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The seven principles of scientific writing

“The enthalpy of hydrogen bond formation between the nucleoside bases 2’deoxyguanosine (dG) and 2’deoxycytidine (dC) has been determined by direct measurement. dG and dC were derivatized at the 5’ and 3’ hydroxyls with triisopropylsilyl groups to obtain solubility of the nucleosides in non-aqueous solvents and to prevent the ribose hydroxyls from forming hydrogen bonds. From isoperibolic titration measurements, the enthalpy of dC:dG base pair formation is -6.65±0.32 kcal/mol.”

Do you have any idea what’s going on in the paragraph above? Unless you’re a chemist, there are probably a lot of unfamiliar words—but that’s not the only problem.

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On paper

This is a re-post of something I wrote in spring 2011. It has been slightly edited (only where I couldn't resist).

I keep a slightly crumpled, five-foot strip chart rolled up in a desk drawer. It was briefly featured on the refrigerator, but it was constantly falling down or being swarmed by Chinese take-out menus. It also lived above a window in my bedroom for a while, but the tape didn’t stick to the stucco very well. Eventually it came down for good.

The strip chart shows the center of the Milky Way in radio waves. I recorded it while spending a week at a National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in the mountains of West Virginia a few years ago. Other students and I had access to an educational 40-foot radio dish hooked up to a bank of ancient electronics, including the strip chart recorder. The charts look a lot like seismograph recordings of earthquakes, but the sizes of the little peaks and valleys correspond to the strength of radio signals from space, not jitters in the ground. (By the way—a lot of those radio waves coming from the center of the Milky Way are produced by a supermassive black hole.)

Using that equipment was a real pain. Switches had to be flipped in a certain inexplicable order or nothing worked, and the manual wasn't much help. The analog pointing system wouldn’t hold a calibration and had to be re-adjusted each night to make sure it was still looking at the bit of sky we thought it was. The radio dish only moved on a large arc from north to south, which meant aiming at the right slice of sky and waiting for the earth to turn, bringing any objects we wanted to observe into view. This could happen at 3 AM.

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