Science writing for non-scientists

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Science writing for non-scientists

Post by grapesmoker »

Ok, a long time ago I said I would put together a little primer on writing science questions. This is that primer. I'm going to focus on the kinds of information that otherwise competent writers who are not science specialists need to know in order to construct good science questions. I'm going to assume you understand what pyramidality means and try to explain how you should select answers and clues that reward some understanding of the topic. Without further ado, the steps to competent science writing:

Read a book

This is really key. If you peruse a textbook for a given course, you will get a good impression of what kinds of things people taking that class study. For example, my AP Bio class and many freshman introductory biology classes use the Campbell textbook (if you're a bio person you know this). I've got a copy, and for the most part, things that are allocated a large number of pages in that book are things that a freshman taking bio would have a high chance of knowing. For physics, the sources I would recommend are Halliday, Resnick, and Walker for overall freshman physics, Purcell and Griffiths on E&M, Goldstein and Fetter and Walecka for mechanics, Griffiths and Cohen-Tannoudji (a more of a grad-level text) for quantum, Reif and Kittel for statistical mechanics, and Kittel and Ashcroft and Mermin for solid-state physics. That should be enough to keep anyone busy. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive list by any means, just a list of things that I've found helpful. Obviously, experienced scientists will have their own lists but this thread isn't really for them. I guarantee that these books are chock-full of interesting information that can be used to write many, many good questions; if you want more specific recommendations I'll be happy to provide them.

The first obvious benefits of book-larnin' is that it explains what's going on. Even if you don't get all those funny symbols, most books will at least contain a conceptual explanation of various effects. The other obvious benefit is that the amount of space devoted to a topic gives you some idea of how important it is. For example, in any self-respecting quantum mechanics text, you will find a detailed analysis of the quantized harmonic oscillator. This is such an important model system that it's studied virtually universally and is known to anyone with a physics background. The books are full of other examples of such concepts.

Do not consult Wikipedia or archives

I know that sounds like a restrictive condition but I think people should really try and break that habit. Here are circumstances under which Wikipedia and archives are useful: Wikipedia can sometimes give you helpful hints on formulating a proper giveaway clue, and archives can help you figure out what kinds of things come up at that level, and in what context. Note the emphasis: you should NOT, must NOT use the archives to propagate clues from hard tournaments into easier ones. I can't possibly repeat this enough times; if the Ewald summation comes up as a bonus part at CO, it does not mean that it can ever be anything but a clue at ACF Regionals. The problem for inexperienced or just plain scientifically illiterate players in consulting the archives is trying to distinguish whether a thing came up before because it's legitimately important or because it's some crazy thing that someone who doesn't know better propagated into an easier tournament because they didn't know what they were doing. Use your judgment! If a thing has 4 names and doesn't appear in a standard physics text other than as an off-hand reference, it's probably a terrible idea for an answer choice. In all instances, check archive references against a reputable source; if in doubt, err on the side of less obscurity.

Avoid the dreaded "associated" link

I can't possibly express how much I've come to hate this word. When I hear it in science questions, 9 out of 10 times it's an indicator of lazy writing. Not always, of course; for example, if I say that "Zellweger syndrome is associated with a malfunction in these organelles," that's probably ok (although you really should write something like "[Specific malfunction] in these organelles is known as Zellweger syndrome.") However, if you are dropping shit like "Effect X is associated with this effect," I will hate you because this question sucks. Questions like that are essentially indicators that you don't understand anything about the answer but you think that your clue is somehow appropriate and are trying to shoehorn it into the question. You would never, for example, write "This monarch is associated with the Babington plot," because that would be confusing and dumb, so don't do it for science questions either.

Describe before you name

This is a cousin of the "associated" problem described above. Questions that simply drop names are encouraging Wikipedia reading and associating Thing X with Thing Y. When you describe something in some level of detail, you are rewarding people who have studied this thing and understand what's going on. So, instead of saying something like "This effect is described by the Klein-Nishina formula," you should say, "The differential cross-section for this effect contains a term proportional to the square of the fine structure constant and another term proportional to one minus the cosine-squared of the scattering angle; that formula is named for Klein and Nishina." Obviously this may not be the greatest description of the Klein-Nishina formula ever, but it conveys a lot of important information to someone who has seen this before and then it gives the name for those who have not.

