Monday, September 29, 2008

Talking Science

I don't like scientific, technical writing. Period. 
Apart from the fact that everything has to be accompanied by a proof which is enough to discourage disorganized article-readers like me it is amazingly boring. I read articles at train stations and due to the chronic absence of stapler at my desk, I sometimes leave half of my reference on the dining table. Then when I come to work I always have a pathological longing to write about the parts that have been left on the dining table. 
Scientific writing for me is like dressing up a beautiful gypsy woman in a black work-suit. Make her wear pointy heels even though she is used to walking barefoot on the grass. There is no room for being quirky. 
I remember when I first got my solvents to experiment with, one of them had a "strong repulsive odor" ( yeah that is how I have to describe it). Initially, because it had a long chemical formula which was a bit of tongue-twister, I labeled it "the stinky IL" in my lab-book.I got so used to that name that I mentioned it by mistake in one of our supervisor-student meetings and Les, my supervisor was genuinely amused. 
I get criticized time and again for my writing style which incorporates more freedom than it should. I try to keep it normal though.
These days since I am writing up for a report I keep thinking of boring words on my way in and way out. Simple rules like replacing the word "explore" with "investigate". I tend to have more "compares" and "evaluates" in my mind. I am off reading Calvin and Hobbes for the past two weeks and I invest my time reading NewScientist over lunch. 
Honestly though, sometimes technical writing is a bit too pretentious. It is a bit bewildering when someone fills an article with something like,"It is highly unlikely that this theory of randomization would not appear to agree with the other three theories published on the matter". I honestly hate the use of the word "highly" and "unlikely" together just to top it with something like "would not" later. 
You feel like saying, "Oh come on dude! Just say that your stupid theory agrees with everything published before! I am on a serious caffeine dosage here!" 
I think one of the most serious impediments in the enrichment of the knowledge database of PhD students is the resistance offered by phrases like "juxtaposition of associated variables" or "aberrant variations in the conductivity of ionic solutions". I know the meanings of all these words ( reading up for GRE never goes waste) but when they combine in those kind of poisonous combinations, the result is always soporific. 
I have also observed that it does not matter how funky your work actually is as long as you can go on and on about it in combinations of above mentioned words, everyone thinks you are the reincarnation of Einstein. 
The best way to describe the physical appearance of my dissolution experiments for example, is "Poo from a dog with a tummy upset". Of course this is stretching it a bit too far I know but when I write it down I have to say, " the end result of the dissolution experiment is a dark brown low viscosity fluid". Now anyone would remember it more the first way than the second. 
When I get a nice infra red peak I feel like calling it , "beautiful, slim peak at 1700" but instead I have to call it attenuated or sharp. 
It is one thing doing experiments and another writing about them! For in the lab, you always see people talking to their reactions. 
"Look at my HPLC data!! Isn't it absolutely gorgeous? Aww you little funny peak there! How cute you look in this clear background!"
Or sometimes when something is not happening,"Come on you little piece of S***. Turn brown!! That is what I want!!"
In the end however, as much fond as you are of all the little reactions that you make,when you write it down it turns just as tasteless as the paper that it is printed on!
God help me finish this report!!


Raj said...

Interesting! Similarly, technical writing is not allowed to have any humour. I always thought that a bit of tongue-in-cheek would help :)
There was a forwarded mail long time back which explained what the typical sentences in a paper mean.
for eg "To the best of our knowledge" means i haven`t bothered to look up the refernces or "typical results show" means these are the best results. :)

शिरीष said...

Hey Sai
I liked your attitude! I totally agree with you. Why thigs have to be explained in such clumsy boring and dull drab way. Yor description about the dissolution is perfect than what you have to write.

I would like to see the day when some one (like you) writes the PhD thesis in the normal way.

Saee said...

@ Raj
Yeah! I think a little bit of humor would go a long way in making scientists.. :)
@ baba
Well, I would like to write two versions of my thesis..lets see if someone buys the funny one and makes me a millionaire!

Endevourme said...

/-when you write it down it turns just as tasteless as the paper that it is printed on!
luvved that line! and its so damn true, and it might be reason why ordinary ppl find technical stuff so frightening(and boring too hehe)
we have to choose between being correct, unbiased and making things downtoearth and interesting...

Saee said...

@ Prasad
Yeah..I think making difficult things sound simple is one of the greatest challenged offered to academics. And somehow some of the simplest things I have ever read talk about some of the most difficult concepts. I consider the use of too many fancy words and phrases a sign of immaturity!! ;)
Thanks for the comment!

RJ said...

I think things are changing and you are one of the change long as you won't lose your sense of humour and "funny" way of explaining things to yourself...and as a tutor to your students...things will be fine...Why are you a change agent ? Coz you are a scientist !!! When your final residue turns into goo...we will all be very happy for you !!!

Saee said...

@ Ranjeet
LOL you are so funny. Actually I am really stressed over this stupid report for the past 2 weeks or so. :(
I am glad that other people find some humor in it too!! =)

Anonymous said...

HI SAEE....I am writing from qatar. i have named my daughter (7 months now) , as Saee. we find the name very attractive, rare..
also there are no shortcuts attached to the the name itself is small. and good...
ALl the people I met ,liked the name..the name reflects, tradition, and cultural values...
Do like your name.....(I one of your earlier blogs you had questioned the name)
bye for now ..regards

Saee said...

@ Anonymous
LOL!! Thanks. :)