The problem facing scientist writers

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. :)

Where are the engineers’ blogs?

I wish there were more people writing about engineering mechanics research. It’s certainly a fascinating area, and while perhaps they wouldn’t be as popular as the tech-media blogs, or the awesome science blogs that everyone can identify with, they’d still be pretty good, right?

I really like and follow Dr. Drang, who seems to occupy the perfect niche—mechanical engineering and computer programming. And through Dr. Drang I’ve recently discovered the blog of J. Ben Deaton, but haven’t had the chancce to explore in detail yet. (BTW, Deaton’s site is also powered by Octopress, with the default Octopress theme that I mentioned.) Then there’s Engineering is Awesome, which is also excellent.

But other than that, I don’t know of any engineering or mechanics blogs. There may be some great ones that don’t show up in Google searches—if you know of one, would you let me know? :)

There are quite a few science blogs though (example, example), and they are excellent and fascinating. But where are the engineers? Are engineers really that boring compared to other scientists? :)

Using Markdown by John Gruber

I’ve recently discovered Markdown by John Gruber, and it’s a nifty (and absolutely awesome) writing tool. If you prefer (like I do) doing the bulk of your writing in a text editor—rather than a word processor—Markdown is quite incredible.

And if you do all your writing in a word processor, try this out, seriously. Write everything up in a text file, without bothering about fonts or styles or page margins, and then import the document into your favorite word processor for styling. Personally, it’s less distracting, and more productive.

Just so you know—this post is written in Markdown, and then uploaded as HTML.

What Markdown is, is essentially a new ‘markup’ syntax (notice the irony in the name?). For example, HTML is a markup language—you do all your writing in a text file, and then you tag the text to give it different effect. HTML has different tags for linking, adding text effects, and a bunch of other things. Do you use (or have heard of) LaTeX? That’s another markup language: you do all your writing in a text file and then add tags to style the document.

The difference in case of Markdown is this: the tags it uses are all punctuation marks and symbols that we normally use anyway, for example in email. How would you show emphasis in a chat message? By using *, like this: *emphasis*. In Markdown you’d use the exact same syntax. It makes your text readable in addition to having all the markup included.

The only problem with writing all your text in a text file is, you have to go back into your word processor and actually add the styling—for example, the headings must be bold and a larger font, and you have to add the styling for subscripts and superscripts. With Markdown, all that is already done in the text file itself!

The natural export from Markdown is HTML (it’s tailored for web writing), but it’s elementary to import the HTML styled text into a word processor. And until you actually do that, you still have a text file that perfectly readable! (In addition, I think there are scripts available that do a direct conversion from Markdown text to MS-Word format. There’s also the [Dingus page][linkdingus] at Daring Fireball) to see your Markdown handiwork.

Excellent creation, John Gruber. I’ve been a fan of your tech-writing for a while now; now I also know why Markdown is so popular.