Be precise in your wording

That's the third part of the trifecta outlined in the previous two points. One awful example of people failing to do this is people writing things like "Effect X is studied using common analytical tool Y," which is not good. Sometimes, Tool Y really is used almost exclusively to study the effect or evokes particularly strong associations with it, but much of the time, telling people that something is studied using Monte Carlo methods is like saying you study this using calculus. It's just complete filler. Avoid tennuous associations and state explicitly what you mean. Make sure that your clues do not sound generic but refer to specific, easily verifiable things.

Do not be afraid to reward knowledge

You don't need to write physics tossups that are 10 lines long and full of 5 lines of impossible clues. That's stupid and counterproductive. Be aware of what the level of science knowledge is like within your target audience and don't be afraid to reward people who know a lot (you learn these things by going to tournaments and paying attention). If Eric Mukherjee buzzed on line 2 of your question, this is not a failing (well, not by itself, assuming your question is good)! Eric Mukherjee knows science so he will buzz early on science questions. This is supposed to happen. Bonuses should likewise reasonably reward people who know the material; writing bonus parts on tertiary effects that no one knows just punishes good players and limits the rate of conversion. Good teams should be able to get 30 points on a bonus; if you're screwing me on a cosmology bonus, for example, you have done a bad thing and almost certainly screwed every other team in the field too. When ordering clues for tossups or bonus parts for a bonus, try to ask yourself what kind of knowledge people would need to buzz at that stage (or to answer that part). Is it the kind of knowledge that comes from knowing the exact equation? Then maybe it should be a harder bonus part or be closer to the start of the tossup. Is it a definition for a common term? Then it goes in the end of a tossup or becomes an easy bonus part. I'm afraid I don't have a magical rubric that would tell you where to put various clues; you just have to try and make a good-faith effort to place them properly, but if you follow guidelines like the "describe before you name" point above, you'll likely produce an adequate question that will need a slight clue rearrangement at worst.

Avoid thing-named-after-guy bowl

Some things named after guys are important. Some, not so much. If you're not seeing thing-named-after-guy come up repeatedly in a reputable textbook, it is likely not famous and no one will know it. If in doubt, avoid. You will do much better writing a tossup on something mundane like the partition function or angular momentum than you will by trying to write a tossup on the Franz-Keldysh effect. Don't be afraid to pick a commonplace term as an answer; not every tournament needs canon expansion out the wazoo. As a corollary, just because something hasn't come up 50 times doesn't mean it's unknown and vice versa, something coming up 50 times doesn't mean it is known. Again, textbooks will do a much better job telling you whether your answer topic is likely to be known to actual scientists.

In quizbowl, as in life, nothing is guaranteed. I can't promise you a foolproof way to write good science questions; no one can do that. All I can do is put forward some common rules that you can follow. Together with good judgment (developed by attending tournaments and seeing what people do and do not know) and some reasonable amount of common sense, these guidelines should enable you, the non-scientist, to write competent science questions. They will not always be flawless, but they will almost always represent an improvement over the kind of word salad that has dominated some tournaments of late, and they will usually be easy to fix when they contain mistakes. I have purposefully focused on physics examples in my post because it's the thing with which I'm most familiar but I don't have any reason to suspect that these ideas are not applicable to other areas of science (especially math and CS, two other areas that I'm pretty familiar with). I would like to invite other science specialists to comment on these points and to provide their own suggestions for writing good questions.
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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

Post by Cheynem »

This is a really good thread. It is inspiring me to try to write some science over Christmas break for both MUT and Regionals.
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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

Post by Mechanical Beasts »

I am currently writing some quizbowl tournaments that are debuting this weekend, so I can't comment for long, but some chemistry and math/physics advice.

