Writing the Wonders of Science | Library Journal’s Day of Dialog

Take a slightly long table. Cover it in black cloth. Place four chairs along the side that faces out. Invite three men who have published with great success on the endeavors of science. Place one small bottled water, one glass with ice, and one paper napkin on the table in front of each chair. No bunsen burners need be installed. Add in one well chosen moderator who stirs carefully.

Sit back and enjoy!

The three panelists for “The Art of Science Writing,” the fourth of five programs making up LJ‘s 2013 Day of Dialog, were Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) who publishes the first volume of his memoir, An Appetite for Wonder, this fall (Ecco: HarperCollins, October), Dave Goldberg (physics, Drexel Univ., A User’s Guide to the Universe), who has The Universe in the Rearview Mirror: How Hidden Symmetries Shape Reality (Dutton) coming out in July, and Simon Winchester (The Professor and the Madman), whose next book, due out in October, is The Men Who United the States: America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible (Harper: HarperCollins).

Erin Shea, head of adult programming at Darien Library, CT, had the distinct pleasure of asking these men questions designed to elicit discussion chiefly about the task of writing on technical and scientific matters for a broad audience of lay readers.

Richard Dawkins, of the three, was the one most taken with the potentials of language itself, the writer’s obligation to listen for the cadence of words that best express what the writer seeks to describe. To write for a broad audience, he noted, does not mean that you should limit your language. “Use language at the full stretch,” he advised, going on to say that it’s fine for readers to need to go to the dictionary now and then. “Do justice to the science.”

Dave Goldberg noted that accessible science books will have a readership of those “thirsting to understand,” and yet he feels the necessity, even an obligation, not to steer his readers far away from their inherent sense of wonder at the universe, and at all that remains unknown.

Simon Winchester, along with Dawkins, noted more than once that science is not merely useful; it is “poetic.” Each man spoke of the “wonder” that remains at the heart of scientific exploration. (Wonder was this session’s watchword!) There is not, to them, any contradiction between seeking to make science comprehensible and simultaneously evoking the marvels of the grand unknown. Dawkins sees his task as “an almost evangelical mission.” Winchester turned to a Philip Larkin poem, “First Sight,” that describes “Lambs that learn to walk in snow,” knowing nothing of “earth’s immeasurable surprise” that will bring forth the Spring.

All three panelists had academic training in the sciences. While Dawkins and Goldberg continued in their special fields in biology and physics, Winchester left geology for trade and then journalism, covering current affairs and eventually writing about matters related to science. His preference, he explained, is to write of particular people behind intrepid pursuits, noting their eccentricities and their epiphanies. He said that there are academics who see him as “vulgarizing” science. Dawkins has been quite satisfied with the response of his colleagues to his work, while Goldberg noted that in many universities it still holds that academics must not write popular science until after they have achieved tenure: there is some pushback in academia against writing about one’s field for a popular, rather than a specialized, audience.

In closing, Erin Shea asked the panelists each to name a scientist or scientific writing that they have most enjoyed reading. Winchester, with Goldberg in agreement, named Dawkins’s own The Selfish Gene, as well as the writings of Richard Feynman, although technically most of Feynman’s published work originated as lectures. Goldberg named Kip S. Thorne’s Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy, while Dawkins cited “anything by Carl Sagan,” who was denied membership in the American Academy of Sciences precisely because he was a popular writer, and the essays of British biologist P.B. Medawar.

The program, a bit over an hour, passed by at a fast clip, with charming anecdotes and good sound discussion, leaving those in attendance inspired to become scientists, poets, raconteurs, and writers.

Margaret Heilbrun About Margaret Heilbrun

Margaret Heilbrun is a former Senior Editor, Library Journal Book Review.