Lightman shares recipe for science writing success

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Writing a good science narrative requires making material accessible to the average reader, Alan Lightman P’02 told a full house in Salomon 001 Wednesday evening.

Lightman, adjunct professor of humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the author of several best-selling science books, including “Einstein’s Dreams,” a fictional work in which he attempts to go inside the mind of the famed physicist.

Lightman spoke as part of the Expository Writing Program’s Great Writers Lecture Series.

The writer read from his upcoming work, “The Discover-ies,” in which he gives a “guided tour” of over 20 of the most important scientific papers in history, including works by Einstein and DNA researchers Rosalind Franklin, James Watson and Francis Crick.

“Great papers are cultural landmarks like novels and symphonies,” he said. “The mythology is that only the bottom line matters in science – the formula, the experiment. All you need in science is a distillation, a textbook about the result. I want to challenge that mythology with this book.”

Lightman also discussed the methods he used to make his book accessible to the general public. He introduces a chapter on the discovery of quarks with an anecdote about his daughter, Elyse Lightman ’02, who smashed open the smallest doll in her set of nesting dolls to look for the other dolls inside. “I try to figure out what was the real important idea with quarks. I try to think of that idea for every chapter I write. How does that relate to human desire and longing?” he said.

Lightman devoted the first part of his lecture to readings from authors he thought expressed “excellent science writing.” As he read, he pointed out literary devices that the writers used to make their work more appealing, including a scientific essay entitled “On Being the Right Size” from 1928 that alluded to the then-commonly read “Pilgrim’s Progress.” Lightman cautioned against referencing obscure, more academic works, “’cause then you’re showing off.”

Lightman used these examples and his experience with his own work to offer listeners his “recipe for brilliant science writing.”

“First, read a lot of good science writing – that is indispensable for any kind of writer. Second, always write about something you love, something that moves you, interests you, excites you.” Then, Lightman said, an aspiring science writer should research to “bring in people and the human element” in order to find “the chord of human existence.”

“If you can’t figure out why it’s significant, don’t write about it,” he said. “Find out what the story is – there’s always a story.”

Lightman also offered advice to make science narratives accessible to the average reader.

“When you’ve written your piece, have non-science friends read it,” he said. “You’ve been immersed in the subject, and you’re taking certain concepts and vocabulary words for granted.”

“A science narrative is writing about science for the public,” Lightman told The Herald prior to the lecture. “Writing about science is different from other non-fiction things.”

Lightman said reading science narratives can often be unpleasant for readers who are “not nearly as informed as they should be” and in some cases “don’t want to be informed.”

“There’s a very conservative element of the population who are threatened by the kind of questioning that science does,” he said. “You combat it by continuing to write about science and discussing the way that science approaches the world.”

Lightman returned to this idea in his lecture. “A lot of readers are afraid of science – how do you approach readers like that?” he said. “You need to interest them. You need to confront the science head-on,” he added, arguing against writing that “dumbs down” science to make it more accessible.

“Use good metaphors,” he advised, citing a comparison physicists often draw between the expansion of a balloon and the expansion of the universe.

“Science itself may deal with the outside world, but the activity of science is a human activity,” Lightman continued. “If you can tell a good story, if you can bring in the human beings, the scientists that participated, you can sometimes get your audience.”

After the lecture, Lightman answered questions about current trends in science writing. “Now it’s legitimate for professional scientists to write for the general public – when I first started in the mid-’70s there was still a pretty strong taboo,” he noted. “There are a lot more books about science for the public now.”

A physics professor asked Lightman about Brown’s New Curriculum, which does not require students to take any science courses.

“I think that the reason to take a science course is not to learn a particular subject,” he said. “I think it’s important to learn the way scientists think – it doesn’t matter what course it is.” Lightman said he felt Brown’s curriculum helps achieve that goal. “Brown is unusual … but (the curriculum) seems to work here.”

Lightman was also asked why science textbooks don’t use science narratives to make their subjects more interesting. “It’s still a mythology that as long as you have clarity, the writing doesn’t have to be interesting, if it’s science,” he said.

“To write with a literary flair requires some talent and training – just because you’re trained in education in science doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be trained as a writer,” he added.

Nathan Schneider ’06, who is writing a thesis about intelligent design, said he found the lecture helpful. A religious studies concentrator, Schneider was also intrigued by Lightman’s reading of an essay Albert Einstein wrote on his religious beliefs. “I’m going to ask him about that – how he sees the effect of the authority of science on religious conversations.”

“I enjoy science writing – I’m doing some writing of my own,” said Jackie Parente GS, a biomedical engineering student. Parente, a teaching fellow, also found the “interactive classroom setting” of Lightman’s lecture appealing.

Professor of Geology Jan Tullis said he also found the lecture valuable. “I think that science courses should include writing assignments,” she said. “Engaging communication is important for everyone in any field or area.”

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