Unless you know what you are doing, I bet your mechanism clues are not unique

Mechanism clues are great when used well. For the uninitiated, a reaction's mechanism is essentially the sequence of transformations that happens to effect the change that happens in the reaction. Organic chemists formalize mechanism by drawing curved arrows pointing where electron pairs "move" (of course, they don't, per se, hence why it's a formalism) and by showing many intermediate steps--first this deprotonation happens, then the carbanion attacks this acyl carbon, then...). Now, here's the problem: generally mechanism clues don't provide people who know things with as much buzzing ability as you might thing. This is because they don't have a lot of negative information with them. Ninety percent of the mechanism of the aldol condensation is the same as the Claisen condensation. If you look at a website that tells you the mechanism of the one and put it in a tossup, well, I hope you had unique clues beforehand that help me rule out the other.

Don't just look up how someone on WIkipedia proved a statement

I know it might be tempting to say "this rule may be derived by dividing Gibbs's phase rule by the Bjerrum length and dividing by Hund's rules" because hey, look, names. But if you don't know what you're saying, don't say it! Unless this is a really canonical derivation that all SCIENTISTS go through at some point in their lives, this is probably not really helpful (and you don't know if it is, so don't assume that Wiki is wise. Wiki is not wise). A lot of the time your clues will end up isomorphic to "this equation is solved by adding negative three to both sides--BUZZ--four x plus three equals zero?--no, sorry, we were looking for five x plus three equals zero" and that's no fun.
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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

Post by grapesmoker »

Andy does well to mention the bit about proofs. Canonical proofs of famous things are likely to be found in common textbooks on the subject. They may or may not be reproduced on Wikipedia, but you should never assume that they are.
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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

Post by fluffy4102 »

An addendum to Jerry's list of good references:
Silberberg (really comprehensive) for intro general chem
Vollhardt for intro organic chemistry
March's Advanced Organic Chemistry for the harder organic chemistry
McQuarrie and Simon for physical chemistry
Lehninger's Principles of Biochemistry
Alberts or Lodish for Cell Biology

Journals
If somehow you manage to successfully reference PubMed, please make it from a high impact journal or at least a review article. Scientists and physicians actually read the high impact stuff (Nature, Science, NEJM, JAMA, Cell, J of Biol Chem, to name a few). Review articles are useful because they give context, not just some useless tidbit (e.g. presence of the Entner-Doudoroff pathway in a specific species of archaebacteria). There are whole journals dedicated to reviews, so you shouldn't be looking for random articles.

A reiteration of Andy's comment on mechanisms
Unless a clue mentions the specific species reducing/oxidizing and the one being reduced/oxidized, it's not really helpful. Don't talk about chain termination and propagation steps in radical reactions because they apply universally to radical reactions. Likewise, don't write a question about how some pathway is activated by phosphorylation. That only serves to indicate ignorance about how signal transduction operates. Signal pathways also overlap in their function and their intermediates. In general, the mechanism has to be specific to the reaction or process. Chemistry and biology operate on a lot of mechanisms that are common to a whole lot of reactions and processes. Describing a universal process is certainly not useful to players. In addition, not all mechanisms have been completely 100% understood. The norbornyl cation controversy is a prime example of a scientific debate about a mechanism. While science has a lot of things settled, mechanisms can be proposed but not confirmed.
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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

Post by grapesmoker »

I've used Lehninger when I've had to write bio questions; it's quite good.
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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

Post by Not That Kind of Christian!! »

grapesmoker wrote:I've used Lehninger when I've had to write bio questions; it's quite good.
I'm a fan. Also, I'm pretty sure I recognized language from Lehninger in a MO tossup on lysozyme.

