Tag Archives: style

Physiognomy Encore!

A while ago, we reprinted a set of brilliant pictures of “composite photography”, a more high-tech version of a technique Francis Galton invented in the late 19th century. Here’s a different approach, less sophisticated but still interesting. The artist, Ulric Collette (who has 3 eyes, 2 noses, and 2 mouths) has digitally stitched together the faces of family members. Many are comic grotesques, but quite a few just seem to have the normal asymmetries we all have. As the artist suggests, cover first one side of a face and then the other to see how different the originals were, and then reblend them in your mind. The show’s title? Genetic Portraits.

Here are just a couple teasers. Click the link and go see them all. 

IMG 7030 web Physiognomy Encore!

ulriccollette genetic just hr e1367938563180 Physiognomy Encore!

I’m pretty sure I saw this person in the East Village about 5 years ago.


H/t to Richard Nash and to fullym.com.


The Arsehole Gene

There is a tragic epidemic plaguing us–particularly in the U.S. and in France. Assholes, or, as the Brits say, arseholes. The philosopher Aaron James, in his breakthrough work, Assholes: A Theory, has defined an asshole as a person with an entrenched sense of entitlement who is immune to criticism of his behavior.

Until now, these people have been blamed for their behavior, but genetic science has uncovered a mutation in a gene, dubbed the “arsehole gene,” that leads to the creation of an asshole. Here is a link to a touching new documentary by Eric Romero that chronicles the discovery. Please watch it and pass on the link.

Against turgidity as a quality measure in academia

It happened again last night.

I was at dinner with a group of smart, honest colleagues–a small table-ful of the people in my field I respect most. The conversation turned to another colleague, one who everyone at the table admires, not just as a scholar but as a force of nature. He is enormously productive, a serious scholar–and, damn him, he sometimes reaches a broad audience. In discussing this man’s recent work, one of my table-mates said, “I must confess: he writes so beautifully that sometimes I don’t trust what he’s saying!”

It was meant as a quip, but there was a serious point to it. I have heard this line for nearly 30 years. I’ve heard it in the sciences and I’ve heard it in the humanities. Among some academics, style is a demerit. Attention to rhythm or sonority or, Twain-help-you, wordplay, marks you as unserious, a mere Sophist rather than a Philosophe. Serious researchers are too invested in their ideas to pay attention to communicating them. They have been in the lab or the archive generating data, or in the stacks reviewing the historiography, or at their desktop spinning cotton candy out of the latest theoretical buzzwords. Attention to audience is mere marketing, a sell-out. Turgidity is the mark of a true scholar.

The fallacy involved in this slight on stylists is the confusion of pleasing with slick. Somehow they think that if your prose is graceful you must be doing something slippery that they don’t understand. You must not be revealing all your evidence, or your argument is merely clever instead of well-substantiated. The conflation, frankly, can only be made by someone so grossly unattuned to style that they can’t distinguish wit from reasoning–or persuasion from persuasiveness. But there are a lot of such people in academia, and some of them are distinguished scholars and scientists.

In a way, these crass critics are right. Style can be used to make a point. Scholars who I consider stylists (Hisa Kuriyama’s Expressiveness of the Body is a good example) use word choice, rhythm, sonority, image, and structure to help convey a point. It’s an idea journalists and English majors take in with their first undergraduate lattés: style operates on the aesthetic level, where argument operates on the rational level. A persuasive argument is layered, using evidence, argumentation, and aesthetic elements to make the case.

Pulling that off makes a piece more rigorous, not less. Whether it counts as good academic writing is another story.

Horace Judson: a eulogy

On May 6, at the age of 80, the writer Horace Freeland Judson died. He didn’t pass away; he would have insisted that he simply die. We worked together for five years, from 1997 to 2002, at The Center for History of Recent Science, George Washington University. Here is my appreciation.*

He was six feet in his stockings, which were certainly silk. He dressed impeccably. His leather shoes were glossy, his slacks pressed, even on writing days. His collar was crisp, his cufflinks shone. His houndstooth jacket might be a little worn at the seams, as if from catching too many brambles, but it was always clean. He wore a pocketwatch, and spoke with a vaguely “U” (upper-class, to the English) accent. He was raised in Chicago. A black, broad-brimmed hat, molded just so and rakishly tilted, cravat, and even a cape were not unknown on special occasions. I once saw him open a bottle of New Year’s champagne with a sword. Horace Judson was more than a little vain. But judgment should be tempered by the knowledge of two facts: his preening both reflected and masked enormous effort; and he had terrific taste. He seemed to put thought into every stitch of clothing on his body, every stick of furniture in his house, every book in his library, every word in his books.

