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Point of View

The mysteries of science
By Laura Stephenson Carter

No fair! The organizers of a recent professional meeting I attended—the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism at Harvard—made it impossible for me to skip the final session. I was tired. I wanted to head home to the Upper Valley. I had work to do (for other parts of this issue of Dartmouth Medicine, in fact). But they had invited one of the greatest scientists alive—Edward O. Wilson—to give the closing keynote address. There was no way I was going to leave early.

So I settled into my chair to listen to a leading authority on ants, the father of biodiversity, and a scientist who knows how to write.

"The ideal scientist thinks like a poet, works like a bookkeeper, and, all too rarely, writes like a journalist," Wilson said at one point during his talk.

There have been times when I'd have settled for a scientist who knows how to speak plain English.

Stories: But scientists can write stories, according to Wilson. The trouble is that those "stories" usually take the form of scientific papers, which have their own rigid structure, language, and rules.

First in such papers comes the abstract, which Wilson described as a sort of "Reader's Digest version of a few hundred words about the subject." For 90 percent of readers, that's as far as they'll get ("readers" here being other scientists, who have to read so many journals to keep up with work in their field that they often just skim to capture the essentials). Wilson explained that the writing in the abstract—as well as in much of the main body of the paper, which is broken down into sections about materials, methods, and results—is as deadpan as a tax report, because "any deviation in style, any hint of emotion" would discredit the scientist.

Wilson added that there are, however, some parts of a scientific paper where a little creativity may be appropriate. In the introduction of "a well-written scientific paper, you tell a story—what has gone before, the amazing results that you are about to report. Who did what. Why the subject is important. And even, ever so briefly," Wilson explained, "a hint of what is to come. You're allowed a little latitude in expression, a flash or two of muted emotion."

A bit of emotion: In the discussion section, too, Wilson said, there's a chance to introduce a bit of narrative. There, the scientist speculates about the meaning of the work and the future of the subject and has a chance to offer up "a bit more emotion, although chaste—like a smile and a lift of an eyebrow across a crowded room." He paused then long enough to let the audience's laughter die down. "What should shine through, however," he went on, "is the creativity and hard work and vision that went into your scientific report."

Okay—I found myself feeling sorry for poor scientists who are forced to understate their findings because "hyperbole, no matter how brilliant, spells death to the scientific reputation."

On the other hand, Wilson is one of those rare scientists who manages to convey his excitement about his work, while still being careful to get the facts right. He considers himself, and fellow scientists, to be treasure hunters. (Picture the Indiana Jones of the science world.)

Edward O. Wilson—the father of biodiversity and a scientist who knows how to write—read to us: "In our heart, we hope we will never discover everything." I like that.
Illustration: Suzanne DeJohn

He then read aloud, from his 1992 book Diversity of Life, a passage where he had blended fact with nonfiction creative writing. The book is set in the Amazon rainforest. His research was about the role of ants as dominant elements of the ecosystem, and he was describing the various forces that can destroy ecosystems: a tropical storm, from which the forest can recover quickly; the 1883 explosion of Krakatau, from which recovery took decades; the great meteorite strike at the end of the Mesozoic era, which caused damage that took millions of years to repair; and current human activities.

Compelling description: The passage he read to us included a compelling description of a tropical thunderstorm: "The thunderhead reared up like a top-heavy monster in slow motion, tilted forward, blotting out the stars. The forest erupted in a simulation of violent light. Lightning bolts struck, broke to the front, and then closer to the right and left, 10,000 volts dropping along an ionizing path at 800 kilometers an hour, kicking a countersurge skyward—10 times faster back and forth in a split second, the whole perceived as a single flash and crack of sound."

Then, as he continued to read, he shared a secret: "The unsolved mysteries of the rainforest are formless and seductive . . . the unknown and prodigious are drugs to the scientific imagination, stirring insatiable hunger with a single taste. In our heart, we hope we will never discover everything. We pray that there will always be a world like this one at whose edge I sat in darkness. The rainforest and its richness is one of the last repositories on Earth of that timeless dream."

"In our heart, we hope we will never discover everything." I like that. I left Wilson's talk with even more appreciation for the work of scientists —and with even more eagerness to return home so I could write about the work of Dartmouth Medical School's scientists.

"Point of View" provides a personal perspective on some issue in medicine. Laura Carter, the associate editor of Dartmouth Medicine magazine, was invited to write a synopsis for a journalism Web site called Poynter.org of a session on science journalism at a recent professional meeting she attended. This essay is adapted from that piece.

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