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Karen Luper: “A Response to Jamie Zvirzdin’s ‘Observations of a Science Editor’”

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When I think about what makes science writing beautiful to me (and that beauty might exist in a poem or in a textbook), it’s tone that comes first to mind. Tone of reverence, tones of inclusion and generosity. If there are stories, and there are, they don’t appear as conceits, but as a kind of offering, a welcoming. Moving away from the beautiful, tones of authority, certainty, even contempt for the uninitiated are not uncommon—one has to ask what their purpose really is.

Science has rightfully earned a great deal of mistrust, along with its authority and advancements. It becomes another source of cultural division. Mistrust can manifest itself as outright rejection or as painful, fearful resistance to learning . . . both are costly beyond measure. And trust is not restored, in any sustainable way, by tricks. The inclusion and reconciliation that Jamie Zvirzdin talks about are key—and they must be utterly, utterly genuine, whatever tools present themselves in service.

There are humility and openness in the science writing I love the most—Primo Levi’s “Carbon,” for example (and it is pure story), I have read and will re-read for the rest of my life. It makes me wonder if the best science writing isn’t really about science—or only about science—at all.

Comments from other contributors to the Poetics of Science online discussion:

L. Shapley Bassen: I loved the tone of this reply. Primo Levi has long been a favorite as well. A first thought, reading your reply, was of Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer” and how sad it always made/makes me. All of us in this KR conference/dialog celebrate in the middle of the bridge between the two cultures. I think if Whitman were alive today, he’d be singing the body electromagnetic. [A more narcissistic thought—many of the reactions to Jamie Z’.s initial essay have been viewed w/o comment . . . others, commented upon repeatedly . . . just wondering why. I’ve tried to reply to everyone.]

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide,
   and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with
   much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.