, giving it something like a definite shape, that it may be submitted to experiment and calculation; but they lead on by deduction and correction, to the discovery of new phaenomena, and so cause an increase and advance of real physical truth. (Experimental Researches in Electricity)

For me, this is the power of fiction. It gives science the freedom it needs to make new connections without scientists fearing immediate judgment and censure, and it gives the science writer a narrative voice without needing to bully the reader into believing the idea or explanation by virtue of whatever authority the writer pretends to have.


Create Fictional Characters
I’ve often noted that STEM textbooks use cartoons as a shorthand way to inject a bit of life into the text. The happy feeling soon fades as you turn the page and see heavy blocks of text written in passive voice. Nineteenth-century science writers, in contrast, used the fictional character—a person, an object, or an idea that had human or supernatural traits—to illustrate or embody difficult principles. In The Origin of Species, Darwin’s concept of Nature took on the qualities of a literary character, a conscious, decision-making individual. He referred to Nature as “she.”

James Clerk Maxwell, a physicist who primarily relied on math to explain physics problems, nevertheless relied on fiction when he invited his readers to “conceive [of] a being whose faculties were so sharpened” that it could move individual molecules from side A of a container to side B. If this supernatural being put all the slower-moving molecules in side A and the faster-moving molecules in side B, the story goes, it would single-handedly transgress the second law of thermodynamics, which essentially says that an isolated system cannot be ordered. This transgressor came to be known as Maxwell’s Demon, which took on a life of its own and has been embellished over the years on chalkboards, whiteboards, and overhead projectors in the hopes of rousing catatonic students. Another mathematical physicist, Lord Kelvin, insisted that this demon was not malignant but that it was “of great value,” and he himself imagined the demon as being “endowed ideally with arms and hands and fingers—two hands and ten fingers suffice.” However you picture this demon, its presence and personhood make for a much more provocative and therefore effective thought experiment.


Allude to Common and Literary Texts
I now live in Nicaragua, land of volcanoes. For the last few years, people living near León have felt “swarms” of earthquakes, as they’re called, which often precede an eruption. Sure enough, in December 2015 the volcano Momotombo erupted for the first time in 110 years, and over the next few days bright orange trails of lava seared down its side. I could see the ash rising into the air from the highway, and now, three months later, I still see ash plumes and hear reports of explosions, earthquakes, and fires. Although I’m not an adrenalin junky seeking acts of death-defiance, I’ve also climbed two other volcanoes nearby, Mombacho and Masaya. Visitors are no longer allowed to visit Masaya now since another recent series of earthquakes brought about a pool of lava visibly churning at the bottom of Masaya’s main crater. While not an expert by any means, I now know what a volcano is like, its beauty and its danger.

But about a year ago, sitting on my gray couch in Montreal in the dead of winter and reading Principles of Geology by Charles Lyell, I felt the weighty pelean power of those volcanoes without ever having experienced it myself. Lyell first described a volcanic valley in eastern Sicily by referencing Horace’s bucolic vales and mooing cows, and next Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake. Lyell then said, invoking Milton (and note the invocation of imagination, with the inclusive “we”),

If we imagine ourselves to behold in motion, in the darkness of the night, one of those fiery currents, which have so often traversed the great valley, we may well recall

        “—yon dreary plain, forlorn and wild,
        The seat of desolation, void of light
        Save what the glimmering of these livid flames
        Cast pale and dreadful.”

Geology is suddenly so much more interesting, right?

Allusions are another way of arousing the imagination and forming connections in the brain. Allusions have a weighted history and act as memory anchors when new material is presented. Not everyone can—or wants to—scale a volcano to understand its geology; borrowing scenes from famous works of the past is a powerful way for Lyell to transport us there.

And in just two pages—at the beginning and at the end—of The Photographic Eyes of Science, Richard A. Proctor, an English astronomer who constructed one of the earliest maps of Mars, unleashed his Biblical and classical and poetic might to tell us how great telescopes are. He cited or alluded to Psalm 19 and Genesis from the Bible, Cerberus and the hundred-eyed giant Argus from Greek mythology, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Wordsworth’s The Excursion: (“[The planets] Seemed to move / Carrying through ether in perpetual round / Decrees and resolutions of the gods.”)  Each additional allusion lends the subject matter a measure of gravitas that it did not have before: it connects the science of a new contraption to the full spectrum of humanity and its most beloved stories.

Granted, these days, given the international nature of the science community, it is practically impossible to reference something everyone will have heard of. But when Brian Greene referenced Marge and Lisa from The Simpsons (an allusion that also used characters) to describe relativity in The Fabric of the Cosmos, you can bet that readers sat up (even if they happened to dislike The Simpsons). The allusion becomes another mnemonic device science writers can hang their hats on.


