pierre laszlo

Science writings
Pour le CV

ChemBioChem, 2004, 5, 1302.

H. F. Ebel, C. Bliefert, W. E. Russey, The Art of Scientific Writing. From Student Reports to Professorial Publications in Chemistry and Related Fields. Wiley-VCH, 2nd ed., Weinheim, 2004, vi + 595 pp., ISBN 3-527-29829-0.

The title is a misnomer. To do justice to its contents, the book ought to have been named The Minutia of Scientific Publishing. For an accurate idea of the contents, imagine putting together « Instructions to Authors » from periodicals, from guides prepared by book publishers, etc. The chapters deal in succession with reports, such as laboratory notebooks ; dissertations ; journal articles ; books ; writing techniques, word processing primarily; equations and formulas ; figures ; tables ; and bibliographies.
The three authors bring considerable experience and complementary expertises to their task. Hans F. Ebel  is a former senior editor and a director of Wiley-VCH. Claus Bliefert, a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Applied Sciences in Münster, has authored several books on science communication. William E. Russey, an emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Juniata College, in Pennsylvania, has performed numerous scientific translations, for Angewandte Chemie in particular.

To give the flavor of the book, I will quote from p. 198 :

Education is another area subject to enormous impact from modern technology, and the past can hardly be regarded as a reliable guide to the future. Our uncertainty with respect to the outlook for textbooks is of course related to possible alternative sources of information, including the Internet, but also rapid developments in the area of « distance learning. » Personal experience forces us (with considerable dismay, or is it mainly nostalgia ?) to take seriously as well the fact that student willingness and even ability to learn from the printed page has declined markedly in recent years. As a teacher, one must decide whether to do battle with this situation, or simply accept the consequences and move on.

Is this informative ? Or does it qualify as padding with stereotypes ? It smacks of a memo internal to a publishing house.
The authors fall over backwards in their adulation of the digital revolution. Their book is keyed to use of currently available software. Hence, it will become quickly outdated.
To return to the seductive if misleading title, there is indeed a real need for a book on science publishing, focussed on style, i.e., on the artistry. There are gems of science writing. Are they recipes or tricks to emulate them ? Can the skill be learned ?
Now to the oneupmanship. Having done my bit, having for more than 30 years written up for publication our teamwork in chemistry ; having gone on to becoming a solo science writer, I have a little experience. There is no reason I should not share here my ten cardinal rules :

  1. member you are telling a story. Presenting the evidence belongs in legal briefs ;
  2. science IS writing ;
  3. be fair : give credit to whom it is due ; quote only those references you have read and are familiar with ;
  4. competition is no excuse for sloppy writing ;
  5. writing-up the results is the best way to design your study and your experiments properly. Waiting until the investigation has been « completed » is a mistake. Start writing the paper from the outset ;
  6. the iconography will have to stand on its own. Make sure that it tells your story, that it provide the main steps of the argument and the take-home lesson ;
  7. avoid using la langue de bois, i.e. the stilted protective language which debases both the  English language and science ;
  8. find your voice, establish a style ; good writing comes from imitation followed by  emulation : pick a model, and try to come up with sentences which are your own ;
  9. read aloud what you have written, it is a good way to improve it ;
  10. edit : at   re the first read, cull 20% of the copy ; during following reads, remove an additional  10%.

Coming back to the book under review, it might enjoy some use within publishing houses. For us scientists, it will be easily superseded by a combination of good, creative work and of good, creative writing. This book won’t give you a taste for the latter. You are much better off reading or rereading Conrad or Nabokov who, just like quite a few among us, were not native English writers.


language as an analogy in the natural sciences

A conference held in Munich, November 20-23, 1997.

Belaboring the obvious: Chemistry as sister science to linguistics

Pierre Laszlo
Ecole polytechnique, Palaiseau, France
and University of Liège, Belgium

Le pin et la molécule

Je suis suffisamment proche de la lisière de la forêt pour la scruter. Chacun des arbres est unique. Le pin que je regarde se différencie de son voisin. Cet arbre singulier porte en écharpe sa propre mortalité. Certaines de ses branches sont mortes, elles portent des aiguilles brunies et raréfiées. Mais un arbre n'est pas restreint à une statique. Ses réponses aux souffles d'air sont comme une danse, comme un péan aux pressions environnementales qui ont induit l'évolution de son espèce. Ce sont quelques-unes des réflexions qui vous viennent, à regarder un arbre.

Le regard de Jacques

"Cet oeil à la fois sagace et sans hâte qui pèse et qui rumine", écrit Julien Gracq de Francis Ponge, dans un éloge Julien Gracq, OEuvres complètes, Bernhild Boie et Claude Dourguin, éds., vol.2, Gallimard-La Pléiade, Paris, 1995, pp. 1180-1183.: phrase à exciser, telle quelle, dans son sympathique fourbi hétéroclite, pour l'appliquer à l'ami Dubois. Jacques a mené une entreprise un peu comparable à celle de Francis Ponge, il est vrai. Là où Ponge, dans la mouvance de Jules Renard et de Paul Claudel ("Le porc"), a ouvert au poème en prose une friche, lui livrant les objets du quotidien, ces humbles fréquentations que sont le savon, l'automobile, la chèvre, le pré, Dubois s'est mis en tête d'étudier et de décrire, avec une sympathie comparable, avec une résonance ou une consonance, les formes replettes, bien nourries, du roman médical, du roman policier et de la littérature de gare. Pas seulement, certes. Proust aussi!

Linus Pauling
His Contributions to Chemistry and Molecular Biology.

Lecture by Pierre Laszlo (Ecole polytechnique and University of Liège) given at Southern University, Ashland, February 7 1998

Let me take you on a short walk. What's this? We ascend first a spiral staircase. It winds upward in highly regular manner, each step in the climb makes us circle a little around the axis of the structure. Thus, we come to a landing. We have reached a rather flat, but nevertheless undulating floor. We can move across it quite easily, till we reach another of the spiraling structures. The architecture I am describing is that of a building, neither man-made nor inhabitable. The building I'm telling you about is also the build-up of a protein molecule and its scale is that of atomic dimensions.

The man who made the first sighting of such an architecture for proteins, in the late 1940s, with its a-helices (the spiral structures) and with its undulating floors (the b-sheets) was Linus Pauling. His vision was, for that time, truly prophetic. And it has endured, it has been borne out by whole libraries of evidence accumulated since.

The two questions I wish to examine in this lecture are:

1. How did Pauling come to his notion of protein architecture?

2. Were all the pronouncements by this visionary genius, those about vitamin C and cancer for instance, milestones in the advancement of science?

The Pinetree and the Molecule
The edge of the forest is close enough for a good look. Each tree is unique. The pine I am examining differs from its neighbours. This individual tree flaunts its own mortality. Some of its branches are dead, their needles have become brown and sparse. But any tree is not only constrained into immobility. Its response to the whiffs of wind is a dance. It forms a paean to the environmental pressures that have molded the evolution of this particular species.
Le sel de cuisine

Ce produit est si familier qu'il en apparaît banal et sans aucun mystère. Et pourtant ses multiples usages mettent en oeuvre des principes scientifiquesfondamentaux.