So, while I'm not a high-profile science writer or player, I want to reinforce something that Jerry and Andy mentioned in slightly different contexts that cannot be mentioned enough, which is that way too often, people use mechanism clues/analysis technique clues/etc. that are completely not exclusive to the answer line. If you're going to write that a disease is n times more common in women than it is in men, you'd better be putting that clue late enough in the question that there's plenty of context in which to judge it. If you're describing an analytical technique, you'd better have a textbook in front of you to make sure that this technique is only, or nearly only, used to analyze whatever is going on in the answer line. These sorts of clues are easily avoided and prevent hoses and/or frustration for people with serious science knowledge.
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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

Post by Sima Guang Hater »

The reference list has been assembled a million times; the only thing I want to add to this iteration of it is that using class notes for intro- and medium-level classes almost never fails. If you're using notes from a graduate seminar, its a little more dicey, in my experience.

I agree with almost everything written above; the things I want to add are

Sources for Biology/Chemistry

Its actually not a terrible idea to use Wikipedia as a reference, as long as you understand the relative importance of what you're reading. As far as reading actual papers goes, stick to [recent] reviews unless its a historically important paper, and make sure to cross-reference your clues. Saying that protein X acts through NF-kB isn't uniquely identifying, for example, and you can figure that out by looking at the Wikipedia article for NF-kB, or Janeway's immunology, or asking somebody.

Categories

Tossups on broad categories of things that fit into multiple categories never work well, and don't reward real knowledge. Recent examples are a tossup I heard on "B vitamins" and "Cluster of Differentiation (CD) proteins". Do us all a favor and keep it specific - write about Vitamin B1 or CD8 if you really have to write about something in that category.

Eric's Cardinal Rule of Writing Science

If you're unsure, ask someone.
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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

Post by ValenciaQBowl »

The advice above is fine, and I'm sure it will help some folks who are "non-scientists" in an academic sense but are generally science knowledgeable and capable of answering science questions at high-level tournaments write better science questions. But I think the expectations of science questions now are such that the vast majority of the QB world has almost no chance of living up to current standards. Scientists are surely able to write literature or philosophy questions (hey, they can read books, too), but I think only a handful of humanities-oriented folk could actually utilize the sources above and write good, pyramidal, science questions; at least I know I couldn't.
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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

Post by Mechanical Beasts »

fluffy4102 wrote:The norbornyl cation controversy
You are my new favorite quizbowler.

Also, the debate over the shape of the binding pocket of (DHQD)2PHAL for Sharpless dihydroxylation! That is my favorite, in large part because I read all of it.
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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

Post by Gautam »

The Quest for the Historical Mukherjesus wrote: Eric's Cardinal Rule of Writing Science

If you're unsure, ask someone.
This. I still ask people for advice on physics because I'm 100% sure that I'm not all that competent at writing physics. I even sought the help of a physicist to edit a tournament this year.

Not That Kind of Christian!! wrote:
grapesmoker wrote:I've used Lehninger when I've had to write bio questions; it's quite good.
I'm a fan. Also, I'm pretty sure I recognized language from Lehninger in a MO tossup on lysozyme.
Yeah, I learned that stuff in class (even attended a talk by Withers for some Extra Credit!) so I thought it would be decent to focus on it for a tossup.

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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

Post by grapesmoker »

ValenciaQBowl wrote:The advice above is fine, and I'm sure it will help some folks who are "non-scientists" in an academic sense but are generally science knowledgeable and capable of answering science questions at high-level tournaments write better science questions. But I think the expectations of science questions now are such that the vast majority of the QB world has almost no chance of living up to current standards. Scientists are surely able to write literature or philosophy questions (hey, they can read books, too), but I think only a handful of humanities-oriented folk could actually utilize the sources above and write good, pyramidal, science questions; at least I know I couldn't.
You'd be surprised; try it sometime and you'll probably produce something that, if not awesome, will be basically competent and not too bad for editors to fix. This is the point here. We know that you're not going to produce immediately usable science questions and that's ok. The idea is that you'll produce questions that science editors can then modify without too much trouble to obtain good questions without having to rewrite everything from scratch.
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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

Post by nobthehobbit »

