"Canadian science writing undernourished, inferior"
by Robert Fulford

(Globe and Mail, August 19, 1998)

David Hubel, the Canadian-born Harvard professor who explained how the brain makes images out of raw data received by the retina, was one of seven Nobel laureates who took part in the International Science and Engineering Fair at Fort Worth, Tex., in May. The ISEF is the Olympics for smart kids and brings together 1,200 science-fair winners from 34 countries. Last spring, after the competition, the Nobel laureates answered students' questions at a public meeting. To one routine query -- "What advice can you give me as I go to university?" -- Hubel provided an unexpected answer: "Learn to write English really well."

Whatever you accomplish in science, he explained, you must communicate to others -- and this is possible only if you can write. Not all scientists endorse that idea, and it's foreign to many other specialists. As J. K. Galbraith puts it, "There are a significant number of learned men and women who hold that any successful effort to make ideas lively, intelligible, and interesting is a manifestation of deficient scholarship. This is the fortress behind which the minimally coherent regularly find refuge."

Hubel obviously considers this state of affairs unsatisfactory. I hope the Canadian contestants (who, incidentally, did sensationally well at the ISEF) paid particular attention. In Canada, science writing is an undernourished, stunted field, inferior to its American and British equivalents. That's partly the fault of Canadian journalists. We rarely take science as seriously as we take politics, business, and culture, so we have no strong tradition of science journalism. But Canada suffers as well from the lack of scientist-authors capable of reaching a general audience.

In science, I'm an ignorant amateur. I'm the sort of person who first understood that Galileo was truly important when I saw Bertolt Brecht's play about him, surely a sensational case of getting it backward. Where I live, Werner Heisenberg's central accomplishments in physics are mentioned less often than his uncertainty principle, which is routinely used as a cultural metaphor by people who have, at best, a vague idea of what he meant. Even so, I love science writing. An articulate scientist-author, who writes for me without condescending, can excite my non-scientific mind and convey something at least distantly resembling scientific understanding. When this happens, the writer is almost always British or American -- Jeremy Bernstein on physics, Stephen Jay Gould on paleontology, or Oliver Sacks on neurology, to cite three among many.

Canadian scientists rarely attempt this trick, not because they necessarily lack the talent, but because in recent times it hasn't been demanded of them. It's not part of our common culture. Canadians do not assume that science can and should be discussed honestly and accurately within the larger context of human affairs. Our scientists have surrendered to the demands of narrow specialization. They do not understand -- we do not understand -- that "science is a branch of the humanities."

That quotation is from a remarkable address given earlier this year by one Canadian scientist who profoundly understands these issues, John Polanyi. The winner of a 1986 Nobel Prize for chemistry, Polanyi is also a writer and talker of unusual eloquence, notably on the uses of science and on science's relation to creative work in the arts. In April he was asked to speak to faculty, parents and students at the University of Toronto Schools, an elite liberal-arts high school. There has been talk of changing the curriculum at UTS to emphasize certain practical skills, in particular computer technology.

Polanyi did not minimize "those vastly stupid and very patient machines, the computers," though he did mention that they do "tend to say very boring things." But he did support a liberal-arts curriculum, which he said is as vital to scientists and engineers as to the rest of us. He obviously wanted to leave us thinking about one word: patterns. The study of the humanities, Polanyi argued, involves patterns, learning how to relate experiences and see patterns that are not obvious. This is also essential to science, and those who learn to find the patterns in Shakespeare are likelier to find them in science. "In science we look for those patterns not in the language of poetry but in such languages as numbers and algebra."

All of us are pattern-makers. The ordinary use of eyesight, for instance, is not a passive activity but a complicated process, the product of unconscious childhood training. Among Polanyi's slides was a diagram that demonstrated routine pattern-making: a photograph of the famous limestone sculpture of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti, with a series of lines made by directing a laser beam at a human eye as the eye surveyed the photograph. The lines showed how an individual puts together a picture, or pattern, from bits of data (coincidentally, part of the process that Hubel's research describes).

The discovery and description of patterns: That's the essence of great science writing. With luck, a few of the students who heard Hubel's advice will learn how to discuss their work, and possibly the work of others, for future readers.

Along the way, perhaps, they will also absorb the subtle and infinitely challenging advice Albert Einstein gave all writers: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

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