Science, publishing and writing style

Two examples of each today, and some ideas about outreach, power and sustainability:

1. Cambridge, UK,  home of Propagandum Towers and a university or two, every year hosts an excellent science festival. For two weeks thousands of people teaching and learning heavy-duty science willingly give their time to show young people some cool or interesting stuff. The tone is upbeat without being manic, inclusive without being condescending. Some sort of tipping point or critical mass is reached: families flock en masse to soberly purposeful and usually private labs/university departments simply to enjoy themselves. Along the way quite a few schoolchildren will no doubt find science subjects and careers somehow more real and possible. And the scientists who give their time get a chance to refresh their sense of vocation too.

Danger is more exciting – Cambridge science festival 2012. Image from http://www.explorermagazine.co.uk/2012/03/cambridge-science-festival-2012/

Dr Peter Wothers fires up children’s enthusiasm for science – Cambridge Science Festival 2012. Image from http://www.explorermagazine.co.uk/2012/03/cambridge-science-festival-2012/

The whole festival is clearly an example of good, sustainable two-way communication, drawing on and giving back a sense of collective energy. It has mutual benefits that renew the institution of science from one generation to the next.

The payoffs for the region and university are of the hardest-nosed kinds too. By coincidence (or was it?) this story broke hours after the festival finished:

A £330m investment by [pharmaceutical company] AstraZeneca to set up a global HQ in Cambridge is expected to create 2,000 jobs. Research work will stop at Alderley Park, Cheshire, where 2,900 people work. A majority will go to Cambridge, where London staff will also move.

Pascal Soriot, the firm’s chief executive officer, said Cambridge was picked because of its scientific workforce and institutions. ‘[The move] will … allow us to tap into important bioscience hotspots, providing more of our people with easy access to leading-edge academic and industry networks, scientific talent and valuable partnering opportunities.’

I compare the communication values of the science festival with the recent …

2. World Book Day. In 2013 in the UK this was 7 March; in the rest of the world it is 23 April. (Shakespeare’s birthday/death day is 23 April, so why 7 March? ‘World’ Book Day?) World Book Night is 23 April, though … this is also the date that UNESCO catchily (irony) glorifies as World Book and Copyright Day, with the snappy epigraph ‘Translation is the first step towards the rapprochement of peoples, and is also a decentralizing experience, teaching diversity and dialogue …’ All these things are good, admirable and very dear to my heart, but I hope you’re getting a sense of infighting and dead-end streets that contrast with my example #1.

Here’s a more detailed look at the UK’s World (?) Book Day website:

Visually stylish, perhaps turn the hype down a bit? http://www.worldbookday.com/

Fantastic! Amazing! Probably too much hype and too many exclamation marks!! http://www.worldbookday.com/

This is pretty good visually, but the language shows the dangers of hyper/hypo-enthusiasm. Here’s a heavily bipolar paragraph of hype with a big downside:

Websites are great aren’t they? Especially websites about things like reading. And celebrations of reading. And great big celebrations of reading with millions and millions of vouchers for free books going out to kids. But you know what’s even better than websites about great big celebrations of reading with millions of millions of vouchers for free books going out to kids? Reading. So once you’ve finished on this website why not go and read a book, even if only for a little while.

I’m not disparaging the idea of WBD (or WBN, or WBCD), by the way – I support it completely. I’m just describing what’s there. I strongly believe that any company or organization bares their heart and soul in what and how they write, and the tone here is just wrong. For me, something is sustainable when (a) we can continue it for a long time and (b) when it sustains us. Writing should be credible every time we read it; the more I read the WBD website paragraph the more it makes me cringe.

In the UK, the WBD experience centres on the children dressing up; this year my two were, from Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit respectively, Meriadoc Brandybuck the hobbit and Bofur the dwarf. Only one of them has indeed read their respective book, but even so in previous years they have usually gone as a character from the film of a book. And what, judging by the numbers of them in the school playground, are all those books whose characters wear replica Manchester United shirts?

Helen Moss. Image from http://www.orionbooks.co.uk/books/detail.page?isbn=9781444007572

Helen Moss. Image from http://goo.gl/Eyock

My snide tone here is, of course, only sustainable the same way mosquitos or leeches are, so I pay tribute to its opposite, the loving care of every parent who has patiently encouraged their children to take part in any way. The teachers put in an impressive amount of work and positive energy, too, to make the event a success. Over the course of the whole book week (in my children’s school), several authors, including Helen Moss, came in, read stories, signed books and generally fired up the children’s enthusiasm for writing and reading.

On the down side again, in a town with 1200+ people in publishing, I noticed no input from commercial publishers – not a squeak. I help run a Cambridge publishing society with speaker meetings and social/networking events, but where was our outreach to the next generation? Clearly we in the books business don’t have the same kinds of numbers or geographical clustering as science in this town, but I don’t see the same expansive and proselytizing culture either. What does this mean? Where does this lead to? Mmmm …

3. Science and writing style. Weeks after seeing this book in Hereford Cathedral I am still mulling over Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society (1667) – I blogged about the typography of the title page here. The Royal Society is one of the earliest examples of a collaborative (and competitive) enterprise self-managing and self-regulating for research quality in ways recognizable as the institution of modern science. In the earliest days of the society (c. 1660), following discussions about the best ways to record their experiments, members apparently decided to reject a high-flown writing style, preferring

a close, naked, natural way of speaking, positive expressions, clear senses, a native easiness: bringing all things as near the mathematical plainness as they can, and preferring the language of artisans, countrymen, and merchants before that of wits or scholars.

This fine sentence (on display in the cathedral, but you can find it in its fine seventeenth-century typography on page 113, lines 20–5 in the book online) made my day. What is so good and startling about it? The language is beautifully direct and vivid, and elegant too. The words are serious but they play with and against the meaning – play is serious too. And there’s a strong sense of the sensory richness of our human experience. Three hundred and fifty years later, how many academic and scientific papers today would use the words close and naked to describe intimacy/informality and directness? Most scientific papers I have read seem deliberately to exclude any concern with expressive and communicative writing style.

I don’t mean to simplify, because the science festival clearly shows all the good things that people in science feel about their subject; the brusque asceticism of contemporary scientific prose style probably means scientists just want to get down to business. Something important gets lost too.

In our own times we can see that the popularization of science leads it into public relations and the communication business. And global fear of global warming takes science into prescription rather than description; it also makes science political. I hope to say a bit more about this another time.

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About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at david@propagandum.com
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2 Responses to Science, publishing and writing style

  1. I trust you will indeed follow up on that final sentence!

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