As a comment on writing math questions, if you're going to talk about how to prove something, keep in mind that many results have many different proofs, and so unless you're doing something out of a text as ubiquitous as Rudin's Principles of Mathematical Analysis (and even then...), a math person could be sitting there listening to your clue and, not knowing what hypotheses the proof is being done under or where it's going, wonder what the heck you're going on about; that is, your clue is filler. For instance, there are over three hundred different proofs of the Pythagorean theorem, and at least a hundred of quadratic reciprocity, and I've personally seen or done at least four different proofs of the fundamental theorem of algebra. (It's got a really nice proof using the Hurewicz theorem.)
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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

Post by t-bar »

I obviously don't have nearly as much writing experience as either Jerry or Andy, but I have a point that I'd like to add I've noticed in my experience playing:

Analogous to Andy's point about mechanisms for reactions, make sure that your clues about reactions for compounds are uniquely identifying, and don't just apply to a certain functional group. If you're writing a tossup on, say, butyraldehyde, don't say "it forms a silver mirror in the Tollens test," which applies to any aldehyde. This is another reason why consulting textbooks is probably better than Wikipedia - while a textbook would probably discuss identifying reactions in the contexts of their functional groups, Wikipedia may have a one-off reference to a test on the article for a specific compound without sufficient contextual information to tell that it's not uniquely identifying.
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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

Post by Mechanical Beasts »

t-bar wrote:If you're writing a tossup on, say, butyraldehyde,
press ctrl-z until your page is blank again
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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

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Crazy Andy Watkins wrote:
t-bar wrote:If you're writing a tossup on, say, butyraldehyde,
press ctrl-z until your page is blank again
It was just a hypothetical example.
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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

Post by Auroni »

I use the organic chemistry portal (organic-chemistry.org) to look up specific mechanisms of reactions that I want to write on (and, indeed, kinds of reactions themselves and reactants). That site also links to scientific literature about performing those reactions with specific modifications, but that's well beyond my scope and I am always incredibly careful when treading that ground.

Also, while I'm on the subject of organic chemistry, it isn't a terrible idea to ask about things that one learns in an introductory organic chem class). Churn out some bonus parts on hyperconjugation and resonance, use reactions you cover in class as clues for tossups on the SN1 reaction mechanism, and even ask about the Finklestein reaction. These are all things that students in intro orgo encounter, and I'm led to believe that they are incredibly important to actual organic chemists.
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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

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I'd like to hear other people comment on this, but I don't really like the idea of requiring people to say "Finkelstein." Most organic classes (at least, all the ones I've read notes for) just observe that, like, halides are leaving groups and nucleophiles both, so they probably can replace one another. If someone buzzes and says "so you're describing the SN2 replacement of one halide with another" then they should get points. The Williamson ether synthesis (and things like the Fischer esterification) where the reactivity isn't much more than "let these nucleophiles do their thing" are in a similar boat, but they're at least learned with names attached with much higher frequency, so it's a little less dangerous.
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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

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Crazy Andy Watkins wrote:I'd like to hear other people comment on this, but I don't really like the idea of requiring people to say "Finkelstein." Most organic classes (at least, all the ones I've read notes for) just observe that, like, halides are leaving groups and nucleophiles both, so they probably can replace one another. If someone buzzes and says "so you're describing the SN2 replacement of one halide with another" then they should get points. The Williamson ether synthesis (and things like the Fischer esterification) where the reactivity isn't much more than "let these nucleophiles do their thing" are in a similar boat, but they're at least learned with names attached with much higher frequency, so it's a little less dangerous.
Yeah, we never really knew it as the Finkelstein reaction either, but I'm not sure how lenient to be on acceptability. "Halide exchange", etc. would all be seemingly acceptable answers--or we can just force people to learn the name through quizbowl like the rest of us. I also had to dig a little deeper in my orgo book to find where the name Fischer was appended to "esterification", and I only knew to look for Fischer based on knowledge I gained in high school that Fischer named a reaction for producing esters, so I can't imagine non-quizbowl orgo experts I know would refer to it as "Fischer reaction" vs. "esterification thing". Is it okay to accept just "esterification" after a giveaway that says "Name this reaction for producing esters"?
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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

