Science and Writing

"The place scientific writing might claim among the corpus of imaginative writing zoned off as literature by unstable rules for admission and rejection is a strong one, allowing for inevitable airs of condescension from the protectors of letters," writes Guy Davenport in Geography of the Imagination. I was thinking about this last week as I read through writing by Einstein, Russell—even Edison's diaries. There is a practical side to their works, like Russell writing that he would disagree with philosophers who think that words should not be connected with facts but remain in a pure, autonomous world. This pragmatism is often reflected in some acknowledgement of the golden mean, as in Russell writing: “I am convinced that intelligence, patience, and eloquence can, sooner or later, lead the human race out of its self imposed tortures provided it does not exterminate itself meanwhile.” 
Davenport's interest in concrete scientific writing is in its verbal precision, which he says goes disregarded due to a current "delinquency" among teachers and students who dismiss this literary quality as "scientific jargon". 
Verbal precision means having seen something to begin with, and to see is to avoid generalisations and approach the specific; to look at something until its qualities become apparent. We learn from Davenport that some people call this being "scientific." Which is perhaps fair, because this was implied in much Victorian literature, including George Eliot's Middlemarch, in which seeing with precision is associated with science:
Even with a microscope directed on a water-drop we find ourselves making interpretations which turn out to be rather coarse; for whereas under a weak lens you may seem to see a creature exhibiting an active voracity into which other smaller creatures actively play as if they were so many animated tax-pennies, a stronger lens reveals to you certain tiniest hairlets which make vortices for these victims while the swallower waits passively at his receipt of custom. In this way, metaphorically speaking, a strong lens applied to Mrs. Cadwallader's match-making will show a play of minute causes...
This "microscopic" viewing has its precedent, say in Lucretius in The Nature of Things, who sees not through a microscope but through inference:  "Yet no one saw how sank the moisture in, / Nor how by heat off-driven. Thus we know, / That moisture is dispersed about in bits / Too small for eyes to see."
Interestingly, both Middlemarch and Nature point to mysterious things, too, the seeing penetrates through lives to death and returns in narrative.

But there is more to reading scientific prose: it also points to achievement. Both the achievement of seeing something through to a given result (the discovery of a new law or its application) and achievement on a more general level.
One excerpt I have returned to has made it to the wikipedia page of the scientist Jovan Cvijic, who many may know from his role in the Paris Peace Conference. He writes in The Forming of Science Workers:
You should get used to constant thinking about a problem, work, profession until you find a solution. There are bright moments, especially bright nights, which are rare; where you can find an answer to a question or come up with a research plan. That time of spiritual lucidity and creativity should be put to use, and not thinking about rest according to that ordinary human, oriental laziness. That does not hurt the body, and if does hurt, the body exists in order to be spent properly.
Writing teachers expend great effort trying to impart to students that seeing is a way of life if a writer is to have a store of original observation to draw from, but the excerpt above expresses this idea so tidily. Generally speaking, scientists value "simple language"—and there are many who write in this language.
One scientist very cleanly wrote about the similarities between science and poetry: both seeking the "essence" of things, the group of facts that despite disparities is shown to be similar to something else, and how this similarity informs the facts in that group, revealing a discovery. He writes that while poetry then proceeds to dress up this essence to make it more impressive, science pursues the truth. Yet poetry can also discover truth, he argues, citing Lucretius' work as a precursor to Einstein's discovery of the interdependency of time and space.
It may be that scientific writing and literature are more similar than dissimilar, and that by considering scientific writing even as a non scientist, one may learn a useful lesson in precision and how to see. But to end this post on a grain of salt form the sea, here's Edison applying his powers of observation: "Fish seem to be rather conservative around this bay, one seldom catches enough to form the fundamental basis for a lie.  ... Everybody lost patience at the stupidity of the fish in not coming forward promptly to be murdered." 

Brush: Pugly Pixel.


  1. The mix of truly scientific methods of observation with broad strokes of ethical generalization (e.g., "oriental laziness") is worth noting.

    1. Where does this leave anthropology?

    2. Good question. Hopefully more aware of its limitations.

    3. Thank you for your generous comments; I realised after my last comment that I may not have understood your initial one. My interpretation of your comment was that anthropology was the broad brush stroke in the sciences, being the one "scientific" realm where we can still talk about the cultural differences say in how long a given culture takes to have its lunch.
      But maybe that's what you meant; that to focus on these generalisations is a limitation?
      I am sorry to be so out of practice in commenting.

    4. Big discussion. I was just thinking that the 19th c. approaches now seem provincial - whether in physics, or chemistry, or astronomy, etc. Scientific advances have, in a sense, humbled science - or should have. Yet anthropocentrism is resilient enough that science doesn't remain humble for long.

    5. Thank you for taking the time to clarify.
      Would that I had a smart reply, but at this time, all I can think of is "hubris: the pride that cometh before the fall", an image of the wildly-used invention of wax wings, and inventions confused with trickery.

  2. The space for confusion might be there, irremediably. Your words reminded me of Clarke: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

  3. ..."magic" from the Persian "to have power"...


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