Notes on Writing: Writing Science, the Obsessions of Science Writers

The best science writers do not write science; they write cultural histories. With the single-minded obsession of an auteur meticulously putting together a motion picture, they tease out the narratives underlying the human efforts to make sense of the Universe. And just like the most accomplished writers of fiction they have their overarching themes.

James Gleick (Chaos: The Making of a New Science, The Information:  A History, a Theory, a Flood) builds his narratives by putting together images of scientists at work, engaging esoteric but fascinating corners of the Universe with their tools; both the very real and very physical tools of the experimentalist, and the abstract and intangible ones of the theorist. His heroes are often people who go against the grain of reductionist science to look for unifying principles in small, neglected, and even seemingly mundane and apparently well understood phenomena.

Richard Panek (Seeing and Believing: How the Telescope Opened Our Eyes and Minds to the Heavens, The Four Percent Universe) is drawn towards explorers “of universes in a grain of sand”: astronomers, astrophysicists, and cosmologists. He paints poetic images of scientists obsessing over their obsessions, and painstakingly piecing together not just a picture of astronomically large parts of the Universe, but also ways and means of looking at astronomically large parts of the Universe. His books often contain scenes of investigators going through the motions of building instruments, making measurements, poring over data, dashing off calculations, writing papers, and attending conferences. They are what they do seems to be Panek’s philosophy.

George Johnson is interested in the influences that shape the mind of a polymath, and the social and cultural conditions which provoke and nurture it, in Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in 20th-Century Physics, arguably one of the finest scientific biographies ever written. The complex Murray Gell-Mann is both the subject and the grand unifying principle of Johnson’s masterwork, allowing him to pick up and then weave multiple intellectual narrative strands into one unified tableau. As he writes in the prologue

[Gell-Mann] had long been interested in almost everything – classical history, archeology, linguistics, wildlife ecology, ornithology, numismatics, French and Chinese cuisine…

and in the epilogue

…Gell-Mann described our relationship as biographer and subject as a complex adaptive system. We were forming ever changing schemata of each other, in an uneasy give-and-take. As I was putting the finishing touches on my grand unified theory of Murray Gell-Mann, I was driven back to the old question of nature versus nurture, cast in a slightly different way. How much of who we are is innate, genetic, like local laws of physics, and how much is the result of the accidents of history?

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