(Roughly) Daily

“To achieve style, begin by affecting none”*…

The first issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society

From Roger’s Bacon, in New Science, a brief history of scientific writing…

Since the founding of the first scientific journal in 1665, there have been calls to do away with stylistic elements in favor of clarity, concision, and precision.

In 1667, Thomas Sprat urged members of the Royal Society to “reject all the amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style; to return back to the primitive purity, and shortness, when men delivered so many things, almost in an equal number of words.” Some 200 years later, Charles Darwin said much the same: “I think too much pains cannot be taken in making the style transparently clear and throwing eloquence to the dogs” (Aaronson, 1977).

Darwin and Sprat eventually got their way. Modern scientific writing is homogenous, cookie-cutter, devoid of style. But scientific papers weren’t always like this.

Writing in The Last Word On Nothing blog, science journalist Roberta Kwok explains how old articles differ from their modern counterparts:

Scientists used to admit when they don’t know what the hell is going on.

When philosopher Pierre Gassendi tried to capture observations of Mercury passing in front of the Sun in 1631, he was beset by doubts:

“[T]hrown into confusion, I began to think that an ordinary spot would hardly pass over that full distance in an entire day. And I was undecided indeed… I wondered if perhaps I could not have been wrong in some way about the distance measured earlier.”

They get excited and use italics.

In 1892, a gentleman named William Brewster observed a bird called a northern shrike attacking a meadow mouse in Massachusetts. After tussling with its prey, he wrote, “[t]he Shrike now looked up and seeing me jumped on the mouse with both feet and flew off bearing it in its claws.”

They write charming descriptions.

Here’s French scientist Jean-Henri Fabre rhapsodizing about the emperor moth in his book, The Life of the Caterpillar (1916):

Who does not know the magnificent Moth, the largest in Europe, clad in maroon velvet with a necktie of white fur? The wings, with their sprinkling of grey and brown, crossed by a faint zig-zag and edged with smoky white, have in the centre a round patch, a great eye with a black pupil and a variegated iris containing successive black, white, chestnut and purple arcs.

All this to say: Scientists in the pre-modern era wrote freely, despite calls to do away with that freedom. At some point, narrative and literary styles vanished and were replaced with rigid formats and impoverished prose.  The question now is: Have we gone too far in removing artistry from scientific writing?

For a well-argued case that we have– “the way that we write is inseparable from the way that we think, and restrictions in one necessarily lead to restrictions in the other”– read on: “Research Papers Used to Have Style. What Happened?,” from @RogersBacon1 and @newscienceorg.

* E. B. White, The Elements of Style

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As we ponder purposive prose, we might spare a thought for Johann Adam Schall von Bell; he died on this date in 1666. An expressive writer in both German and Chinese, he was an astronomer and Jesuit missionary to China who revised the Chinese calendar, translated Western astronomical books, and was head of Imperial Board of Astronomy (1644-64). Given the Chinese name “Tang Ruowang,” he became a trusted adviser (1644-61) to Emperor Shun-chih, first emperor of the Ch’ing dynasty (1644-1911/12), who made him a mandarin.

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