Have we reached the end of science writing?

In 1992, Francis Fukuyama published a book titled, “The End of History and the Last Man.” Although everyone laughed at the title, the book wasn’t suggesting that history had ended. Rather, it was wondering whether we had reached the peak of political philosophy. Was there anything actually better than liberal democracy?

Reading science writing often leaves me wondering something similar. Have we reached the peak of science writing? The internet has led to an explosion in fantastic science writing, with people such as Ed Yong, Virginia Hughes, and David Dobbs repeatedly putting out sophisticated pieces on scientific discoveries. In conjunction with this trend has been a rise in magazines specializing in this writing, such as Aeon and Nautilus. But recently I’ve found myself being incredibly bored every time I read these articles.

Oh, I don’t mean I’m actually bored; the writing is still gripping and full of interesting facts and anecdotes. Yet when I start each article I can practically close my eyes, point at a paragraph, and tell you what’s going to be in it. It’s somewhat formulaic. That’s not necessarily bad: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But I’m the kind of guy that loves reading Faulkner and Nabakov and such: writing that is presented in a different structure than you are used to. Obviously, I don’t read that all the time – frankly, it’s mostly wizards and dragons and spaceships that cover the books in my hand – but it’s nice to have a change or a surprise.

Experimentation in form is not just for people like me that are easily bored. It is a way to push against boundaries and try to find new ways to say things that you couldn’t before. Let me give a couple of examples.

First, we are all familiar with the ubiquitous Malcolm Gladwell or New Yorker style of reporting (I apologize, I’m afraid I don’t know who actually started writing this way). If you read reporting a hundred years ago, it was a straightforward explanation of events: this then this then this. The Gladwell structure is different; look at How David Beat Goliath. It begins with a few paragraphs about a children’s soccer team, then continues with a few paragraphs of David and Goliath, then turns to a story about a software company on wall street. Slowly, it weaves the stories together. The structure utilizes several distinct outlooks on the same topic to shed more light on it than you would otherwise be able to get. It’s actually pretty complex for the reader, who is asked to follow several different stories as they shift in and out of focus. Think of it like the difference between I Love Lucy and Lost.

Another example is the New Journalism of the 60s and 70s. Instead of writing in a typical reporting style, people like Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe wrote in a manner that seemed like fiction (quote shamefully stolen from this blog post):

Ten o’clock Sunday morning in the hills of North Carolina. Cars, miles of cars, in every direction, millions of cars, pastel cars, aqua green, aqua blue, aqua beige, aqua buff, aqua dawn, aqua dusk, aqua aqua, aqua Malacca, Malacca lacquer, Cloud lavender, Assassin pink, Rake-a-cheek raspberry. Nude Strand coral, Honest Thrill orange, and Baby Fawn Lust cream-colored cars are all going to the stock-car races, and that old mothering North Carolina sun keeps exploding off the windshields. Mother dog!

Working mash wouldn’t wait for a man. It started coming to a head when it got ready to and a man had to be there to take it off, out there in the woods, in the brush, in the brambles, in the muck, in the snow. Wouldn’t it have been something if you could have just set it all up inside a good old shed with a corrugated metal roof and order those parts like you want them and not have to smuggle all that copper and all that sugar and all that everything out here in the woods and be a coppersmith and a plumber and a cooper and a carpenter and a pack horse and every other goddamned thing God ever saw in this world, all at once.

It is possible to experiment with form in order to understand an idea in a different way. But what about in science writing? I was called out on Twitter for the title of one of my previous posts; “Study: Men smell and that will stress you out.” It was something that I had meant as a tongue-in-cheek in-joke, but from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know my dry style of humor it really, really didn’t come across, sounding instead like linkbait. As they put it: “It’s a science blog. It has references. We use objective descriptions for accuracy, even if that requires repetition.” Which, honestly, is a great point. What is required of someone who writes about science? Does their intended audience matter? Should we be playing around if it might cause confusion?

