Vintage Science Saturday

One of the nerdier things I enjoy is reading through back-issues of scientific journals. Really old ones: archival issues of Nature, The American Naturalist, Anthropological Review, The American Microscopical Society and others, dating back to 1840-1900. These are available online; JSTOR, for instance, recently made everything in their archives from pre-1923 completely open-access.

I really can’t recommend this highly enough. In those days, many scientists were also excellent writers, and even formal papers were often written with clarity, style, and a liberal use of figurative language. Here is an excerpt from a paper (“The cockroach and its enemy“) published in The American Naturalist in 1867. The author, G. A. Perkins, is describing how a species of wasp stupefies a cockroach before laying eggs in its still-living body:

The wasp enters the apartment,and instantly a great commotion takes place among the cockroaches (and their name is legion in the tropics); frantic with fear,they seek a place of greater security,and, in their haste, often rush into the very danger they seek to avoid; for, should the keen eye of the wasp light upon them, the case is a hopeless one. … The wasp flies like a fury at the roach, and a severe struggle takes place; both using legs and wings in the fight, the contest is usually a short one, for the wasp, seizing its victim by the head, or front of the thorax, bends its body round and plunges its sting into the nearest part, and the roach, who moments before was fighting for dear life, becomes as quiet as a sleeping infant, not a leg moves. The victorious wasp draws off a few inches, seeming to survey her vanquished foe with pride, then proceeds to brush off the dust from its brilliant coat and wings, and, after pluming its antennae, prepares to place its prize in a secluded spot.

Objective?  Scientific? Not so much, but what great writing. Compare it to this excerpt from a recent (2010) paper on the Jewel Wasp:

 A cockroach stung by a Jewel Wasp first grooms itself excessively for 30 minutes, and then becomes hypokinetic for 3–7 days, during which time it loses the ability to self-initiate and maintain walking-related behaviors.

What does it mean to self-initiate, and what exactly is a “walking-related behavior”? Would it be accurate to say that the cockroach loses the ability to walk of its own accord? Why “hypokinetic” rather than “sluggish”?*

Phrases like “it loses the ability to self-initiate and maintain walking-related behaviors” typify modern academic writing.  In the peer-reviewed literature, few writers seem to focus on engaging the reader, or  (though I think this is slowly changing) on minimising jargon and avoiding the passive voice.

I’m not saying modern scientists should write like G. A. Perkins, but surely undergraduate science courses should at least include components on how to write clear prose and use appropriate metaphors. Mine didn’t. I have no idea why academic journals don’t emphasise this more, either: if peer-reviewed papers were readable, maybe more members of the public would actually pay the ludicrous access fees. 

This idea – that dull language can obscure the beauty of science – is not a new one. I recently read an  1869 Nature editorial by “F. R. S.” (which I assume means an anonymous fellow of the Royal Society of London). This is an allegorical editorial – how long since an academic journal published one of those? – in which the author meets Philosophus, a sage who “told us certain truths which may, perhaps, be of service to the readers of Nature.

“The priests of Science,” he said, “must consent to use the vernacular, before they will ever make a profound impression on the heart of humanity; and when they have learned to do this, let them not fear the sneers of their deacons who will call their teaching sensational.”


More on the joys of vintage science later, including miasma; man’s questionable relationship with the inferior animals; and a ripping recipe for sea anemones courtesy of Edward S. Morse.

*I don’t mean to single out the authors of this latter paper.  It just happened to be the first I found; admirably, it is published in an open-access journal, and the authors go on to draw a fine analogy between the cockroach and “a submissive dog on a leash.” For more on cockroaches and parasitic wasps, which are extremely interesting for a number of reasons, check out the zombie cockroach video on youtube.


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