Tag Archives: writing

Wait, there’s a fly in my soup

My new piece in Nautilus Magazine is up. It’s on some exciting research going on at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, on the origin of life. Most of us grew up with the “primordial soup.” Forget all that–hydrothermal vents are where it’s at. No one knows how life really started, of course, but this theory is pretty persuasive, because it obeys one of the central laws of the universe: entropy, the tendency for energy to go “downhill.” Take a look. 

Also, Nautilus Editor-in-Chief Michael Segal did an interview with me that’s now online. It’s a wide-ranging conversation, in which we talked about the history of science as a discipline, women in science, the Nobel Prize, and more. And it’s broken into nice, bite-sized pieces, perfect for brief lunch breaks and short attention spans.


The Whig interpretation of the gene

I have an essay in the June issue of The Atlantic, out online now and at your favorite magazine dealer or airport in a week or so.

It’s an essay review centered around Siddhartha Mukherjee’s newest book, The Gene. The book is part history of genetics and part discussion of current genetic science and medicine. Scientists don’t seem to like the latter too well. An article, based on the book, that appeared in the New Yorker earlier this spring, is receiving a great deal of criticism from the scientific community. They say that the piece badly misrepresents the mechanisms of epigenetics.

I take him to task on his history. I use the book as the base for a discussion of “Whig history” and why it is so dangerous when writing about science. Whig history, crudely, is writing about the past from the perspective of history’s winners; it is history as a justification of the present.

Good, critical history of science is vital to doing good science on a community scale. Only when we understand that “the” gene is a human concept that describes a bit of biology in a particularly productive way, can we harness the full power of genetic knowledge for good.

Take a look!


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.