The scientific literature

The scientific literature: A guided tour. Ed. by Joseph E. Harmon and Alan G. Gross. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Pp. xxiv, 327. ISBN 9780226316567. $29.

Reviewed by Margaret J. Blake, Aarhus University, Denmark

This fascinating volume discusses the written body of scientific knowledge, not with the intent of teaching about the science, but from the standpoint that scientific literature constitutes a distinct literary genre, worthy of study in its own right. The editors’ aim is ‘to convey to the general reader and the student of science the written and visual expression of science over time in all its variety’ (xviii). Although outside of their intended audience, it seems quite likely that many linguists will find this book worthwhile. It will be of interest to those interested in scientific literature as a literary genre or in scientific English as a specialized register with its own communicative norms; to those teaching scientific reading or writing to native or nonnative speakers of English; or, indeed, to those generally interested in the history, philosophy, and practice of science.

The book consists of two parts of roughly equal length. Part 1 discusses the early scientific literature through the late nineteenth century, when seminal works on radioactivity ushered in the nuclear age. This part consists of four chapters: ‘First English periodical [sic]’, ‘First French periodicals’, ‘Internationalization and specialization’, and ‘Select pre-modern classics’. Part 2 covers roughly the last century, starting with Albert Einstein’s well-known work on relativity and extending to the present. The instant classic announcement of the mapping of the human genome in 2001 is especially notable from a media studies standpoint because it was first published electronically. Part 2 consists of five chapters: ‘Equations, tables, and pictures’, ‘Organizing scientific arguments’, ‘Scientific writing style: Norms and perturbations’, ‘Controversy at work: Two case studies’, and ‘Select modern classics’, as well as a bibliography that contains lists of suggested readings and online resources.

Each chapter consists of ten to twenty entries, and each entry contains selected passages from a scientific article, coupled with contextualizing and analytical commentary. Although many of the articles were clearly chosen for their scientific importance, all are used to illustrate relevant points about scientific literature as a genre. One chapter is devoted to how the goal of the article affects its style (e.g. experimental method, new theory, literature review); another chapter focuses on the internal organization of a scientific article. The book does not focus solely on the text, however, but also touches on how the text is informed by the people writing it. This brings up the unavoidable nature of controversy between proponents of competing hypotheses as well as examples of humorous divergence from the norms of the genre, such as articles constructed as poems or musical compositions (as well as the classic Anonymous article ‘proving’ that Heaven is hotter than Hell).

A recurring theme is the complexities of scientific English: dense, jargon-ridden, noun-heavy, and verb-impoverished. The difficulty of this register is an ironic counterpoint to the editors’ complaint: ‘given that the scientific article is one of the most robust literary genres around today […] it seems unfortunate that relatively few outside the scientific community have an inkling of what this literature is really like’ (xix). This volume does make progress toward bridging that gap by gathering some of the most significant examples of Western scientific articles from the last five centuries, while simultaneously attempting to demystify the scientific article as a literary genre. This volume will not only be a worthwhile acquisition, it will make a thoughtful gift for friends and family members in the natural sciences.