Monday, 2 July 2012

Einstein does a funny

A journal which I'm sure is very readable
A while ago, straying through the depths of Nature Network, I saw an item on writing more readable papers. There may well be several out there - it's a hoary old topic.

I don't dispute the suggestion that many scientific papers could be better written, but in the end, however approachable, they are unlikely to get a reprint in Heat magazine, so it is still a matter of writing to the audience. Without doubt, though, it's a relief when the writer of a paper adopts a lighter tone and writes like a human being, rather than a robot.

I suppose the best known instance of putting a human face to a paper, which some have held up as a shining example of what's possible, is Einstein's paper on subjective time. The abstract reads:
When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute - and it’s longer than any hour. That’s relativity.
In the paper he allegedly describes undertaking an experiment to test this, with the help of film star Paulette Goddard, who he met through mutual friend Charlie Chaplin. However there are three big problems if anyone considers Einstein's very approachable sounding paper a model of how to write more effectively.

First, get real. This was Einstein. He could have written a paper in mirror writing and someone would have published it.

Second, we usually only hear of the abstract. The main body of the paper sounds very unlikely. Einstein undertaking an experiment? That's fishy.

Finally, though I have only ever seen this mentioned as if it were a real paper, I haven't been able to find any reference to the journal it was supposed to be published in anywhere, other than references to Einstein's contribution. It may be this is a really obscure journal (or even a very famous one in its own field), but given what its significant initials spell, I'm inclined to doubt it. And if the whole thing is fictional, maybe it doesn't provide such a great role model.

Where was it allegedly published? In the Journal of Exothermic Science and Technology.

This post first appeared on my Nature Network blog - I'm bringing some of the old posts over to my new home, as the NN blog is liable to disappear soon.


Image from Wikipedia

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