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Breaks in the Science Writing Genre

sterrab's picture

One morning in September 2011, I was in awe when my eye caught the following Al Jazeera news headline: “Scientists claim to break the speed of light”. It was a break from Einstein’s theory of special relativity that establishes the photonas the fastest particle and a break from the core laws of physics that govern the world around us. Little did I take notice of the science news article as a break in the science writing genre.

Transformations in the science writing appear as science is transported across platforms: from the lab to peer review to popular science magazines and to headline news. We generally explore science writing in the reverse direction: from the most accessible to the public through daily news sources to the most inaccessible such as journal articles that are exclusive to highly specialized scientists in the field. In the case of the September 2011 story, a scientific research breakthrough news rapidly blasted from the Gran Sasso laboratory at CERN to the headline news. At CERN, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory located in the Franco-Swiss border, high-energy physicists study the nature of subatomic particles and their collision interactions in the Large Hadron Collider and other underground laboratories. In September 22, 2011, it was reported that the OPERA research group based at CERN measured the time for a neutrino, a neutrally-charged, weakly-interacting subatomic particle, to travel 730 kilometers which was much less than the expected time of a light photon particle to travel an equivalent distance. It was hence claimed that the neutrino particle is faster than light.  

Science news articles attract the average reader by their marketing headlines. Al Jazeera’s “Scientists claim to break the speed of light” article as well as other popular news sources targeted a wide range of readers from the direct, captive message of the break in science research that made it to the headlines. Although the time measurement of the neutrino had yet to be confirmed again in similar experimental settings, more articles such as the Guardian’s “Neutrinos still faster than light” convinced readers that this science breakthrough if worth reading. Science news reporting attaches a human approach to the research through direct citation from a scientist in the field or the language used. For example,  

'"We have high confidence in our results. But we need other colleagues to do their tests and confirm them," said Antonio Ereditato, who works at the CERN centre on the Franco-Swiss border'. (AJE)

'"This would be such a sensational discovery if it were true that one has to treat it extremely carefully,'' said John Ellis, a theoretical physicist at CERN who was not involved in the experiment'. (AJE)

"The physicist and TV presenter Professor Jim Al-Khalili of the University of Surrey expressed the incredulity of many in the field when he said that if the findings 'prove to be correct and neutrinos have broken the speed of light, I will eat my boxer shorts on live TV'". (Guardian)

These citations allow the research to be “humanized” as it has become a “sensational discovery” to which scientists “have high confidence in [their] results” that they will even “eat [their] boxer shorts on live TV”. Humor, emotional feelings, and colloquial language allow for the science research to be addressed to the public and readily digested by a wider group of people. The public feels more prone to read an article on science research that makes the front page of the New York Times or that is easily marketed by its appealing headline.

Popular science magazine writing is less accessible than top headline news but easily finds its way through a significant portion of a somewhat educated group and those interested in science. The Scientific American article “Faster-than-light neutrinos show science in action” was published the day after, providing more detail into the statistical significance that may validate the experimental results at CERN. This popular science magazine article dwells more on the numerical significance of the time measurement and the underlying implications to the “causality” in research and Einstein’s theory of relativity. The direct, upfront humor presented in the news article is broken and rapidly replaced by a more subtle sarcasm and slightly more weight on the implications of this research to the governing laws and theories in physics. Remaining opinionated and conversational, the article appeals to a relatively wide audience even if it has not broken through the marketable headline news ceiling.

Down to where the experimental research has been conducted, the genre of science writing is distinguished by its specific address to a scientific elite. The “Measurement of the neutrino velocity with the OPERA detector in the CNGS beam”, the primary paper submitted on September 22, 2011 that presents the experimental discovery, tracked every experimental procedural step that has been performed and the precise calibration of all instruments that has been executed to validate the time observation. The numerous collaborative scientists that authored the paper include technical details of the experiment that break down the experimental steps that finalized in the neutrino time measurement. Complex mathematical formulas and methodology of the physics research explain the outcome of the experiments. It is formulaic and is devoid of human subjective validity. It stands separate from any human interference and rather presents numbers and figures that remain the legitimate sources of information. This scientific writing of this paper is specifically addressed to physicists and a selective group of other scientists.

In this example of the outbreaking research on neutrino’s superluminal nature, the different platforms of scientific writing are transformed to adapt to a specific audience. The language used in each respective platform and the means to address the issues behind the research are different across stages in the science writing process. Science writing across all of these subgenres did not prove to alter the results of the research but rather chose to break into the lives of a larger interested group of readers. Numbers and dense fundamental theories are replaced by researchers’ direct citations of the topic. The language is broken down from the technical, mechanical jargon that describes the setup and software and is replaced by colloquial expressions and humoristic references. Science outreach and news writing does not cover the story any less than the main research discussion of the scientific paper.

The science genre writing breaks and transforms as it increases in the “human” scale. The breaks in the genre of science writing have been manifested by more colloquial language, the human connection that the writer makes with the reader through anecdotes and humor, and the captivity of headline news. These breaks in the structural, formulaic, specifically type-set writing in science journals have allowed for a wider access to the science research to the public. The discovery, even if later proved invalid from other experiments and theoretical backup, is worth sharing with the entire world in order to inform the public of the scientific breakthroughs in research and the highly-advanced research facilities that host leading scientists in the field. Breaks in the science writing genre are necessary. The story that climbs out of the deep, narrow well of the science research world remains true but breaks through the numerical and theoretical explanation barriers by including a human voice of sarcasm, humor, and direct spoken words of the researchers.

The genre of science writing should best remain malleable, constantly breaking social and academic barriers, for it to be wide-read. It is important that the laboratory and experimental report style of writing transform from a treasure hidden by the scientific elite to an open source market for science learning. For in this way, will knowledge of science be a privilege for everyone.  




Anne Dalke's picture

"I will eat my boxer shorts on live TV'

You give a nice overview here of the dissemination of scientific knowledge across a range of "platforms: from the lab to peer review to popular science magazines to headline news"; your detailed account of some of the differences in mode of address @ each stage focuses on the shift from "technical, mechanical jargon" (understandable only to experimenters in the field) to "colloquial expressions and humoristic references" (which are accessible ot much larger audience). Much of this accords with discussions in a faculty working group here, a few years ago, that focused on Science's Audiences, though our conversation then focused more on the continuities among the stages, rather than--as you do here--on the "breaks."

I guess my main question for you has to do with the implications of this increasing reach for readers, and for their/our experience of reading. As you observe, such shifts in writing style "did not prove to alter the results of the research but rather chose to break into the lives of a larger interested group of readers." "More colloquial language" enables a "human connection" between writer and reader, and presumably "wider access to the science research to the public." But there's no hint, in your account, that such writing might invite readers to "write back," to question or add to the conversation.

I'm thinking here of the account, in Davidson and Goldberg's essay about the "future of thinking," of how not just access to and circulation of information, but also its production, is "democratized." They argue that the digital spread of information "makes the shortcomings of public educational institutions more glaring" (i.e., how limited they are in space and time),  and "highlights the need to teach students to be 'canny'  about issues of reliability and credibility.

I don't see any of that in the story you tell here. Although you end by saying how important it is for "the laboratory and experimental report style of writing" to "transform from a treasure hidden by the scientific elite to an open source market for science learning," I'm not seeing evidence yet of the bidirectionality of a marketplace @ work. The mode still seems to be in one direction, from expert to consumer. Is that a challenge to the narrative that Davidson and Goldberg construct? A very different narrative than the one that dglasser tells, for instance, about the active reader-who-is-also-a-writer?