Post by Mechanical Beasts »

Lapego1 wrote:
Crazy Andy Watkins wrote:I'd like to hear other people comment on this, but I don't really like the idea of requiring people to say "Finkelstein." Most organic classes (at least, all the ones I've read notes for) just observe that, like, halides are leaving groups and nucleophiles both, so they probably can replace one another. If someone buzzes and says "so you're describing the SN2 replacement of one halide with another" then they should get points. The Williamson ether synthesis (and things like the Fischer esterification) where the reactivity isn't much more than "let these nucleophiles do their thing" are in a similar boat, but they're at least learned with names attached with much higher frequency, so it's a little less dangerous.
Yeah, we never really knew it as the Finkelstein reaction either, but I'm not sure how lenient to be on acceptability. "Halide exchange", etc. would all be seemingly acceptable answers--or we can just force people to learn the name through quizbowl like the rest of us. I also had to dig a little deeper in my orgo book to find where the name Fischer was appended to "esterification", and I only knew to look for Fischer based on knowledge I gained in high school that Fischer named a reaction for producing esters, so I can't imagine non-quizbowl orgo experts I know would refer to it as "Fischer reaction" vs. "esterification thing". Is it okay to accept just "esterification" after a giveaway that says "Name this reaction for producing esters"?
Well, the other thing is: how many clues are in this tossup? There is so little to be said about either of those reactions that this is an argument against tossing them up to begin with, right?
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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

Post by grapesmoker »

As fascinating as I find discussions of Finkelstein reactions (I have a relative named Finkelstein!) I am hoping that perhaps we can move this thread back to its original purpose, which was helping people write good science questions.
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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

Post by Lagotto Romagnolo »

I know it's of limited use in quizbowl but I figured I should mention this: for electric circuits, I would recommend Nilsson/Riedel.
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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

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Actually, that's a great thing to bring up, Aaron. Circuit physics should definitely be asked about more, if possible.
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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

Post by Sima Guang Hater »

The Gold Gringo wrote:I know it's of limited use in quizbowl but I figured I should mention this: for electric circuits, I would recommend Nilsson/Riedel.
I was hoping my Lederberg bonus with the Y-delta transform would start more circuit theory coming up.
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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

Post by grapesmoker »

jpn wrote:Actually, that's a great thing to bring up, Aaron. Circuit physics should definitely be asked about more, if possible.
Engineering is an underexplored area of the science canon. I encourage people to make sensible use of it.
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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

Post by Quantum Mushroom Billiard Hat »

grapesmoker wrote:
jpn wrote:Actually, that's a great thing to bring up, Aaron. Circuit physics should definitely be asked about more, if possible.
Engineering is an underexplored area of the science canon. I encourage people to make sensible use of it.
This. I am in Chemical Engineering, and also taking many Materials Science classes, so yes I am biased. I've said this before, but there are a lot of cool things we learn about that just don't come up. That tossup on Flory-Huggins theory in Lederberg was really exciting. I'm glad my distillation bonus made it into the MO set. I am also very tired of hearing about Raoult's Law and Ziegler-Natta Catalysts. They are relevant, but not significantly more than a lot of stuff I have never heard asked. I have seen very small amounts of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering, and I think there is probably a lot of space there. Aero? Civil? Nuclear? There is probably some stuff there, but I have no idea what it might be.

