National Writing Project

Why I Write: Writing about Science—A Way to Pay Attention to Nature

By: Anil Ananthaswamy
Date: September 21, 2011

Summary: Anil Ananthaswamy, author of The Edge of Physics, says that writing is important in science to make jargon come alive with stories, to capture the precision and skepticism that's intrinsic to science, and to inform the world of the scientific truths that are so critical to our lives.

 

In his book The First Three Minutes, particle physicist and Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg wrote, "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless. ... The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts a human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy."

Physicists are often confronted by the apparent meaninglessness of the universe, or at least the lack of any meaning that can be discerned by science. In this context, Weinberg argued that science itself gave meaning to one's life. In an interview with PBS, Weinberg would add, "There is a point that we can give the universe by the way we live, by loving each other, by discovering things about nature, by creating works of art."

Ever since I started writing, I have held Weinberg's views close to my heart. He could have been speaking about writing. To write well you have to be attentive, to both external and internal worlds, examine your reactions to them, and express your thoughts clearly. Writing lets you explore precision and beauty in words, sentences, and paragraphs. It imbues a writer's life with meaning. All writers know this, even though this facet of their work is often lost in the quotidian struggle to earn a living, let alone "succeed" as a writer.

Writing about science combines the joys of these two ways of paying attention to nature. It also allows the writer to participate in the process and progress of science, sometimes superficially, but often to a much greater degree than is afforded by reading about it.

First, you have to understand the science. This can be hard, but it has its rewards. There's the thrill of talking to scientists, getting a glimpse of the workings of their minds as they wander the edges of the universe we inhabit or probe the recesses of the very consciousness that begets questions. It's a thrill by proxy, but in lieu of being a scientist, it's the next best thing.

Like a good scientist, a good science writer is skeptical.

Then, there is the challenge of communicating this thrill to the reader—and this brings the writer to the fore. Science demands precision, and so does writing about it. It requires being diligent about the craft and playing by the rules. But once you have paid your dues to the gods of craft—no small feat in itself—you can think about creating art. "Most scientists are motivated at least in part by beauty—you should be, too," wrote Robert Kunzig, in A Field Guide for Science Writers.

Stories Bridge the Jargon of Science

By writing well and telling stories, science writers can bridge the gap between society and the jargon of science. They can entertain readers, while conveying the awesome power of science and the consequent responsibilities. Societies, whether industrialised or developing, live in fear of science to varying degrees. This fear manifests itself in the debate over evolution in the US or the teaching of astrology in Indian universities.

As Timothy Ferris writes in A Field Guide for Science Writers, science is "a deceptively simple process of systematically testing one's ideas against the verdict of experiment"—and good science writing can help dispel any fears that might arise when we are confronted with scientific truths. It can and should inform the debates of our generation—over issues such as climate change, genetically-modified crops, or stem cell research.

The writer, however, is beholden to science, not scientists, who are human and prone to human lapses, no matter how glorious their pursuit of knowledge. Like a good scientist, a good science writer is skeptical—of scientists' claims and counter-claims of their work's worth.

For instance, it's important to question the cost to society—humanitarian, financial or ethical—of searching for the Higgs boson, exploring Mars or pre-implantation genetic screening of embryos. It's the science writer's job to pose relevant questions and find answers, but always with an integrity that's central to the process of science itself.

Humanity is best served when there is a diversity of thoughtful questions and answers. If science is vital to the modern social ecosystem, science writers are an indispensable species.

About the Author Anil Ananthaswamy is a consultant for New Scientist in London. He has worked at the magazine in various capacities since 2000, most recently as deputy news editor. He is also a contributor to National Geographic News. Ananthaswamy worked as a software engineer in Silicon Valley before training as a journalist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He's the author of The Edge of Physics (published as The Edge of Reason by Penguin in India).

Watch Anil Ananthaswamy's TED Talk

Photo credit: Gene Driskell, INK Conference, Lavasa, 2010

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