arnab gupta

The problem facing scientist writers

June 22, 2013

I was lamenting on the scarcity of engineering blogs, even though there are a plethora of excellent science and other technical blogs on the internet.

That got me thinking about why relatively so few scientists in general, and engineers in particular, write and publish on the web. Here’s the problem, I think–

  • We never receive any proper writing training throughout our careers.

    We learn the other stuff, all the theories and how they work and so on, and even how to publish our work in peer-reviewed journals, but rarely how to competently and forcefully express ourselves and communicate with the world at large. That’s a problem, isn’t it? After all, a scientist is as much a writer as anyone else—what use is my earth shattering research if I can’t explain it to everyone else?

    And no, ‘math does the talking’ is no excuse. Math isn’t for everyone, and it’s very useful to be able to communicate ideas outside of mathematical jargon. Even a brief “Here’s an idea. Now if you really want to know, go learn the math!” is extremely valuable.

    Here’s an example, via an article at Project Wordsworth: the Japanese mathematician Shinichi Mochizuki posted four papers on the internet, purporting to prove the ever-enigmatic ABC conjecture. The only problem? No one understands his work:

    The question which quickly bubbled to the top of the forum, encouraged by the community’s “upvotes,” was simple: “Can someone briefly explain the philosophy behind his work and comment on why it might be expected to shed light on questions like the ABC conjecture?” asked Andy Putman, assistant professor at Rice University. Or, in plainer words: I don’t get it. Does anyone?

    Oops! (And remember, we’re talking about the mathematics community here, not the lay public.) Dr. Mochizuki was invited to give lectures on his work, to explain and educate. He refused.

    Of course, his peers are irked:

    “You don’t get to say you’ve proved something if you haven’t explained it,” [former math professor Cathy O’Neil] says. “A proof is a social construct. If the community doesn’t understand it, you haven’t done your job.”

    If you can’t communicate, are you really a great researcher?

    Mochizuki has reported all this progress for years, but where is he going? This “inter-universal geometer,” this possible genius, may have found the key that would redefine number theory as we know it. He has, perhaps, charted a new path into the dark unknown of mathematics. But for now, his footsteps are untraceable. Wherever he is going, he seems to be travelling alone.

    This is, of course, an extreme case, but I think the larger point holds too—that engineers/scientists should be able to competently express themselves and communicate with the larger community, and not only in journal articles.

  • We are not trained to be truly internet-savvy.

    I don’t mean this in terms of knowing how to navigate the internet and check email and visit websites and perform Google searches. I mean this in a larger sense—in knowing (and being comfortable with) how to create and maintain blogs, in managing our internet personas and profiles, in creating and designing websites.

    There are ample tools and resources out there, and we don’t all need to be trained in computer science to thrive—but we often rarely know how and where to begin. Some take the time to teach themselves, but what of those of us whose knack is not in internet technologies? We really do need to do more to expose ourselves more to internet publishing.

    We personally and professionally know of many scientists and researchers who are truly great teachers and communicators—but how many of these brilliant people are writing and publishing on the internet for the community at large?

If you’re an engineer or a scientist, and are a good communicator, please do consider writing and publishing on the internet! The rest of us will be the richer in experience for it. :)