As an example of underused clues: Yesterday I learned that Einstein found a factor of 5/2 in an equation for viscosity of a solution of spheres, which can be used to model dilute polymer solutions. Based on the packetsearch, I don't see that even coming up as a clue in one of presumably many, many tossups on Einstein. If nothing else, there are a lot of these sorts of things that can be good leadins.
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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

Post by Auroni »

The Quest for the Historical Mukherjesus wrote:
The Gold Gringo wrote:I know it's of limited use in quizbowl but I figured I should mention this: for electric circuits, I would recommend Nilsson/Riedel.
I was hoping my Lederberg bonus with the Y-delta transform would start more circuit theory coming up.
your RLC circuit bonus was incredibly exciting to hear, because I used the stuff we did in E+M lab to 30 it.
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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

Post by Lagotto Romagnolo »

The Quest for the Historical Mukherjesus wrote: I was hoping my Lederberg bonus with the Y-delta transform would start more circuit theory coming up.
I can't tell you how happy I am that you wrote a bonus on that. WIsh I could have been there.
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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

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You have to be careful about just throwing down stuff like Flory-Huggins. It's not something you can just put out there and expect any more than a bare handful of people to even know what you're talking about.
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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

Post by Quantum Mushroom Billiard Hat »

grapesmoker wrote:You have to be careful about just throwing down stuff like Flory-Huggins. It's not something you can just put out there and expect any more than a bare handful of people to even know what you're talking about.
Well, yes. It was in a science side tournament, which is where it should be if it is ever an answer again. It could be used as a clue for Gibbs energy, however, and the type of place where most engineering-type things probably should be in the foreseeable future.
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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

Post by Lagotto Romagnolo »

Also, we haven't mentioned fluid mechanics yet: my course uses Crowe/Elger/Williams/Roberson but it's taught in the engineering department so I have a feeling that's not the standard text for physicists. Anyone have any suggestions? I know the grad students use Kundu/Cohen.
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Re: Science writing for non-scientists

Post by setht »

The Gold Gringo wrote:Also, we haven't mentioned fluid mechanics yet: my course uses Crowe/Elger/Williams/Roberson but it's taught in the engineering department so I have a feeling that's not the standard text for physicists. Anyone have any suggestions? I know the grad students use Kundu/Cohen.
I like Kundu/Cohen and Landau/Lifshitz for fluids; I think KC may be fairly readable (in parts, at least) for non-scientists. I think fluid mechanics might be an area that's underutilized in quizbowl right now--it's something that many people in physics, engineering, astronomy, earth science, applied math and chemistry (or maybe just chemical engineering?) see in their classes.

For astronomy, my intro class used Shu's Physical Universe, which I'm very fond of, but it's out of date in various areas. Carroll & Ostlie seems to be a fine (and up-to-date) intro textbook. Ryden is good for cosmology (and I think it may be largely readable by non-scientists). I think the other astro textbooks I've used are probably not going to be much help to non-scientists, but in case anyone wants them anyway: Phillips's Physics of Stars, Rybicki & Lightman's Radiative Processes, Osterbrock & Ferland's Astrophysics of Gaseous Nebulae and Active Galactic Nuclei, Shapiro/Press/Teukolsky's Black Holes, White Dwarfs and Neutron Stars, and Shu's two books on The Physics of Astrophysics all have good material that could be mined by particularly dedicated question writers.

For earth science, my intro class used Press & Siever's Understanding Earth, which seemed fine (and very non-scientist-friendly). It seems there are many other introductory earth science textbooks rattling around out there, and I'm guessing most of them are decent to good (and non-scientist-friendly). Other textbooks we used include Lay & Wallace's Global Seismology, which seems good, and the old edition of Turcotte & Schubert's Geodynamics. Presumably the new edition is the way to go. I'm not sure how non-scientist-friendly either of LW or TS are. I've also acquired a copy of Lutgens and Tarbuck's The Atmosphere; it seems very non-scientist-friendly but I'm not sure how many good questions can be generated from it.

There are some seemingly decent online sources out there: scienceworld has some useful material (and a lot of important stuff missing and a lot of empty pages), and David Darling's encyclopedias have some useful stuff. These are not as good as textbooks or course notes for figuring out what things are really important and what things people will learn in standard courses, but they may have useful descriptions of some topics.

For truly non-sciencey non-scientists, I think following Jerry's recommendations (especially making an effort to check things against textbooks) will result in science questions that have decent answer and clue selections; hopefully any issues with clue ordering will be caught and fixed by editors.

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