Class Warfare Blog

January 6, 2020

Academic Writing

Filed under: Education,Science — Steve Ruis @ 10:41 am
Tags: ,

The Conversation web site ran an interesting article on the third of January (Academic Writing Can Be Boring – But There Are Good Reasons for That) which gave some history of academic writing and why it tends to be dry and, well, dull.

Since I taught academic writing to my chemistry students I have some interest in this topic and I think there were a few things left out, at least as they apply to serious writing about chemical subjects.

Academic journals all set their own formats so that topic will not be covered but in addition:

  • Chemists are writing about their experiments which all occurred in the past, so they use past tense. In fiction writing exclusive use of the past tense is a manuscript killer because it implies that everything already happened, and so no change can occur. So, some history can be covered but there is no tension as to what might happen next because everything has already happened.
  • The only “actors” are the chemicals, so everything is written in passive voice, e.g. “water was boiled, chemicals were mixed, heat was applied.” They do not write “I boiled some water, etc.” because it doesn’t matter who boiled the water, just that it was boiled, so passive voice–impersonal (no pronouns other than “it,” etc.) is the rule of the day. This adoption would be lethal in fiction writing because there are no actors in the writing, so no characters.
  • There is no suspense because all formats start out with an abstract, which tells all regarding the article. This is so very busy scientists can read a synopsis of what was done to decide whether reading the details is worthwhile. (There is even a publication called “Chemical Abstracts” which published just the titles and abstracts of all of the chemistry articles appearing in the other journals. There is way too much stuff published to not supply these tools. (Of course, with the advent of computers and the Internet, there are tools that automatically search journals for a set of key words you supply, and many others.)

As a consequence, chemistry journal articles are dry and lifeless, exactly the way we want. The focus is on the chemicals and what they did . . . when . . . etc. The names at the top of the article tell you who did it, and there is no other mention of them otherwise. (Although this “rule” is breaking down somewhat.)

An Anecdote As a teacher of freshmen chemistry to freshmen, part of the lab portion of the course involved writing formal reports. Just before I retired, I got the number of such required reports down to exactly two. All students were supplied with written instructions as to how to do this. They even got a lecture going over these things. If something egregious showed up in the first set of reports, a “grade killer” provision was made for the second one. As an example, students seem to be addicted to formatting titles as if they were sentences (first word capitalized, period at the end). Since I was a part-time editor I made an attempt to figure out how this came to be and I believe it was from a practice of modern magazine ad formatting. The ads in magazines used to have “zingers” at the top, which were essentially titles, to attract attention. At some point, magazines figured out that having a sentence at the top of the ad implied something was being said and made it more read-worthy. Since students read a lot of magazines and very few books, this “format at the top” became their exemplars of “titles.”

In any case when this started showing up, it became my first “grade killer.” After leading a discussion of title formats (which resulted in the meta rule “If in doubt, capitalize all of the big words.”) I told them that if they instead formatted their title as if it were a sentence, they will have effectively killed their chance of getting an A on the report. (The grade being killed was the possibility of getting an A, not an automatic F on the report. I was not an ogre. If they formatted their report title as a sentence, the max grade they could get was a B.)

The first time I imposed this rule, the percentage of reports with titles formatted as sentences was ____ ? What do you think? I though it should be 1-3 percent. If you guessed 40% you hit the mark. I was shocked. What happened to all of the grade grubbers that were supposedly filling our college classrooms?

I tried all kinds of things, like supplying them with checklists of things to look over before submitting their reports (and lots more). The effects of these were small. (This ineffectiveness on my part fueled my early retirement to some extent.) End of Anecdote

Scientists have to learn how to write for other scientists. Even non-scientists (and I assumed the vast majority of my students would not become scientists) have to be able, from time to time, read something written for scientists and be able to decipher it, just as all U.S. citizens need to be able to read the Constitution and be able to decipher it . . . usually with some help.

I like my chemistry writings like I like my Martini’s “dry, shaken, not stirred” or some such.

Having said all of the above, I absolutely love the writings of gifted science writers. These are people who make science come alive for lay audiences. This is another gift altogether.



June 3, 2016

Argh, Please, Dr. Carroll Say It Ain’t So

I have been reading Sean Carroll’s latest book “The Big Picture” in which he heroically tries to bring the gap between how people see the world and how it actually is (well, he doesn’t include thoseThe Big Picture Cover who see unicorns, but most other “ontologies”). It is extremely well-written and when I finish it I suspect I will be recommending it to those of you who enjoy good scientific and philosophic writing. (The writing is very, very good.)

But then I hit a speed bump—there I was reading along, learning things and appreciating where he was going when he introduces the Thompson atom, the first atom model featuring subatomic particles. He includes a graphic depiction of an hydrogen atom, which typically is a single electron associated with a single proton (a nucleus). But the illustration! Imagine a ping pong ball with a BB sitting next to it and inch or so away. The particles are depicted with simple circles, black on white, nothing fancy and oh, so misleading! The Thompson atom model, expanded by many others (Bohr, etc.) has electrons traveling in orbits around their nuclei, like planets about a star. We have since found out that this simplistic model does not work and orbits do not show up in current models, but he was specifically addressing that earliest model, so that is all good. My problem is with the scale. If one were to put the two particles at their proper distance, one would be hard pressed to print dots small enough to depict the actual size of the two particles, in fact, you cannot print them as small as they are. (In fact we still don’t know how big an electron is, all we know is it is substantially smalled than a proton or neutron).

So, I ask, why the grotesque distortion of the scales involved?

I suspect it is because we were taught with such erroneous illustrations and “a picture is worth a 1000 words.”

To show you how hard it is to depict what an atom seems to “look like” I used to put my students through this exercise. I would have them take a completely blank piece of paper. It would be best to use black paper as it is dark in the atomic realm but black paper and white ink are hard to come by, so this is a “negative” we are drawing.

I then asked them to draw, in pencil or ink, the smallest possible dot they could in the exact center on the page. That dot is the nucleus to scale. Then they had to draw in a wispy, cloud-like spherical shape around that dot, with the “cloud” being denser closer in and fading out toward the edge of the paper (atoms have to outer edge, they just fade away). The catch is that the electron represented by that “cloud” is almost 2000 times less massive than the proton, so they could only use 1/2000 of the amount of pencil lead or ink they used to draw the nucleus.

When they finished, I had to explain that at that scale of the cloud they drew was much too small, it would have to be many times bigger to be actual scale.

We tend to think atoms are these hard little bits of matter but the only thing “hard” in the atom is the nucleus and it takes up only about a 100 million millionth of the atom’s volume and it is way down toward the middle of the atom where little can get to it. The rest is very, very nebulous (but also highly electrically charged).

None of the behaviors of atoms make any sense unless we are true to the scales involved. Peddling poor illustrations because “we’ve always done it that way” or “that’s what they will recognize” won’t do, especially in books intended to expand the understanding of science in the lay public.

Blog at