A reasoned rant: the case for hypotheses

October 7, 2011

Yeah, this is one of those essays that starts by quoting Darwin

About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorize; and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view to be of any service.

The hypothesis is the pivot point around which science turns.

This is one reason why “No one has ever collected this data before” is, by itself, a weak rationale for a dissertation.  It is impossible to fund your research by promising only to collect cool data. It is the hypotheses that make the data cool, or, at the very least, show why its cool.

So what is an hypothesis?  It is a series of assumptions, tied together by logic, that generates novel predictions. Collectively, it is an explanation that answers a scientific question.  Let’s break that down. Read the rest of this entry »

Telling a story: from the creator’s of South Park

September 9, 2011


In this video clip, courtesy of Andrew Sullivan, Matt Stone and Trey Parker of South Park talk about how their writer’s room works. Their two steps are just as valid as you design your talk or outline a grant proposal.

Step 1 is random brainstorming. They use a huge whiteboard to jot down scenes and situations they think would be funny. At this point its all about getting down the ideas. Structure comes later.

When your designing an essay, take a notebook and pen and just scribble down things you think should go in. Don’t censor yourself too much. If it sounds interesting, it probably is. Without compelling bits, you won’t have much.

Step 2 links the ideas together. The classic formula for South Park is three Acts, strung together make a show. How do they recognize which bits go together? It’s definitely *not* Act 1, and then, Act 2, and then Act 3. Act 2 can’t just follow Act 1, it has to be introduced. They way they put it, it’s Act 1 therefore Act 2 but Act 3. That’s when Matt and Trey know they have something interesting.

When you’re presenting a seminar, you don’t want the first thought in their mind “why did they put that slide there?”.  You want, instead, to create a tension. In the seconds before you hit that clicker, create the anticipation of your next slide. Likewise, in the introduction to a paper, the best writers make sure that each paragraph is foreshadowed by the one that came before. For example…

There is increasing evidence that the globe is one really gynnormous turtle. What we think of as mountains are the ridges of the turtles shell. When we see flat plains, we are seeing the smooth plates, arching subtly to the horizon. Valleys are, of course, the sutures between the plates. Our turtle world hypothesis is complete and consistent with known facts as presented by geologists. Astrophysicists, on the other hand, have raised the logical question as to how “Turtle-earth” is suspended in known space.

Here we present the hypothesis, backed up by Hubbell satellite photos, that it is “turtles all the way down”….

Remember its all about…

Writing: 5 steps toward constructing a better sentence

September 2, 2011

But if one understands that a sentence is a structure of logical relationships and that the number of relationships involved is finite, one understands too that there is only one error to worry about, the error of being illogical, and only one rule to follow: make sure that every component of your sentences is related to the other components in a way that is clear and unambiguous (unless ambiguity is what you are aiming at).   Stanley Fish, How to Write a Sentence, and How to Read One

One may argue that words are the building blocks of all writing, and that any writing program aimed at helping you produce a two page NSF Pre-Doc proposal in two months might well begin with a discussion of vocabulary. But by now you have most of the words you will ever need to convey even the most complex idea. To write well, the words are all there, you just have to get them in the right order.

In a lovely book celebrating the construction and reading of sentences, Stanley Fish lays out the notion that good sentences are paragons of tight, unassailable logic. Like great music, as Leonard Bernstein once observed, good sentences have a sense of inevitability to them–you cannot imagine  it written any other way.

When you write a good sentence you are literally creating reality in the heads of your reader. Again, in Fish’s words…

Language is not a handmaiden to perception; it is perception; it gives shape to what would otherwise be inert and dead.

In the construction of a sentence you find yourself grappling with two monumental tasks for any creative person: discovering what is it you mean, and crafting words to convey that meaning. We will talk about the former some other day, now a few ways to improve upon the latter.

Read the rest of this entry »

E. B. White and the glory of a piece of paper

August 9, 2008

“Even now, this late in the day, a blank sheet of paper holds the greatest excitement there is for me — more promising than a silver cloud, and prettier than a red wagon.”

There are few ways to better spend time than with a good pen and your notebook, sitting at a tiny table in busy coffee shop or a park bench.

I think this applies to most folks whose job it is to be creative. My wife Debby is a compulsive sketcher, which is a good thing, as she does stuff like this for a living. Growing up in the San Francisco area, she would occasionally run into one of her heroes, R. Crumb, who once told her “Always have your notebook, and draw everything and anything.”

One pleasant consequence is that wherever we are, wherever there is a place to sit, we can comfortably spend an hour or so with our respective notebooks propped open, scribbling away.

This leads to some interesting situations. Once in a Firenze Museum, we both took up precious bench space in front of Michelangelo’s David, intending to spend some time scribbling. We couldn’t help but catch the eye of some older citizens. They first shadowed Debby, standing behind her at her end of the bench. They clucked appreciatively. (I mean, how could they not? Her drawing of David looked just like him!). They then sidled over behind me. Instead of another sketch in my open notebook, they found gridded paper covered with chicken scratch, boxes, and arrows. Their comments stretched my rudimentary Italian, but the tone was clear enough.

Here’s wishing you a half-empty notebook, a good pen, a nice spot, and some free time.

quote from Hannah Hinchman’s A life in hand: creating the illuminated journal

On writing better–Kurt Vonnegut

July 23, 2008

One could do far worse than to model your writing after Kurt Vonnegut. His mythic stories are simply constructed, easy to read, and stay with you long after you’ve shelved the book (or, better yet, given it away).

In his book of essays Palm Sunday, Vonnegut provides some tips on how to write elegantly, simply, and memorably.

Below the fold, I interpret the master’s advice for the beginning science writer.

Read the rest of this entry »

On the Five Stages of Proposal Writing

May 24, 2008

I’m preparing to dust off a proposal that was rejected six months ago. It’s a resubmission to the National Science Foundation. In such cases the word submission is particularly apt. When NSF is funding less than 10% of the proposals it receives, one is pretty much resigned to one or more rewrites before you have a chance at funding. And since you often have only one or two chances a year to submit a proposal for 3-5 years of work, well, one doesn’t have to be a whiz on the quantitative side to see proposal writing as a lovely lesson in the brevity of all things mortal.

But I digress.

While dwelling on such things existential it was great to come across FemaleScienceProfessor‘s take on the the process of writing a grant proposal. What emerges is the notion that successful grants have to be in some way transformative, that their writing is not linear but aggregative, that much of it has to do with juggling budgets and filling out forms, and that, when it’s all over (after months of nurturing the baby that you then unceremoniously kick out of the nest), well….I’ll let her do the honors…

And then.. someone in the grants office pushes a button and the proposal is gone. I get an automated email. I am relieved, but there is also a melancholy feeling of emptiness at the departure of the proposal out of my intellectual grasp. What will I do next? I contemplate cleaning my office, but I don’t actually do it.

FSP is a worthwhile blog. Check it out.

See also:

10 steps toward better grant writing

5 ways of dealing with that rejected manuscript

Another GTDA haiku

QotD: How your writing reflects the quality of your thinking

March 19, 2008

“People who cannot distinguish between good and bad language, or who regard the distinction as unimportant, are unlikely to think carefully about anything else.”

B. R. Myers The Atlantic April 2008


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