Wednesday, April 11, 2012

I Am Stepney, I Am Peru

Jah Wobble reminds us that there's no need to use faux exoticism to evoke 'transcendence' or 'the sublime'.

Monday, April 09, 2012

The Human Absence

Maybe it's different now, but when I was learning to be a scientist I wasn't given any formal instruction in the art of writing a scientific paper - in how to write like a scientist.  The basic structure of a paper is easy enough to understand.  A summary, or abstract, describing in a few sentences the nature of the investigation and the results obtained.  An introduction, giving the background of the investigation, and the questions being investigated.  A section on methods and materials, or, How I Did It. Results, or, What I Found (here be graphs and tables). A Discussion of the significance of the results - do they answer the questions posed in the introduction, and what further questions to they pose? And finally, References: a list of papers quoted in the text.  So far, so good.  But more mysterious was the language of the paper.  Words you could use and words you couldn't, the detached tone, the dry precision, and most of all, the passive tense that removed all sense that anything had been thought or done by a human being.  You never say 'I' in a scientific paper.  You never say 'I boiled the frog.'  You say instead 'The frog was boiled'.    It was not so much what you should do, but what you shouldn't.  You learned by making mistakes which your supervisor and the referees of the paper corrected.

Adam Ruben gives a wonderful deconstruction of the process:
I asked for an example, and [my advisor] pointed to a sentence on the first page. “See that word?” he said. “Right there. That is not science.”
The word was “lone,” as in “PvPlm is the lone plasmepsin in the food vacuole of Plasmodium vivax.” It was a filthy word. A non-scientific word. A flowery word, a lyrical word, a word worthy of -- ugh -- an MFA student.
I hadn’t meant the word to be poetic. I had just used the word “only” five or six times, and I didn’t want to use it again. But in his mind, “lone” must have conjured images of PvPlm perched on a cliff’s edge, staring into the empty chasm, weeping gently for its aspartic protease companions. Oh, the good times they shared. Afternoons spent cleaving scissile bonds. Lazy mornings decomposing foreign proteins into their constituent amino acids at a nice, acidic pH. Alas, lone plasmepsin, those days are gone.
So I changed the word to “only.” And it hurt. Not because “lone” was some beautiful turn of phrase but because of the lesson I had learned: Any word beyond the expected set -- even a word as tame and innocuous as “lone” -- apparently doesn’t belong in science.
Never mind fiddling around with second-person narratives and unreliable narrators.  Imagine writing a short story - a novel - shorn of anything that shows the slightest quiver of emotion. A properly post-modern hard science-fiction construction in which the author becomes a committee of ghostly puppeteers, and his characters objects acted upon: 'It has been proposed that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.  This was investigated by introducing the subject into a location populated by family groups which each possessed unmarried daughters...'
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