Use Metaphors—Lots of Them
And here we come to those tricksy metaphors Thomas Sprat hated so much. Metaphors, contrasts, comparisons, analogies, and similes all take a known experience and use it to describe a new or an unrelated experience. I’ve lumped them together as metaphors for convenience (please forgive me).

Metaphors call upon the powers of imagination—the powers of fiction—to understand a new principle or process. They connect us, ground us. And in the science world, sometimes the metaphor becomes the model, at least until a better model comes along. For example, Michael Faraday talked about “streams of power” or the more popular “lines of force” to describe electromagnetic action at a distance. He also compared electricity to a fluid, which is why we still speak of electricity in terms of currents. The metaphor became the handle to understand the concept. The abstraction was nailed to something tangible we understand. Sometimes this causes problems—a black hole is not really a black hole, for example, and cosmic rays are not actually rays but high-energy particles. The misnomers are hard to redefine once they are entrenched.

Science writers also run the risk of alienating their readers by using unfamiliar or bizarre metaphors, as with allusions, but using something we know to describe something we are unfamiliar with is a primary way humans learn new things. It is unavoidable. Even if the metaphor is not exact, it is better than nothing.

James Clerk Maxwell experienced this very issue, and he did it in such a way that I remembered it. In Theory of Heat, published in 1871, he likened the “mutual action” between molecules to the collision of two billiard balls. “I have concluded from some experiments of my own,” Maxwell immediately qualified,

that the collision between two hard spherical balls is not an accurate representation of what takes place during the encounter of two molecules. A better representation of such an encounter will be obtained by supposing the molecules to act on one another in a more gradual manner. . . .

He went on to label the collision an Encounter, and we get it: it’s like billiard balls, but modified. We have something solid that we can relate to—billiard balls colliding—but with the freedom to expand on the comparison, once anchored.

Despite the approximations and limitations of metaphors, sometimes the metaphor itself can create a scientific revolution. Ada Lovelace, one of my heroes, wrote in Sketch of the Analytical Machine about punch cards used in fabric looms in the nineteenth century. She compared the process of weaving with punch cards to the prototype of the computer that she was working on with Charles Babbage. This metaphor gave rise to actual, physical punch cards used by IBM in 1928 until the floppy disk was developed in the late 1960s. The metaphor became the conduit for real invention, which I find fascinating.

And as a final example, Luigi Galvani, the forerunner of bioelectromagnetics, provided the phrase “animal electricity” to describe the energy that sustains life. In 1780, he connected the nerves of a recently dead frog—it had to be recently dead—to a long, metal wire pointed at the sky, and the frog started twitching during a lightning storm. This was the metaphor that Mary Shelley, hearing of this experiment, adopted thirty years later when she wrote Frankenstein. It is also the metaphor that led Walt Whitman to title one of his poems “I Sing the Body Electric.” The word electricity itself comes from the Greek word for amber, which people noticed had attracting powers if rubbed the right way. One metaphor builds on the next, splits, and expands through the ages to create a greater understanding of both ourselves and the universe. To limit them in any kind of science writing is to limit our own progress.


A Final Observation
Because science writing can be so difficult to access, we mostly depend on other people, intermediaries, to tell us what science says. And there are some great science communicators out there, my favorites among them being Margaret Wertheim and Bill Bryson. Not all people who claim to know science, however, are trustworthy. Pseudoscience runs rampant among us, anything from astrology to chiropractic vitalism to colon cleansing to rumpology, which, I kid you not, is like palm reading, but on the rump. For $125 you can send a picture of your ass to a rumpologist and have that person read your past, present, and future. Additionally, the 2014 National Science Foundation survey showed that only 74 percent of Americans believe that the earth revolves around the sun. That means a full fourth of our population missed the Copernican revolution five hundred years ago. And some of these people—and this blows my tiny heliocentric mind—have even resurrected new Flat Earth Societies, as recently as 2004 and 2009. Just this past year, in fact, the rapper B.o.B set out on a Twitter mission to convert humanity to the Flat Earth gospel.

All this is terrifying.

So yes, we need improved science communication. It can be concise and clear, as Thomas Sprat wanted, but it must also stimulate our senses, connect us to the greater whole of humanity, and lodge itself in our brains. We are battling narcissistic academese on one side and impudent quackery on the other, and we need all the tools available to keep these destructive forces at bay. Humans love stories, so let us give them the science that they need in the form that they need it, using fiction’s tools.

I’ve always loved the word reconciliation. Its Latin roots mean “to sit down together again,” which I think is a beautiful image. Without consulting a rumpologist, I can see that the reconciliation of science and the literary arts in our own minds and in our society will provide great advancements in both. Hell, one day we might even know that “Analytical Result for Dimensionally Regularized Massless Master Double Box with One Leg Off Shell” is the real paper. And we will know that to teach science effectively and lastingly, we need science writing that makes “so great a noise in the world.”

Keep making noise.

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter