Last fall, Royce Murray stirred up science bloggers by characterizing them as unqualified purveyors of pseudoscience in search of easy money. The response was fast and furious – so robust in fact that performing the Google search that Murray referred to in his argument “qualifications of bloggers” now turns up as many hits to science blogs responding to Murray’s editorial as it does adverts and advice for the unqualified seeking to blog (at least in the top twenty!).
I argue in my Thesis column this month that chemistry blogs are a critical part of the communication network which supports good research – and that scientists should read, and if they are so inclined write, blogs of this sort.
What I didn’t say is that I would extend this to suggest that scientists should be doing more than utilitarian writing. We should move beyond the writing of journal articles, reviews, abstracts, and even blog posts critically commenting on the literature and write about the quotidian challenges of doing science, extol the beauty of our latest compound, wax philosophical about the reality of molecular orbitals, and dare I say it, blog about our pets.
Simply writing more is a strategy to become a faster, fluent and more efficient writer. Why not write summaries of the latest literature? Why do I think writing about the steamboat buffet my student treated me to in Singapore or my cat’s latest predatory exploits is worth my time? Because I can write with the brakes off. I can use language wildly, without worrying about transgressing technical boundaries or overreaching my data.
Learning to deploy rich descriptive language takes practice, and has hidden benefits to the research scientist. Scientists’ field notes and lab notebooks would benefit from fluent, descriptive writing – and so, in my experience, would the science that flows from them. The original sceptical chemist, Robert Boyle, held that science wasn’t officially science unless you’d watched the experiment happen yourself – or read something written so evocatively and carefully that you could think you’d seen it.
So, go for it. Write down everything you know about Jello, or a time you itched or the stupidest thing your dog did last week. Write over the top and outside the bounds for five minutes a day. Post it on your blog or stuff it down the oubliette. Either way, your science will be all the better for it.