Scientists have literary moments too

Science papers can be pretty dry. It’s only natural: they have to present a lot of technical information, they use the specialized language that people in the field understand, and there are often tons of numbers. It’s hard to write rhapsodically about numbers (unless you’re Steven Strogatz).

But every now and then you run across a little tidbit in a research paper — a few words, usually a sentence at most — that reveal the passion underlying the technical pursuit. Like this line, in a paper about the proteins marine worms use to build tubes for themselves out of sand: “The third glue protein category is an intriguing potpourri of previously unknown proteins with only limited and scattered homologies with known proteins.”

Technical, technical, technical — bam! “Intriguing potpourri.” The rest of the paper tells you about the science, but those two words tell you that the scientists who wrote them are pretty stoked on what they do.

Or there’s this paper on the barnacles that stick themselves to whales. The abstract is formal, straightforward and factual, so I was hardly expecting the opening to the paper itself:

Riding on a whale! This should be the dream not only for kids, but also for all sessile filter feeders, such as bryozoans, serpulids, mussels, oysters, and tunicates, to name just a few. As any sailor knows, these foulers hitchhike happily on ships. Yet, except for acorn barnacles (the gooseneck barnacle Conchoderma can settle there only after its balanid cousins have provided a hard substrate), none of them made it to whales.

Okay, it’s not exactly Herman Melville, but I adore it. You can tell that this guy loves what he does, you can tell that he was probably the kid dreaming about riding a whale, and you can tell — this is my favorite part — that he actually empathizes with the small, squishy creatures he’s writing about. And now I do too. A tunicate with dreams? Frustrated dreams? I’d read that novel.

Tunicates have secret yearnings, you know. (Image: Nhobgood, Wikimedia Commons)


About Mara Grunbaum

Science reporter in New York City.
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