post on Onsager, Maynard Handley explains why he finds himself somewhat unsympathetic, as Onsager apparently did not expend the effort necessary to make himself understood by others.
You, the author of the paper, have a responsibility to make your ideas comprehensible. If the first method you choose to explain them fails, then you listen to what people say about where they lost all track of understanding and write a new paper with NEW explanations, not the same explanations that failed last time only renumbered. ... [This is] not something that is drilled into young scientists; that it is YOUR responsibility to make your ideas clear to others, not their responsibility to try to figure out what you are talking about. As science grows ever larger and ever more complex, I think it is time for all scientists to be much more explicit and much more ruthless on this point.Whether this is really a fair criticism of Onsager, I couldn't say, but the general point is true, important, and a perfect hook for the next thing I wanted to post about.
Science is a social, collaborative process, so part of being a good scientist is effective communication. Scientific communication is overwhelmingly written communication (scientific disciplines are, in a sense, literary communities), so part of being a good scientist is being a good writer. Unfortunately, scientists get little training in writing, and much of that consists of being advised to follow the rules found in horrid little compendia. Fortunately, there is some actual research on effective written communication, that is, on how to arrange your words so that their readers tend to acquire clear notions of your ideas. The best practical guide here, I've found, is Joseph William's Style: Towards Clarity and Grace. However, I have just discovered (via Paradise Blogged) a fine essay by George Gopen and Judith Swan, "The Science of Scientific Writing", which gives a clear yet concise presentation of the work. (Gopen and Williams are collaborators.) Here is their own summary of how to be clear:
Posted at July 26, 2006 00:53 | permanent link