Science & Research

Science writer emphasizes storytelling, human connection

Bestselling author Alan Lightman offers advice for making science writing clear and engaging

By
Contributing Writer
Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Alan Lightman, visiting professor in English, stressed the importance of making scientific ideas understandable in a lecture Tuesday night.

“Science can be a subject of beautiful writing, just like description of a landscape or memories of a love affair,” said Alan Lightman to nearly 100 students and faculty members Tuesday night.

Community members filled a meeting room on the second floor of Brown/RISD Hillel to listen to him speak about nonfiction science writing — its importance, its challenges and even its emotions.

Lightman, a visiting professor in the department of English, holds dual appointments as a faculty member in both humanities and science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In addition to being a physicist, he is a published writer — his work of fiction, “Einstein’s Dreams,” is an international bestseller that has been translated into 30 different languages, said Elizabeth Taylor, senior lecturer in English, when she introduced Lightman.

“Science is part of our cultural inheritance,” Lightman said as he answered the question, “Why write about science?” People who do not learn about mankind’s great accomplishments in science are “missing out,” just like people who have not read the works of Shakespeare, he added.

People also need to learn about science because of how much it influences society, Lightman said. For the public to make decisions in a democratic society, it must be well-informed, he added, citing climate change as one science-related issue about which people should be educated.

Lightman went on to identify some of the challenges in writing about science. For one, many readers are not familiar with scientific jargon and may even have a “fear” of science because they view it as difficult to understand, he said.

Lightman also described a “challenge in connecting.” Writing connects with people, and the author of a work about science must connect not only to people, or to “human psychology,” but also to the physical world, Lightman said. But “modern science is about a world we cannot touch or feel or hear,” he added.

Keeping these challenges in mind, Lightman gave the audience advice on how to approach science writing.

Science writers are often not scientists, so they should build up a network of science experts whom they can ask for explanations about their subjects, Lightman said. “If you don’t understand it, your reader won’t understand it,” he added.

A good piece of writing should “tell a good story,” Lightman said, referencing a piece of advice he said he was once given.

It is also important to use metaphors and analogies, as they help people understand the topic, Lightman said. He gave one example: If an atom were the size of Fenway Park, its nucleus would be equivalent to a poppy seed at the center of the stadium. “You can see that in your mind,” he said.

In a final piece of advice, Lightman said the writer should rotate between different aspects of a work, such as “personal commentary,” “biography” and “history.” He described his “150-word rule” — “You don’t have more than 150 words straight of pure science,” he said.

Lightman finished his lecture by reading excerpts from several works of science writing. An excerpt from Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” shows that “even science writing can have an emotional impact,” he said.

Audience members laughed at Lightman’s jokes and gave him a hearty round of applause at the end.

Linda Heuman, a visiting scholar in religious studies, said the lecture “was very inspiring for me in particular because I’m a journalist and an essayist.”

With respect to Lightman’s work, Heuman said she was “taken by it,” adding, “I used to be a science writer so I know how difficult it is.”

Claire Chin Foo ’17 read one of Lightman’s works in class. “It’s difficult to write about sciences in general. … He does it very well,” she said. “I really like his way of explaining everything. You can understand everything he’s trying to tell you,” she added, referring to both Lightman’s lecture and his writing.

Heuman also described the “very unusual and very important” interdisciplinary nature of Lightman’s work. “Often, we see topics in the humanities through a scientific lens, and here we see it through the lens of stories,” she said.

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