Can Scientific Language Be Beautiful?

The art of the clinical double meaning and the pop of old-school Latin.

For many people — probably most — the cold, calculated language of science sounds like the wah-wahing of the parents from Peanuts. Leora Fox is different. The Columbia University neuroscientist and poet believes that liltless language can be unexpectedly beautiful. Still, turning “Coherent coupling between a ferromagnetic magnon and a superconducting qubit” into art takes work.

“I think it’s simply that if you don’t understand something, you’re not going to pay attention to it,” Fox told Inverse. “Science language in particular has these bizarre words in it — things you wouldn’t normally hear — and I think it can create these weird musical qualities.”

Read out this excerpt from Fox’ poem, Nascent RNA sequencing, a procedural poem constructed from an article in the journal Science, to get a sense of what she means:

…the distribution of transcription factors, nucleosomes/and their modifications, (providing a global correlation/of factors and transcription states), is/

Maybe it’s the Latinate roots, the prefixes and suffixes, or just the sheer length of these words, but there’s no denying they’ve got a soothing inner rhythm. But that’s not to say that scientific language is only beautiful for the sounds. Science co-opts regular words and gives them entirely new meanings, making them richer and more emotionally charged. Fox says she started writing science poetry “partly because a lot of the words felt really foreboding.”

Take “nascent” for example, a pretty common way to describe RNA. “When you talk about the word “nascent” in biology, it means the same thing — just made or just born — but the word nascent, it’s a little creepy, it’s got this emotion behind it,” explains Fox. In the same vein, the term “CG islands,” which refers to stretches in your DNA, conjures up tropical imagery, and discussing the blood’s “serum” lends it a mystical quality. There’s an interplay between a word’s existing definition and the meanings science layers onto it, and it results in an unexpectedly rich — and slightly twisted — vocabulary.

A boring science lecture will always be a boring science lecture. Until schools start training their scientists to be better communicators, that’s probably not going to change. But if you find yourself stuck in one, try listening a little closer, there may be meaning waiting in the wings.

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