Virginia Hughes passed along a great article on the desire to write about science beautifully. The article warned against playing too much:

Nonfiction arranges facts into a story, it finds the story in the facts. Readers are in it less for evocation of someone else’s world than for understanding the facts and nature of our own. Without facts, nonfiction is unreliable and readers’ understanding of the world is correspondingly untrustworthy. Untrustworthy authors/narrators in fiction are charming; in nonfiction, they’re worse than useless, they’re a betrayal, they’re at best a waste of time.

…So my note of caution is this: as science writers, we should go ahead and treat our scientists as characters and their discoveries as plots; and find pretty analogies; and control the rhythms of our sentences; and look for the central conflicts and the narrative arcs; and write with our own peculiar voices. But our readers have a different covenant with is. They trust us, they think we’ll tell them the truth; they think they can put that truth into their worlds and rely on it. And if we betray them, they’ll be pissed. So if you want beauty in science writing? Find the beauty in the facts, in reality, and write about that.

But does that mean there is no room for growth? Are there no other forms that people covering science should write in? While there has not been a ton of experimentation in form – that I can discover – there certainly is some. Adam Jasper and Nadia Wagner wanted to write an article on scent. Instead of a typical historical introduction, they introduced facts through disconnected paragraphs with tangential connections found at long distance. Bret Victor presented a scientific paper as a beautiful sequence of illustrations – and no, I don’t mean like an infographic. Aatish Bhatia (among others) has frequently mixed reporting with his own additional analysis of the data.

Again, I don’t want to sound like I’m attacking the way people write now; there’s a reason that I will read literally anything that Ed Yong posts. There are many ways to write, and we don’t want everyone going off and experimenting for the sake of experimenting – that way is studded with the problems that plague contemporary art. Yet we should examine what other ways there are to write about science. Just like any scientific experiment, most of the time it won’t work. But sometimes it will.

Please feel free to comment with any examples of science reporting that you think has played with the structure of the writing.

Pyramidal neurons

pyramidal neuronsvia neuroimages, by  Alexandre William Moreau/ Institute of Neurology/ Nikon Small World Competition


Purkinje and his cell

A hundred thousand hourglasses – on the Purkinje cell:

If a mid-19th century European—a Prussian, let’s say—wanted to contact famed Czech histologist Jan Evangelista Purkinje, he only needed to address his envelope with two words: Purkinje, Europe; so large was Purkinje’s renown, that his dwelling was an entire continent…

Born in 1787 to a housewife and a German priest, Purkinje was raised in Bohemia (now Czech Republic) and graduated in 1818 with a degree in medicine. He was soon appointed as a Professor of Physiology at Prague’s Charles University where he taught and conducted research on human anatomy. In addition to discovering Purkinje images (reflections of objects from structures of the eye) and the Purkinje shift (the change in the intensity of red and blue colors as light intensity ebbs at nightfall) he also proposed the scientific term for plasma, the colorless fluid part of blood, lymph, or milk, in which corpuscles or fat globules are suspended. Today, his name also adorns a university in Ústí nad Labem, Czech Republic; a crater on the Moon; and a small asteroid (#3701), but he lives on—commemorated best, I like to think—as an elegant cerebellar cell.

That I did not know about Purkinje! Go read this beautiful essay on the Purkinje cell.

Can a machine tell us about beauty?

Trapped on a plane flying to Salt Lake City, I got to thinking about the recent article on how ‘the same brain centers that appreciate art were being activated by beautiful maths‘. In a caffeine-fueled binge, I started righting a purple prose-filled essay on the subject. Clark Ashton Smith would be proud:

Our brain works through a series of chemical messaging systems: payloads of neurotransmitters cross synapses, ions whizz through directly-connected gap junctions, molecular cascades tumble through cells. And on a gross level we have large chunks of grubby grey matter whose fluctuating electrical potentials draw in blood when we see beauty. Yet the phenomenon of beauty is not solely based on the level of blood flow in our brains; rather, it is the precise matrix of neurons and proteins and peptides that are in flux at the right moment that creates our emergent feelings of aesthetics. The beauty of a sunset is not the beauty of literature is not the beauty of an equation, despite what our burbling blood whispers to the thrumming MRI machines.

