Sunday, August 16, 2009

Word Wraps

I am at the ACS meeting in Washington DC, here officially as "press" rather than as a chemist. It's a very different way to see the meeting. I went to a press briefing this morning (on something crossing chemistry and theology, no less). The press center is tucked away next to the registration area, and has everything a writer might want: food, wireless access and a steady stream of caffeine and conversation.

Listening as a scientist to a talk, and as a writer to a briefing turn out to be slightly different experiences. Both require critical listening, but listening as a writer prompts me to think far more about the words the science is coming wrapped in. The shorthand scientists use sounds almost staccato in this context. "Measles naive" instead of "never exposed to the measles virus" or "no evidence of viremia" instead of "no measurable virus in the bloodstream". As one of my teachers at a science writing workshop suggested, one goal for a science writer is to slow it down.

We try to be both precise and concise, but I wonder how often the combination in giving a talk, or even reading a paper in the literature leads to attentional processing deficits? An interesting experiment in attentional processing is to present subjects with a rapidly changing sequences of letter, interspersed with numbers. If two numbers are placed too close together, subjects can "miss" the second letter while their brain is busy processing the first. (Experienced meditatators are better at this task than those who don't practice being "attentive".) Pack too much into a sentence, and your subjects or audience might miss bits.


  1. Interesting! As a former teacher, I can see where studying something about attentional processing would be helpful in designing how lessons would be presented.

  2. I too find this interesting. will likely not take a physics book on retreat and just hit the ground running like a lunatic (I have years of experience teaching in such a style)

  3. Barb, The studies about meditation training improving the attentional processing have been used to suggest that training students in them might improve their ability to process in the classroom. It seems reasonable!

    And Wayne, I'm glad the physics book is staying home. A wise Jesuit once said that you should not get ready to leave before it's time. He was referring to retreats - don't start packing up, mentally or otherwise, until you must. Enjoy the silence!!