On the Interconnectedness of Science

I’ve finished a first pass through all the regular chapters of the book-in-progress (in addition to those in in this progress report, there’s one more in Section 1 about antiques, and three more in Section 4, two about statistics and one about teamwork). I’m starting to do section-level proofreading, looking at blocks of chapters together.

This isn’t a step I had to go through with my previous books, for several reasons. One is just that the smaller set of responsibilities I had then made it easier to find contiguous blocks of writing time– SteelyKid was born after book 1, and The Pip after book two, and I wasn’t department chair, either. The writing of this one has been much more fragmented, mostly plugging away in three-hour chunks a couple of days a week. I hardly remember what’s in some of the chapters I wrote back at the beginning of this process.

More than that, though, these chapters turn out to be surprisingly interconnected. I say “surprisingly” because the earlier books were inherently cumulative– stuff in the later chapters depended on having read material in the earlier chapters– and I had frequent callbacks to earlier sections. More than that, though, this was conceived as a set of independent chapters, each telling a self-contained story about one particular aspect of scientific thinking. That’s the whole reason I thought I’d be able to write it in three-hour chunks two days a week, after all.

It turns out, though, that these chapters are way more interconnected than I realized going in. In fact, I suspect I may have even more “as we saw in Chapter XXX” notes here than in the previous two books. It’s really next to impossible to separate these different stories completely, and lots of common elements recur. Some of these are technical– I think I define “cosmic rays” in at least three different places– while others are procedural. There are all sorts of quirky little aspects to the historical stories I’m telling that echo back and forth between stories. And that’s just the stuff I noticed while writing it in disconnected bursts– by the time I get done going over bigger blocks, this may be the most densely cross-reference thing I’ve written.

Anyway, it’s a little ironic that writing a book that’s organized around discrete steps in the scientific process has given me a greater sense of science as a holistic thing. I’m not going to be becoming a squishy humanist any time soon, insisting on the irreducible complexity of everything as a way to avoid ever answering a question about anything, but it’s been an interesting experience.

(I’m sure that my wibbling about the writing process is utterly fascinating, but I’ve already plowed through a second draft of a TED audition talk and a full set of chapter revisions this morning, so I don’t have brain left for anything more compelling…)

5 thoughts on “On the Interconnectedness of Science

  1. “as we saw in Chapter XXX”s are alright, as long as you’re not peppering every other paragraph with one.

    “as we will see in Chapter XXX”s are much more annoying. In fact, I’d say they should be avoided in almost all cases. Either summarize the salient points on their own, or think about reordering the chapters. If you do feel the need to forward reference, try to do so in a footnote, so as not to impose too heavily on your reader.

    P.S. Pet peeve rant: There’s a difference between footnotes, endnotes and references. Footnotes/endnotes should not be interspersed in references – they should have their own seperate notation, so I can easily tell the difference between content I can read immediately, and things I have to get out of my chair and go to the library to read. Also, endnotes are an abomination. It’s too disruptive to stop reading, figure out a way to hold my place, flip to the back of the book/end of the chapter, scan multiple pages to find the exact one I want, find where the note is on the page, read it, and then go back and try to find the place where I left off. Much better to have it at the bottom of the page, where my eyes are the only thing that moves, and it’s quick enough that it’s easy to keep track of my place. Also, you can then use and reuse footnote symbols, which leaves the numbers free for references. (Which I’m fine with banishing to the back of the book.) — Sorry, I just really get annoyed by mixed references/endnotes in the back of the book.

  2. The thing I hate is the un-noted endnote, where neither references nor footnotes are marked in the text, but there are extensive notes in the back, listed by page number and some fragment of the relevant sentence. Those are irritating as hell when I’m reading a paper book, but absolutely unforgivable in an ebook.

    My previous books have had only footnotes, mostly asides from the main text. I kept a list of references, but only put the references for the first book up on the web page; the relativity references don’t seem to be online. I’m not sure what will happen with this one; that’s a decision made above my pay grade, as it were.

  3. I don’t think that’s peculiar to science, human thought in general is very interconnected. It’s a problem I always have when I write: it won’t fit into a linear structure. I used to think that new technology can overcome this issue, as with links, but as a matter of fact people don’t use it, they only take the linear stories and rarely if ever follow the sidetracks. It’s a shame, really. I wouldn’t mind seeing, as some kind of experiment maybe, a book written based on some kind of mind-map, if you’ve seen these, where you can follow the links as you please but have a map that shows you all the connections. And, yes, I guess some scientific topic would make a good choice. Have you tried mind maps? (I tried some apps a while back, but found them quite cumbersome.)

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