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April 14, 2011 / tim16

Seeing without pictures – “An egg 6 times as big as it should be”

 

(deviantart.com)

by Tim Moran

 How does an author tell their audience about the impressive markings on a poison dart frog, or the immense height of the Karri tree, in their research article without the use of pictures?

Well, one can provide specific, vivid and clear details so that readers without the same experiences can understand and visualise what is being described. In other words, one may use scientific descriptive writing, as displayed in David Quammen’s 2006 biography The reluctant Mr Darwin.

This book traces the 21-year period between Charles Darwin’s original idea about natural selection and his publication On the Origin of Species, in an account that offers insight into his experiences as a cautious naturalist.

“The Kiwi’s egg” is one chapter in the book, where Quammen uses the New Zealand Kiwi bird and its unusually large, hefty egg size as a metaphor for natural selection developing within Charles Darwin. In doing so he extensively describes the Kiwi anatomy and the “humongous” egg it must develop and lay.

Quammen combines both scientific and narrative description as he conveys what a kiwi looks like and how a kiwi egg appears excessively large for its carrier. An example of these descriptive styles in sync is evident in the following sentence regarding what he observes in an x-ray photo of a heavily pregnant kiwi:

 “A skull, with its long beak; a graceful S-shaped neck; an arched backbone; a pair of hunched-up femurs; and at the centre of it all, a huge smooth ovoid- her egg- like the moon during a full solar eclipse.” (Quanmen, 2006)

X-ray photograph of a heavily pregnant Kiwi bird (Davetracker.com)

 Here, in the one sentence alone, Quammen successfully describes scientific features about Kiwi physiology (i.e. long beak and S-shaped neck), followed by an imaginative simile. The latter is accomplished through narrative description and adequately compliments the scientific details.

 While both scientific and narrative styles aim to visually portray a subject, scientific description differs from narrative description in that it focuses on detailed measurements, precise descriptions and factual information. It is predominantly based on observations, usually gathered from field notes that were taken as the research was undertaken. These notes may take the form of written notes, measurements or sketches, all of which serve as aids for recalling important details.

Narrative writing, on the hand, is characterised by the use of figurative language including the use of similes, metaphors, symbolism and personification.

Well written description can effectively replace images and this is especially important in most journal articles and other research papers where coloured images are restricted. It can also be the difference between how the reader perceives what the author does, and a better visual representation of an animal, person or place is definitely worth constructing!

Do you think “The Kiwi’s egg” makes effective use of both scientific and narrative description? Or, have you seen another example of these two descriptive styles used simultaneously?

References:

Quammen, D (2006). The Kiwi’s Egg:1842-1844. In The reluctant Mr.Darwin (pp 52-55). New York: Atlas.

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5 Comments

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  1. Jekaterina Gaplevskaja / Apr 15 2011 8:05 am

    Dear Tim,

    Thanks for a great post. I especially enjoyed the images. It was very thoughtful of you to include the X-ray picture that was discussed in the text.

    I think that use of narrative in science communication is absolutely essential. When researching this topic I stumbled upon a quote:

    I think this quote summarizes the main problem of scientific writing. Years of research, failures and successes put into a brief and detached account of the outcomes that is not allowed to show any emotions. However with a narrative description in addition to scientific one it is possible to make science communication breathtaking.

    I think that Richard Dawkins, a very famous evolutionary biologist, who has published multiple popular science books, is a real master at this. I have read two of his books and his descriptions of evolution are positively poetic. I could not find a copy of the book online, but I found a scientific paper describing how he effectively moulds descriptive narrative and science narrative.

    I hope you will find these usefull.

    Kate

    References:
    [1] Murcott, T., “Science journalism: Toppling the priesthood”, Nature 459, 1054-1055 (25 June 2009) | doi:10.1038/4591054a; Published online 24 June 2009
    [2] Avraamidou, L., Osborne, J., “The Role of Narrative in Communicating Science”, International Journal of Science EducationVol. 31, No. 12, 1 August 2009, pp. 1683–1707

  2. kategap / Apr 15 2011 8:14 am

    That’s a repost, because my previous attempt at using html failed…

    Dear Tim,

    Thanks for a great post. I especially enjoyed the images. It was very thoughtful of you to include the X-ray picture that was discussed in the text.

    I think that use of narrative in science communication is absolutely essential. When researching this topic I stumbled upon a quote:

    “When we read a published scientific paper, it often feels like the last word, even though there is often a gripping story behind and ahead of it.”
    – Toby Murcott, writing in Nature [1].

    I think this quote summarizes the main problem of scientific writing. Years of research, failures and successes put into a brief and detached account of the outcomes that is not allowed to show any emotions. However with a narrative description in addition to scientific one it is possible to make science communication breathtaking.

    I think that Richard Dawkins, a very famous evolutionary biologist, who has published multiple popular science books, is a real master at this. I have read two of his books and his descriptions of evolution are positively poetic. I could not find a copy of the book online, but I found a scientific paper describing how he effectively moulds descriptive narrative and science narrative.

