Scientism of this order provokes shrieks of outrage, and I
would not recommend Medawar's style of patrician insouciance
— not till you reach the age of 60 and have a Nobel
prize as well deserved as his. The suspicion that Medawar
is righter than most of us publicly admit may be fleeting,
and it may be secret, but it should at least embolden the
young science writer. Choose science, and you have something
important to write about.
Not just important but fascinating. Not just fascinating but
open-ended: you'll never run out of subjects, where the effort
of simplification repays the writer as richly as the reader.
Einstein said: "Everything should be as simple as possible,
but no simpler." Any fool can oversimplify. Far from talking
down, flatter your reader. Don't apologise for elitism, encourage
your reader to join the elite. Don't shrink from choosing
the exact word that says it best, even if it drives your reader
to the dictionary. A dictionary never harmed anyone, and a
word can excite by its very unfamiliarity.
Seek to enlighten and inspire, not impress. Darwin may not
have been the most graceful role model for a young writer,
but he laboured mightily to be understood because he knew
the importance of what he had to convey. He worked to anticipate
every problem that might arise, even devoting an entire chapter
to "Difficulties on Theory".
Dawkins's Law of the Conservation of Difficulty states that
obscurantism in an academic subject expands to fill the vacuum
of its intrinsic simplicity. Theoretical physics is a genuinely
difficult subject. Envious disciplines, which I shall not
advertise, conceal their lack of content behind billowing
clouds of deliberate obscurity, hilariously lampooned by Alan
Sokal in his hoax article, "Towards a transformative hermeneutics
of quantum gravity", published by Social Text to the
subsequent embarrassment of that pretentious journal's "Editorial
Collective". Wanton obscurantism subverts the very point of
science. If science seems difficult, it should only be because
the real world is difficult. Yet a sufficiently skilled writer
can cut through the difficulty without losing content and
without dumbing down.
Yeats proclaimed "The fascination of what's difficult", and
at different times described poetry as a "craft", or "trade"
which had to be learned.
A line may take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Stitching and unstitching, yes, that hits home. Economy of
line serves scientists no less than poets and novelists. Learn
parsimony by reading Shakespeare — or Evelyn Waugh —
as well as J B S Haldane or D'Arcy Thompson. Learn lyricism
by reading Wordsworth, as well as Carl Sagan or Peter Atkins.
Learn wit from P G Wodehouse, as well as Steve Jones or Matt
Ridley. You cannot write unless you love reading.
Adjectives and adverbs are special treats. Ration them. The
passive voice is not to be encouraged — see what I mean?
Use short sentences, but vary their length or your prose will
plod. Such advice is commonplace and I go along with it. But
I've never written down a formula for writing, and I shrink
from anything formulaic. If your tennis serve works for you,
an insensitive coach who barges in and tells you to throw
the ball higher may ruin everything. If you're too aware of
your own technique you may dissect it to destruction. I hate
it when editors belabour me with their schoolmarm rules, so
why would I impose rules on others?
Whatever I say, then, it is no more than what seems to work
for me. Read your stuff aloud and tune your ear to its cadences.
Read it to yourself, again and again, and each time trim more
fat. Each time, apply the virtual red pencil of a different
imaginary critic. If occasionally you venture into a purple
passage, let it be nature's truth that leads you there, not
self-regard. Fall in love with your subject, not your prose.
I love amazing numbers,
and I suspect that many readers do too. How many miles of
neurons are in the human brain? Others have worked that out,
so calculate an equally astounding number yourself. Remember
the little boy who pleaded: "Please tell me one thing I could
tell Daddy that he doesn't know already." Prick your reader's
imagination with a stunning fact, or a fresh metaphor, or
by turning a familiar fact dizzyingly upside down, or by filtering
it through the alien lens of a Martian eye. However useful
science may be, and however relevant to everyday life, that
is the least important thing about it. Science is, above all,
wonderful. You may write to inform. You should write to inspire.
No scientist has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Why not?
I suspect that it simply hasn't occurred to the judges. "Literature"
automatically conjures "novelist", or "poet". Yet, could there
be a better subject for great literature than the spacetime
fabric of the universe? Or than the evolutison of life? Or
than Sherrington's enchanted loom of the brain? At very least
it is not obvious why fiction should make greater literature
than reality. And science is the study of the real world.
Nobel Prize for Literature? Now there's a life's challenge
for the aspiring science writer.
Note: Originally published in The Telegraph.]