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Science Writing Prize 2012 – Michael Regnier

19 Mar, 2012

The 2012 Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize, in association with the Guardian and the Observer, opened last week, so between now and the competition deadline on 25 April, we’ll be hearing from established science writers about a piece of science writing they admire and what makes it so good. In the second in the series, also published on the Guardian website, Wellcome Trust science writer Michael Regnier waxes lyrical about literary experiments.

Coloured etching of a group of poets under the influence of nitrous oxide

Science and poetry do mix: A coloured etching from 1829 shows a group of poets composing under the influence of nitrous oxide

My favourite piece of science writing is a poem by French avant-garde writer Raymond QueneauLe Chant du Styrène (The Song of Styrene) was written in 1958 as commentary for a promotional film commissioned by French company Pechiney, but I first read it as a standalone poem and immediately fell in love with it.

I liked the idea of a poem – written in alexandrine rhyming couplets – about the manufacture of plastics. I am far from fluent in French, so I’m not really in a position to judge the literary quality of the poem, but while it is no joke, neither does it take itself too seriously as it winds its way backwards from brashly modern kitchenware to raw petrochemicals in 82 lines of verse. I’m so impressed that Queneau tried it at all.

Is it science writing, though? When I think of “science writing”, including my own, it tends to be fairly straight reporting of research. There is a demand for this: readers want to know what scientists have discovered and there are now many ways to find out. Across newspapersblogs and elsewhere, lots of excellent writers supply accurate information and engaging explanations of science.

For me, however, there is an extra thrill when the novelty of scientific findings is fused with an experiment in literary form. Queneau was a founder member of Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or “workshop of potential literature”), a group of experimental writers. The most famous example of their work, perhaps, is Georges Perec’s 300-page novel written without using the letter e.

Italo Calvino, another Oulipian, often drew on science for his subject matter and structured his writing in simple mathematical patterns. Mr Palomar is three sets of three sets of three short stories. The protagonist is named after the famous observatory and the theme of observation develops from concrete, visual ideas to more abstract ones within each set, and from one set to the next. It is a beautiful book that gently, thoughtfully and wittily demonstrates the joy, power and distraction of concentrated, almost scientific, observation.

Experiments in science writing don’t have to be avant garde. I enjoyed Ian Sample’s account of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry last year. In addition to the story that appeared in the Guardian, Sample liveblogged the announcement and, more interestingly, his subsequent research for the story. He put up snippets from interviews as soon as he got off the phone, and posted links to the background material he was reading. Meanwhile, commenters below the line expounded relevant scientific concepts. This real-time narrative can now be read before, after, alongside or instead of the finished article.

Clear, engaging explanations of scientific concepts and new research in context are vitally important. But let’s not forget that writing is an art form as well as a tool. Let’s take inspiration from the science we report and, from time to time, experiment with the way we write about it.

Find out more about the Science Writing Prize on the Wellcome Trust website – the closing date is 25 April 2012.

Image credit: Wellcome Library, Wellcome Images

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