    “The fourth type of text is narrative text in which expository text is embedded. Such text is commonly used by popularisers of science for the purpose of stimulating the interest and holding the attention of the reader. One such exemplar is Chapter 5 of
    The Blind Watchmaker , by Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist. This chapter begins with the memorable quotation ‘It is raining DNA outside’ (Dawkins, 1986,p. 111). Dawkin goes on to describe a willow tree that is shedding fluffy seeds far and wide across the landscape. The paragraph ends: ‘It is raining instructions out there; it’s raining programs; it’s raining tree-growing, fluff-spreading algorithms. That’s nota metaphor, it is the plain truth. It couldn’t be any plainer if it were raining floppy disks’ (Dawkins, 1986, p. 111). ”
    – Lucy Avraamidou and Jonathan Osborne [2].

    I hope you will find these useful.

    Kate

    References:
    [1] Murcott, T., “Science journalism: Toppling the priesthood”, Nature 459, 1054-1055 (25 June 2009) | doi:10.1038/4591054a; Published online 24 June 2009
    [2] Avraamidou, L., Osborne, J., “The Role of Narrative in Communicating Science”, International Journal of Science EducationVol. 31, No. 12, 1 August 2009, pp. 1683–1707

    • tim16 / Apr 17 2011 6:12 am

      Hi Kate,
      I thought that x-ray picture seemed to fit the bill… if anything it looked bigger in the image that I imagined from reading the extensive description in the referenced text.
      I agree that narrative writing in science can assist in the communication process. It is a shame that it cannot be integrated into journal articles as it would no doubt make them more appealing to a general (not to mention the target) audience when they want to read about a topic in more depth. Some amazing things in science need to be described elaborately through narrative and the Toby Murcott quote you provided highlights this point well.
      Great Richard Dawkins reference too. Another fine example of a nice blend both styles as his account of a willow tree dispersing its seeds comes across as far more stimulating than if it were substituted by pure science description.
      Thanks for your contribution, much appreciated comments!

  3. clayte01 / Apr 18 2011 6:22 am

    Hah, Hi Tim, Kate, I was just thinking that I really liked the inclusion of the image. If it hadn’t been there, the first thing I was going to do was google that image. Good blogging.

    I agree with you guys, narrative is hugely helpful for science communication and eduction, and it is a shame that it is looked down upon by academia. You might like this article How To Write Consistently Boring Scientific Literature. It kind of makes the point we’re making here– in order to write “correctly” for scientific journals and the like, it’s almost like your aim is to make it as dry as possible.

    Dawkins is a great example of someone who breaks free from this, another is Ben Goldacre, who uses a similar style to Dawkins. I recommend reading his book Bad Science, if you haven’t already.

    One last thing I really wanted to point out is a personal anecdote that was brought to mind by your blog/comments. In my first year, I was lucky enough to have Associate Professor Bob Bucat as my CHEM1001 lecturer. He does not take the communication and education side of being a lecturer lightly. Whilst I can’t tell you what my chem lecturer from last week said (something about x-ray crystallography…. I’ll look at the notes later) I still vividly remember Bob standing before the class and asking us to consider one nitrogen molecule from the air, he reached out and “grabbed it”, and told us a story about that one nitrogen molecule, that I can still bring to mind now.

    He also encouraged us to write everything that could be considered an “observation” in our lab books. When I read back on my first year notes now they contain comments like “my solution turned faded-denim blue”, and I can remember this experiment more vividly than any from last semester. Yet, I frequently find myself penalized for using the “wrong” language in my lab reports.

    I can’t understand why it is that “the powers that be” want us to keep using the old conventions.

    Why? Because that’s conventional.
    But they don’t make it easier to understand! It’s just how we do it.

    I like to think that those of us that value understanding and communication will win the “war”, even if it means losing battles, like the marks I forfeit on my lab reports, to be understandable.

    I’ll leave it there before I get any more carried away!
    Thank you for a thought (and argument) provoking post, Tim.
    Evette

  4. piyasd01 / Apr 21 2011 4:41 am

    Hi guys,

    I agree with all of the comments/arguments raised by everyone regarding the use of visual descriptions in science writing. I believe it’s a very useful tool in communicating complex scientific concepts to a wider target audience. I found your blog very intriguing. Like the previous comments said, I really liked the way you added in an image that fit the description of a pregnant kiwi bird.

    Good use of quotes. I found another interesting quote from the passage which I thought was good. I like the way the author uses descriptive language to indicate the size of kiwis by comparing it to other animals when he says:

    “ compared with other ratites, the kiwis are small- no bigger than an overfed chicken”

    Another interesting point that you mentioned was the differentiation between narrative and scientific visual descriptions. It is true that when you pick up a novel to read, the visual descriptions that the author uses are effective in that we can create our own image. You also made a fair point about the lack of such descriptions in scientific journal articles. If such descriptions are used by academics it will help students and non-academics to understand certain concepts clearly. And it all depends on how the reader interprets the information therefore communicating relevant information is a key concern!

    Overall, a very interesting blog to read.

    Regards,

    Devinka

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