Under The Hood of The Science Writing Sedan

John Horgan, science writer and director of the Center for Science Writing at Stevens Institute of Technology, has set up a very interesting site. In the 1990s he interviewed a series of leading scientists and philosophers, publishing a string of profiles in Scientific American that ultimately became his provocative 1998 book, The End of Science. Horgan must be quite the pack rat, because he still has all the tapes of his lengthy interviews, and he’s now putting them on line. His latest: the philosopher Thomas Kuhn, who championed the idea that science goes through revolutions as paradigms shift.

Horgan’s interviews have matured now into historical material–Kuhn died in 1996. You can listen to the full interview, in which Kuhn describes going from being a kid building ham radios into a philosopher. Horgan has also posted the full transcript, as well as a chapter from The End of Science (pdf) in which he distilled the interview.

I find the site particularly revealing–or maybe I should say painfully revealing–of the process of writing about science. It’s like making sausage, except that you need five tons of pork to make a single link. People who are contemplating a career in science writing might want to take a look (or a listen) before they leap…

0 thoughts on “Under The Hood of The Science Writing Sedan

  1. Carl, glad to see you here. Your work is great, and the “science” blogs were becoming bogged down with too much basic anti religious propaganda which had nothing to do with science.

    PZ is becoming a joke, and the term atheist.blogs.com is becoming detrimental; as a praciticing Catholic, scientist, and admirer of Ken Miller I was frankly getting tired of the wasted time.

    If you want science, go for it. If you want to hate all Cathoics, because of what some have done, there are plenty of places for that.

    You might as well blame all atheists for the Soviet anti religious campaigns…both courses of action rely on a fallcy.

  2. John Horgan has systematically underwhelmed me, actually, for reasons which David Hoffman explained pretty well; additionally, in the years since The End of Science was published, Horgan has acted more and more like string theory ran over his cat. I suspect that he has absorbed and propagated the stories told about it, which is a natural thing to do — but the memes about science which spread are not always the ones which reflect the state of the science, but are rather the stories which are most easily retold. Speculations about the “multiverse” have philosophical implications and fit (with some squeezing) into any one of several ready-made narratives: scientists with their heads in the clouds, the clash between science and religion, etc. People who challenge the predominance of string theory in the quantum-gravity community get to play David to the community’s Goliath, which is always a winning narrative, too. (Ironically, those same people have been Goliath’s knuckles in controversies past, when newspapers quoted them as representing the scientific community against the cranks and crackpots who were being given the David treatment.) Stories about the “multiverse” can be told, but tales of gauge/gravity duality cannot, and so the composition of the meme pool does not reflect the state of the field.

  3. Blake makes several good points, and I love the line “string theory ran over his cat.” I also think John is great–I’ve debated him several times, and it’s always a lot of fun.

  4. Carl, thanks for the plug for our fledging project, “Science Shapers Speak.” Over the years some folks (like the aforementioned David Hoffman, a mathematician so incensed by my 1993 Scientific American article “The Death of Proof” that he became my personal stalker, which was a huge boost to my ego) have accused me of twisting the words of innocent scientists for my insidious ends. At the very least, these critics might enjoying comparing these raw interviews with my published versions and exposing my distortions, fabrications, etc. For example, was the string guru Ed Witten really as weird and philosophically naive as I depicted him? You can see, or rather, hear for yourself as soon as we get Witten digitized and transcribed. I like playing gotcha, even when I’m the target. But I hope most people check out the site just to hear these extraordinary minds–Kuhn, Witten, Weinberg, Chandrasekhar, Wheeler, Popper, Crick, Pauling, Gould, Dyson, Bethe–speaking in their own words, unfiltered by me or anyone else.
    PS: Hey Mike! I liked debating you too, even that time on Charlie Rose when Gerry Ostriker was being such an A-hole.

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