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Should scientific papers be written in a first-person narrative?

By James Dacey

Yesterday, the Royal Society opened up its entire historical journal archive – making all papers more than 70 years old free for everyone to access, forever. Among the old papers available via a searchable database was Newton’s first published scientific paper in which the master physicist presented his New Theory of Light and Colors.

hands smll.jpg

The first thing that struck me when reading this old text was the relaxed first-person narrative adopted by Newton as he recalled his experimental exploits. Newton tells us how he recently procured a glass prism for some optics experiments in his house, and he even shares some of the feelings he had when carrying out the work.

And in order thereto having darkened my chamber, and made a small hole in my window-shuts, to let in a convenient quantity of the Suns light, I placed my Prisme at his entrance, that it might thereby be refracted to the opposite wall. It was at first a very pleasing divertisement, to view the vivid and intense colours produced thereby; but after a while applying myself to consider them more circumspectly, I became surprised to see them in oblong form, which, according to the received laws of Refraction, I expected should have been circular.

This is an extract from the full paper.

For me, it was fascinating because this style of writing humanizes the science and gives us an insight into the thought processes of this great physicist. The style is in stark contrast to modern scientific papers, which are largely written in the third person, where the scientist writes economically about “an experiment that took place”, where the results emerge seemingly without human input. One could argue that the modern scientific paper hides the scientific process and the essential toils of the experimentalist, thereby making it difficult for an independent party to come along and repeat the experiments from simply reading the paper.

On the other hand, Newton was operating in a very different time and there are also compelling reasons as to why scientific papers have been slimmed down to cut out all of the human trial-and-error. With the sheer volume of scientific research being published now, and the extra responsibilities that have come with the professionalization of science, researchers today perhaps do not have the time to read about all of the human activities that lead to a new scientific result.

But we want to know your thoughts on this issue. In this week’s poll, we are asking the question:

Do you think that scientific papers would be more informative if they were written in a first-person narrative where researchers told the “story” of their research as well as the scientific results? Yes or no?

To cast your vote, please visit our Facebook page, and please feel to explain your answer by posting a comment on the poll.

In last week’s poll we also looked at the issue of science writing as we asked you to select what you believe to be the most significant popular physics book from a list of five titles. There was no real surprise to see that Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time emerged as the clear winner collecting 62% of responses. The other books on the list fared as follows:

22% The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene
9% A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
1% Longitude by Dava Sobel
5% The Physics of Star Trek by Lawrence Krauss

Naturally what was meant by most “significant” was open to interpretation. But in our original list, drawn up in 2008, we chose books that “broke new ground for science writing”. Others were chosen for “the depth of their ideas or the strength of their arguments”. And some were selected simply because they are “cracking good reads”.

Other books that did not make it onto our list but were mentioned by our Facebook followers included: Cosmos by Carl Saga; Hyperspace by Michio Kaku; Quantum by Manjit Kumar; and Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman, a collection of reminiscences written by Feynman himself. Thank you for all of your responses and we look forward to hearing from you again on the Physics World Facebook page.

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