In the past few weeks, I’ve had several observant readers ask about one of my “secret” projects. They’ve wondered what I’m up to and why it’s detracting from other endeavors. After answering another query this morning, I decided that it’s probably time to speak openly about it. So, here’s my public confession: I’m writing a book.
It’s about scientific and professional writing and open source. Moreover, it will be interesting, intriguing and revolutionary. (Yes, I have an inflated sense of ego.)
Before really diving into the details, I’d like to give a bit of personal background. This might help you understand why I’m passionate about the subject.
Ten years ago, had someone told me that I would end up a scientist and engineer, I would have laughed at them. At the time, I had just started at University and I was fully set on a career in either illustration, design or architecture. I was much too “visual” and “right-brained” to surround myself by geeks, freaks and nerds. It didn’t help that I spent a huge amount of time grooming myself to be an “artist”.
During high school, I had been cursed with moderate talent and highly indulgent instructors. They praised my artwork. They called it interesting and innovative. They encouraged me to refine my technique and to major in visual arts. So, I did.
But as time went on, I realized that I wasn’t very happy. I realized that I had other interests. I enjoyed art, I did well in it; but art classes weren’t my favorites. That honor, as it turned out, was reserved for mathematics and science.
There was also another problem, I found that I lacked the discipline required to systematically create an individual style and build a portfolio. I wanted create art for myself, not for other people; and that is a fatal flaw in an illustrator (the type of work that most interested me). Illustration, by definition, is work that has been requested for a particular use. I was more interested in my own whims than those of potential clients. Thus, not long after recognizing my problem, I decided to go a different direction and changed my major to engineering.
But even though I condemned myself to a life of investigation and exploration, I remained very interested in art, photography, layout and design. This interest (and some substantial urging by the doctor I worked for at the time) resulted in a fascination with where science and art seemed to intersect.
And this is when I noticed, like many others, a strange trend. If you look at the work of those considered the greatest minds in history – Leonardo Da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Galileo Gallilei, Thomas Jefferson, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, etc. – you find something intriguing. In nearly every case, those recognized as brilliant weren’t judged solely on the quality of their thinking, but also by how they presented and explained their insights. Indeed, the thing identified as “brilliance” was not merely exceptional thinking, but clear communication. After, all, clever thoughts and ingenious solutions mean nothing if they can’t be captured, understood and disseminated.
What is often overlooked, however, is just how much work is required to explain ideas which aren’t inherently simple, and that raises an important problem. Communication in general, and writing in particular, is very hard. To distill random and chaotic thought into a coherent and logical narrative requires energy, time and effort. This is especially true of scientific, technical or professional subjects.
Such documents contain an enormous amount of baggage: figures, theorems, mathematical equations, algorithms, cross references and indexes. And while such things simplify the life of a reader, they can positively drown a writer.
Tools and Technology
Luckily, however, there are tools and technologies that can simplify the organizational side of communication and allow for a writer to focus on the important parts: words, pictures and evidence. But finding these tools and making them work together can be a very daunting task. And that’s why I’m writing a book.
In its pages, I want to introduce principles and ideas that are characteristic of good communication. For example, why was Albert Einstein able to convince both scientists and the general public that E=MC^2? Why do we still read the scientific treatises of Isaac Newton or Charles Darwin – centuries after their ideas have been edited, amended, extended and restated? Why does scientific communication often fail and what can be done to prevent breakdowns or misunderstanding?
Then, I want to show how those principles can be applied. I’ll look at open source tools and how they work. What programs are available for capturing information and references, organizing thoughts, and eventually creating a cohesive manuscript? How can open source tools be used to create beautiful charts, maps, graphs and tables? How can the process of collaboration be simplified?
Finally, I want to show why open source is awesome. I want to demonstrate why it is functionally superior to proprietary alternatives; and I want to do this in a way that shows it to be accessible. (Far too often, I find that people are afraid of open source because they view at as “complicated”, which is very unfortunate.)
When I first switched from art to science, I found myself confused, lost and overwhelmed. Not only did I need to adjust to a completely new discipline and culture, but I also found that no one used the same computer programs! And while it took some time to understand why, once I did, I realized that I would never go back to the “old” way of doing things.
Thus, I’m writing the book I wish someone had given me as a new science student; a book that explained the functional bits of scientific and professional writing with lots of examples, code, and pretty pictures. This is what I’ve tried to put together, something that is part theoretical treatise but mostly instructional manual.
So, for those of you who have wondered where I’ve been and where I’ve wandered; that’s the answer. I’m writing book. The good news, however, is that it’s nearly finished. And it’s in a state where I can start to share thoughts and examples from its chapters. In the next few months, expect to see some of that information here.
But because I’m passionate about the subject, I would love to hear others have to say. What makes for a good piece of informative writing? What are examples of clear communication? What lessons might we in the sciences learn from others? And what tricks do you have for being more efficient?