Here’s the Most Important Rule in Science Writing
Science writing comes in many varieties. When writing for a blog, you usually have freedom to go as deep into a topic as you feel necessary. There are hardly ever word count limits. On top of that, you can include images or videos. Heck, you could even embed a python program in your blog post.
But what about those cases where you can’t go on and on about some scientific concept? What about the case where your words are limited in some way? This is the essence of scientific writing—especially when acting as a scientific consultant in situations such as:
- Writing an article for a magazine (under 200 words).
- Creating narrative panels to accompany science exhibits.
- Writing a book with scientific explanations for a general audience.
- Public speaking engagement on the topic of science.
- Radio shows.
- Science consultant for television shows (or movies).
Yes, I have created science stuff for most of these cases—I would consider myself a science writer and a scientific consultant. From this, I have developed the number one rule of scientific writing.
Scientific Writing Rule 1: You can rarely be 100 percent correct in your explanation, but you can be 100 percent wrong. The goal isn’t to be correct in your writing, it’s to not be wrong.
Wait. If you aren’t correct, aren’t you wrong? Nope. Here is a very simple example. Suppose you want to describe the location of Chicago with respect to New Orleans. Here are some options:
- Chicago is far from New Orleans.
- Chicago is close to New Orleans.
- Chicago is North of New Orleans.
- Chicago is style of pizza.
Yes, that was a rather silly example. However, one of those answers is not very appropriate. Of course it’s the pizza answer. Technically, it’s not incorrect but it really doesn’t describe the location of Chicago. What about “Chicago is close to New Orleans?” Yes, that can be true. Look at this picture.
Those two dots don’t look so far away, do they? Really, I just threw that answer in there to catch you off guard. But distance is just a matter of perspective.
Suppose there is a show that looks at a motorcycle in the air after a jump. While in the air, the motorcycle rider can change the orientation of the bike by slowing down or speeding up the angular velocity of the back wheel (that’s true). Here is a narrative you might hear.
But motorcycles aren’t helpless against the forces of gravity—instead the rider can use the throttle to change the bike’s angular momentum during the jump.
That sounds like an awesome description and it would probably get bonus points for using the words “angular momentum”. Unfortunately, this would fall in the 100 percent wrong category. In fact, the bike can change its orientation because angular momentum is constant (not increasing or decreasing). Here is a way that I would phrase this:
The motorcycle isn’t out of control while in the air. Instead, the rider can increase the angular speed of the back wheel. This is like walking backwards on a small boat in that it moves the boat forward. The increasing speed of the wheel causes a change in angular speed of the rest of the bike allowing it to angle up.
That second narrative might be a little long and it doesn’t mention angular momentum, but at least it’s not wrong. Need some more examples? Here are a whole bunch of posts that look at the problems with the show Sport Science (it’s like the show was just made for me).
Oh, one other quick note. Everything doesn’t have to be science error free. When a character or mere mortal expresses ideas about some scientific phenomena—I don’t mind if there are problems. However, once you transition to “this is the official science explanation” it really needs to be without significant errors.
Do you need help with your science show? Yes, I can probably help. Give me a call or shoot me an email.
Just for fun, here are some homework questions for you to practice your science explanations.
- Draw a diagram (or picture) that shows how an infrared camera sees stuff (don’t get too technical).
- In 50 words or less, describe the electromagnetic wave nature of light.
- Create a haiku that describes the relationship between force and motion (I think I might do this—see below).
- Make a short video (less than 1 minute) that explains why a comet’s tail points away from the Sun.
Now for your haiku.
Constant force pushes.
Speed up, slow down or turning.
Change is unchanging.
Maybe not my best haiku—but I really like the last line (the change in velocity is the acceleration and it would be constant). Send me your haiku science on twitter (@rjallain).