Tips from writer and physicist Alan Lightman on science writing

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Imagine a poppy seed sitting at the center of Fenway Park. If the baseball stadium were the size of an atom, then the poppy seed would be the relative size of its nucleus, nearly 100,000 times smaller.

This is an example of one of the tools that Alan Lightman, internationally renowned writer and physicist, discussed in his talk on “Science Writing” earlier this week: the use of metaphor to express large numbers and complex ideas. Lightman is a visiting professor in Brown’s Nonfiction Writing Program, and he holds joint appointment at MIT in the English and physics departments as one of only a few professors to straddle the sciences and humanities. He is best known for his bestselling novel Einstein’s Dreams, and has published numerous other books and essays in addition to, you know, doing theoretical astrophysics research. Thanks for the feelings of inadequacy. Check out a few more of his tips on science writing after the jump:

Lightman lectured on both nonfiction and fiction science writing, and gave some important tips to anyone aspiring to be a science writer. He stressed that in science writing, as in any writing, you need to tell a good story. In his own work, he weaves together science, biography, history, broader meaning and personal commentary to form a cohesive storyline. In particular, he recommended anchoring a piece in the profile of a scientist, because people are always at the root of the science and this gives the reader a human stake in the story.

No matter how many metaphors you use, if you talk straight science for too long, the reader will get bogged down. Lightman uses the 150-word rule of pure science: if you describe scientific details for longer than this, you will lose the reader. For reference, this paragraph and the one above contain a total of 150 words.

As for the technical descriptions of science, Lightman follows the idea that everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler, a thought attributed to another pretty cool dude named Einstein. In order to do this, the writer must know the audience, which for Lightman consists of people with a general liberal arts education but little or no hard science background, a.k.a. at least half of Brown students. A tip for science concentrators who are doing science writing: have your non-science friends read your work to ensure it is understandable to those who haven’t taken CHEM0330, PHYS0070 or BIOL0200.

Lightman also talked about how he approaches fiction science writing. He strives not for clarity, as in nonfiction, but to create an imaginary world. He has learned to surrender control to the characters; if they are over-plotted, they will never come to life. He also noted that it isn’t necessary to pack the writing with facts and figures as long as the scientific concepts are clear, because fiction is rooted in emotion.

Lastly, Lightman talked about writing for the Internet, something to which we here at BlogDH can definitely relate. For science writing intended to be read digitally, the writing must be more concise and concentrated in its topic, but just as rich with metaphors and personal stories. The Internet opens up a world of hypertext and images that can enhance our understanding of science, so, in conclusion, here are some things to click on.

Watch out for more from the Great Brown Nonfiction Writers’ Lecture Series this semester!

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