HFJ Horace Judson: a eulogy
His meticulous appearance was, like a peacock’s tail, a display of vigor, for he zipped his pants, buttoned his shirt, oiled his hair, and tied his shoelaces with only one good hand. The left. Childhood polio had withered the other, leaving it floppy and florid. The handicap slowed him down a little—he reconfigured that slowness into a magisterial pace—but prevented him from doing nothing. He shook hands cross-handed (I soon learned to shake left-to-left with him). He opened wine, canned tomatoes, and drove a stick-shift, flamboyantly flouting his disability. He never asked for help. His pride was his strength.

Of course, he typed the quarter million or so words of The Eighth Day of Creation, and everything else he wrote, with one hand. The deliberation this required contributed to the precision and elegance of his prose. Though a journalist by training, he wrote not like a reporter but like an essayist or a novelist. His style was always formal, never slangy (though he was not averse to the occasional earthy vulgarity), and occasionally pompous. He used every rhetorical trick in Aristotle, and had a flair for the dramatic. But his prose was always muscular, and he regularly knocked off passages of such clarity, insight, and grace as to leave the attentive reader breathless.

Consider his definition of X-ray crystallography, an arcane science if ever there was one, from chapter 2 of The Eighth Day. He begins with an analogy simultaneously quantitative and yet immediately apprehensible: “The X-rays used in crystallography are shorter than visible light by some four thousand times.” That does what good writing must, especially when it is on a technical subject: it connects the unknown to the known. Any educated person has a rough idea about visible light, and a sense of how big four thousand times is. Judson then explains the one thing everyone wants to know about X-rays. “Their wavelength is 1.5 Angstroms, which is the same order of size as the spacing between atoms in many solids, and that is why X-rays go through substances that are opaque to the eye.” Did you know that? “Penetrated by a thin beam”—thin beam is nice, both as explanation and in sonority—“the orderly array of atoms in a crystal, layer upon layer, scatters the X-rays in an orderly way, causing a repeating series of overlapping circles of waves.” Note the repetition of orderlyorderly, prefiguring the repeating series of the following clause. Powerful rhetoric illustrates the underlying concept. “At intersection with the flat sheet of film”—note the alliteration, intercalated by the contrasting long vowel sound—“the troughs and peaks of these waves reinforce each other at some points and cancel each other out elsewhere.” The image recalls every child’s game of dropping two stones into a pond and watching the ripples crash. Here is the crucial insight: “The interference pattern that results is characteristic of the structure that produced it,” he writes, and he abruptly ends the lesson by waving a hand at the Nobel-winning mathematics behind it, which would confuse and bore his audience: “…though to figure back to the structure takes mathematics and experience.” That’s all you need to know, really, and not a word more than it takes to describe it.

He never matched that book. How many of us get even one book of that magnitude? Judson is by far the non-PhD most quoted by historians and philosophers of twentieth-century biology, and scholars hate the fact. “Molecular biology is a discipline, a level of analysis, a kit of tools,” he wrote at the beginning of chapter 4. “Which is to say, it is unified by style as much as by content.” There’s a dissertation in that casual observation. He had hundreds like it. At the same time, the book is notoriously difficult to teach, and so few do. (I like to assign chapter 3. Students love it, but find it challenging.) Teachable books show their scaffolding and leave their beams exposed, so that students can skim for argument and get on to their orgo problem sets. Not so Judson. He draws you in, makes you read slowly. The paragraphs are meticulously constructed, but the themes are buried a sentence or two deep, and the arguments build incrementally. You end up highlighting every line.

That quality, combined with his pomp and occasional arrogance, alienated many historians of science. He could be difficult. Yet three things saved him for me. First, his intelligence and his skill as a writer and editor. Many times he annoyed me by ignoring my requests to comment on my green prose, only to read through it once and mark it up on the fly, effortlessly extracting the voice and meaning that I had buried in murk and flab and cliché. He still sits on my shoulder as I write, insisting that I justify the sequence of items in a list, put a twist on every cliché, and, unless I have a specific reason to do otherwise, narrate my story in strict chronological order. Second, his generosity. He often went far out of his way for people, with no expectation of recognition. Behind the formality was a genuinely warm person who loved sentiment but hated sentimentality. And third, his tragedy. He wanted to be accepted as a historian, and never quite was. I think he idealized the university as only someone can who doesn’t have the professorial press pass. Which is too bad, because he was better—gave more insight and more pleasure—than many credentialed scholars. His obituary in the Times listed him as a historian of science, which would have pleased him but which underestimated him. He was a writer.

*Thomas Soderqvist has also posted a piece on Judson. Highly recommended.