Month: September 2006

What Is a Science Writer?

The occasional reader who wanders onto sciencewriter.org might wonder why it’s called this way. Since I am using such a precious domain name (which cost me $15) for my personal Web site, I feel obliged to say something about what science writing is, at least the way I see it. But first, let me say what I think it’s not. Here I am implicitly answering the questions I often hear when I introduce myself as a science writer.

A science writer is not a scientist, a “tech” writer, or an educator. In scholarly, technical, or educational writing, the emphasis is on the greater good of spreading literacy of some sort, or on the practical need to access or record information — be it the results or of your research or the instructions for using your iPod. The structure of the exposition tends to be dictated by the nature of the subject, starting with the basics and the prerequisites, then proceeding systematically from topic to topic. The hope is that the reader will be able to retain as much information and learn as many technical terms as possible.

While there are gray areas and a lot of overlap between those kinds of writing and what I call science writing, I can think of at least one important difference. It has to do with the world’s oldest profession.

Well, perhaps not quite, but one of the oldest, one that has been part of the human experience ever since we acquired the ability to speak. Everyone likes a good story, and we — the science writers — are a particular kind of story tellers. The trick is to tingle the reader’s (or the listener’s) curiosity, and get them hooked, so they’ll want to hear how it ends.

What gets many science writers excited about their job is the awareness that, somewhere, in many scientific discoveries, a great story is hiding, waiting to be told, sometimes unbeknownst to the discoverers themselves. It’s a story that’s sometimes hard to spot, and even harder to tell. But it would be a pity not to try to share it with those who might care to listen.

[For some musings on science writing, read my interview with New York Times science writer George Johnson, a sciencewriter.org exclusive.]

The Dread Lock Universe

cover story

Last month I had my first cover story in New Scientist, You Are Made of Spacetime (with additional reporting by Valerie Jamieson).

The story is about some intriguing new ideas coming from the loop quantum gravity community — the rebellious bunch of physicists who don’t buy the hype about string theory and still want to look around for alternatives.

Lee Smolin, Fotini Markopoulou, and their collaborators seem to believe that if you follow quantum theory to its ultimate consequences, it will eventually prove that space as we know it is an illusion. Instead, the universe could turn out to be an endless computation process, a network of quantum computers whose nodes would be everywhere and nowhere. And the stuff we are made of — the elementary particles — could be the result of the computer’s circuitry being all tangled up into braids. Or dread locks, as I like to think of them.

Lately, Smolin has been in the media a lot, partly because his new book is coming out, “The Trouble with Physics”: Time interviewed him for an article entitled The Unraveling of String Theory; Ira Flatow had him on the air together with Brian Greene on Science Friday; and Wired interviewed him, too.

Check out this blog for the upcoming review of Smolin’s book, as well as of Not Even Wrong, another anti-string-theory book by Peter Woit. (By the way, any one who is interested in an introduction to loop quantum gravity should read Smolin’s very nicely written book Three Roads to Quantum Gravity.)

For the record, I don’t particularly have an opinion for or against string theory. I have recently covered research both in string theory and in loop quantum gravity.

My article was picked up by several blogs — most notably by Edge.org, the Web site of John Brockman, a literary agent who presumably has Lee Smolin among his clients. Needless to say, some of the most bellicose string theorists (and even some of the more moderate ones) hated it. Meanwhile, the article inspired a New Scientist reader, a British meteorologist called Roy Everitt, to write a poem, which Roy graciously allowed me to post here:

We measure time by movements,
To and fro –
And space by implication of that time,

But what if neither’s real?

A universe where both are consequent
Of abstract mathematics,
Where the stuff
Of stars and all the emptiness between
Is braided formulae
And where the mass
Of all we know and all we thought to know
Has no real mass and yet just has to be.

From Einstein via Bohr the numbers call –
And Newton’s apple simply had to fall.

Update: The Economist has picked up the story in its Sept. 28 issue. I don’t need to say which of the two write-ups I prefer …