Quote of the Day

Never lose a holy curiosity.

-Albert Einstein

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Writing about Biology

I’ve been held up in my writing because I don’t know how to write about science.

This seems counter intuitive. I’ve been doing science for ten years, easily. That involves writing reports, conveying thoughts and plans, organizing data into manageable bundles. But this has always been for other people in my field, or people that I assume know more about the subject than I do, so the occasional hole in narrative is not rare.

On the other hand, writing science on a blog is a very open ended endeavor. Who am I writing for? Interested undergrads? People with no biology background at all? Myself?

Reading Janna Levin’s How the Universe Got Its Spots over the last few weeks, I’ve been inspired by the way physicists approach complex ideas. Although a lot of physics is unapproachable without an extremely high level of math, physicists have a tradition of “thought experiments” that can be easily utilized to make complex ideas about space and time more graspable. Imagine the speed of light is 25 mph. Imagine you have a twin on a train. Imagine you send a man with a stopwatch and a ruler to the other side of the universe.

It makes me jealous. Why haven’t we, as biologist, learned to talk about our field this way? But when I think of the actual subject to be explained, I realize broad thought experiments aren’t really the way to go about it. In biology we already have our unifying theory: evolution. It’s simple. It’s intuitive. It doesn’t need to be kneaded or morphed in order to be readily understood. The complexity of writing in biology comes from the innate microscopic messiness that has sprouted from millions of years of evolutionary divergence.

When you zoom in up close and personal on, say, DNA repair, you are not looking at a single process with an overlying theory or method – there are many mechanisms that have resulted from convergent and divergent evolution, all with implications which can be used to better understand our world. But in the end, you are looking at a small slice of what evolution has done – a band aide for one of the many problems created by the piecemeal system itself. In most cases, you won’t be able to extrapolate much from understanding this specific subsection, a reality that professors wrestle with every day when writing broader impacts for the NIH. So… In the end, what’s the point of knowing?

I want to know so I can marvel. As my favorite ‘armchair biologist’, Annie Dillard, wrote: “The creator goes off on one wild, specific tangent after another, or millions simultaneously, with an exuberance that would seem unwarranted, and with an abandoned energy sprung from an unfathomable font.” Whatever you feel about the ‘creator’, is it not amazing where we’ve ended up from one source? How wonderful would it be to follow just one of these tangents, just to revel in the specificity?