Take the Strange and Make it Familiar: Advice on Science Writing
Traditionally, scientists have been reluctant towards, if not prejudiced against, popular science journalism. The situation has only begun to change recently with scientist-communicators like Brian Greene and Jim Al-Khalili coming into the limelight. However, keeping in view the explosion of blogging, a void still remains as far as quality science writing by scientists for a general audience. With the goal of procuring advice for early career researchers (ECRs), Iqra and I requested a Skype conversation with veteran science author Marcia Bartusiak, who has an academic background in both journalism and physics.
Bartusiak is an award-winning science journalist, author and Professor of Science Writing at MIT. She has written on astronomy for about four decades, with features in Discover, Science, Smithsonian, Astronomy and National Geographic. In her interview, she shares some insights into her career, hoping to provide some food for thought for aspiring scientists and science writers:
Veteran Astronomy Author, Marcia Bartusiak (Photo Courtesy of Marcia Bartusiak)
Q: How does science writing differ from other forms of writing?
A: I never see it as different. I am using the same journalistic skills that I learned in my undergraduate days. As a broadcast journalist, I used to write on all kinds of stories that a general reporter would cover. And I am now using the same journalistic skills for science writing. At the bottom line, all of us are telling stories. People read because they want to read a good story. I happen to have science as a topic, but I treat science as just another area of society, like politics or art. It’s just is a little tougher with science because people are less familiar with it.
But the goal in science writing is not to teach science but to take away the fear factor. You want people to realize “Oh my gosh! I can understand quantum chromodynamics,” because you have written it in such an engaging way!
Q: I know scientists who think that popular science communication vulgarizes scientific facts because great liberty is taken in the use of analogies to explain things. How do you deal with this?
A: When I confronted a scientist who was really uptight about my translating his work using analogies and metaphors, I told him, “I am not here to teach my audience about science. I just want them to have a flavor of it.” You want to describe a scientific process not with the technical language but in a way that makes it understandable within the layman’s world. There is a famous phrase that the New York Times writer George Johnson uses, “Take the strange and make it familiar.” And that’s what a science writer is really doing.
And the way I do this is, because I have a background in both writing and science, I give a first stab at it. I try to come up with an explanation using metaphors and analogies, and then I go back to the scientists and say, “Do you think this works? Does this get the point across?”And if they feel like it’s not really accurate, I work with them and try to find a better metaphor or a better analogy. If I put it that way, they are willing to work with me.
Q: Do you think it is easy for scientists to become great science writers as well?
A: I think there are some scientists that have problems with translation. They find it difficult to simplify the technical jargon. But if they have the talent to be science writers, that’s wonderful. I’m sort of an intermediary. I interview the scientists and do the translation. But when the scientists are doing their own writing, you are getting a direct insight of what they think and how they explain it to the layman.
Q: Your books like, “Archives of the Universe,” majorly touch on the history of science. How important is incorporating science history while teaching science?
A: I think it is very important for people to know that discoveries don’t come out of the blue, without a lot of preparation. The history gives people an understanding that there is a process to science. Finding dark matter or finding the nature of the modern universe does not involve just coming up with an idea. Theories arise from a series of observations and experiments that were carried out, and that are still being continued today. You can’t often cover the history in short feature articles. But certainly, in books, you have the time and depth to show people how a scientific idea evolved from the information that was gathered from decades or centuries before.
Q: What advice do you have to young people who would like to pursue science writing?
A: Keep your ears open at all times for possible stories. When you are walking around your university, hearing about different projects or experiments, always ask yourself, “What’s the potential story here?” Start asking questions because the biggest thing is finding the story idea and how you would tell that story. That is what keeps you going.
For instance, I was at a physics conference this past summer. One of the people mentioned that gravitational waves from neutron stars had not yet been seen. And then she sort of jokingly said, “At least not announced yet,” and then my ears perked up and I went, “Oh my God! They must have found it. They haven’t announced it yet!” You could be at a scientific conference and hear a real scoop. So you should keep your ears open.
On inquiring, Bartusiak was of the opinion that the two hardest things for her science writing students at MIT is finding the right story and conveying it in an engaging manner for the public. For ECRs, the hardest part is perhaps the latter one, i.e., effective science storytelling for bigger lay audiences. As science journalism gains more acceptance in the scientific community, it becomes more important than ever for ECRs to engage with the general audience through popular writing, Twitter, and blogs. This will not only help in educating the masses about science and giving back to the community, but will also help advocate why science is important and why resources should be invested in it.
Featured image: Obtained from Pixabay under CC0 Creative Commons
- Greene, B. Brian Greene.
- Al-Khalili, J. Jim Al-Khalili.
- Bartusiak, M. Marcia Bartusiak.
- Bartusiak, M. (1997) Giving Birth to Galaxies. Discover.
- Bartusiak, M. (1992) Turning a Keen Eye on the Stars. Science.
- Bartusiak, M. (1998) X Rays Expose a Violent Sky. Smithsonian.
- Bartusiak, M. (2005) How the Universe Has Surprised Us. Astronomy.
- Bartusiak, M. (2005) Beyond the Big Bang: Einstein’s Evolving Universe.National Geographic.
- Bartusiak, M. (2006) Archives of the Universe: 100 Discoveries That Transformed Our Understanding of the Cosmos. Vintage.
About the Authors:
Muhammad Hamza Waseem is in junior year of electrical engineering at the University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore. He is interested in modern physics, optics, science education and science communication.
Iqra Naveed is a sophomore in computer engineering at the University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore. She has recently developed interest in science communication and aims at bridging the gap between science and art.