Anyway, despite the ‘poetics’, the point is real. There is a lot of cynicism among certain in the neuroscience community about the utility of fMRI. This certainly isn’t helped by dead-salmon studies of the ilk that Neuroskeptic or Neurocritic often point out. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful! Because of the reward function in science, labs are motivated to oversell their findings – and the media et al help them get away with it, because they don’t really understand what’s going on and like pretty pictures of brains. Yet even when the result is simply finding that some area of the brain ‘lights up’ to some stimulus, that still tells us something about the underlying circuitry, and where to go check for more details.

What is popular in top neuroscience?

As a reminder, here is the list of the top 10 most cited neuroscience papers from the last ten years:

1. EEGLAB: an open source toolbox for analysis of single-trial EEG dynamics including independent component analysis.

2. Epigenetic programming by maternal behavior.

3. Expanded GGGGCC Hexanucleotide Repeat in Noncoding Region of C9ORF72 Causes Chromosome 9p-Linked FTD and ALS.

4. Epigenetic regulation of the glucocorticoid receptor in human brain associates with childhood abuse.

5. Suppression of basal autophagy in neural cells causes neurodegenerative disease in mice.

6. Mutations in FUS, an RNA processing protein, cause familial amyotrophic lateral sclerosis type 6.

7. Microglia: active sensor and versatile effector cells in the normal and pathologic brain.

8. Separate neural systems value immediate and delayed monetary rewards.

9. The neural basis of economic decision-making in the ultimatum game.

10. TDP-43 mutations in familial and sporadic amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

You can also go back to my previous post and see the longer (and more detailed) list of most-cited papers from the last ten years.

I made some word clouds! I took my database and removed words like “neuroscience”, “neuron”, “cells”, etc. Here are the most common words from the top 100 most cited papers of the last ten years:

Here are the next 100:

and then 200-500:

therest_neuroscienceI don’t trust the data to go down any further. The lesson here is if you want an incredibly well-cited paper, work on human cognition! If you just want a really well-cited one, you can work on mechanisms, circuitry, or stem cells.  And unless you are working on the hippocampus, definitely don’t refer to what region of the brain you are studying unless you just want a pretty well-cited paper.

So much for making explicit that you work on rats and mice; people only want to know if you are working on humans or AIs!

A whole crowd of dreamers like himself

These observations woke new currents in Wokulski’s soul, of which he had not thought before, or only imprecisely. And so the great city, like a plant or beast, had its own anatomy and physiology. And so the work of millions of people who proclaimed their free will so loudly produced the same results as bees building regular honeycombs, ants raising rounded mounds, or chemical compounds forming regular crystals.

Thus there was nothing accidental in society, but an inflexible law which, as if in irony at human pride, manifested itself so clearly in the life of the most capricious of nations, the French!

…And he imagined how it would have been if he’d been born in Paris instead of Warsaw. In the first place, he would have been enabled to learn more as a child because of the many schools and colleges. Then, even if he had gone into trade, he would have experienced less unpleasantness and more help in his studies. Further, he wouldn’t have worked on a perpetual motion machine for he’d have known that many similar machines which never worked were to be found in the museums here. Had he tried to construct guided balloons, he would have found models, a whole crowd of dreamers like himself, and even help if his ideas were practical.

Thoughts on cities, life, and determinism by Stanisław Wokulski (The Doll, Bolesław Prus, 1890.)

I’m finally back from my physical and mental holiday vacation. I read The Doll during this time and am in awe at the collection of insights into capitalism, industry, technology, social status and structures, human life and more. It’s shockingly contemporary and readable, and has to be one of the best major novels of the 19th century – yet is almost entirely unread.

Nikon Small World contest winners

The winners of Nikon’s Small World photography contest have been announced. See them all here.