Meet a scientist

Hidden behind deliberately impersonal journal articles are lively, impassioned people

If you sampled science journal articles at random, you might end up reading about photosynthesis, photo-induced bond formation, invasive species and dark matter. Different as the topics might be, the articles would all have one thing in common; they would all be written in the same voice.  In other words, you would be hard-pressed to say anything about the personalities or temperaments of the people who wrote them.

This is deliberate, of course. Beginning in the 17th century, scientists began to write in what is called the “plain style,” a style that avoids adjectives, figures of speech, or the other rhetorical devices that let readers recognize a writer. Famously, the scientists went so far as to use a grammatical construction that banishes the writer from the text entirely: the much maligned passive voice.

This has both an upside and a downside. The plain style allows readers to attend to what is being said, without being distracted by the idiosyncrasies or agenda of the writer. And that is more or less what you want in science, which derives its power from its objectivity and blindness to persons.

On the other hand, because the scientists are hidden, they are a bit like the great and terrible Oz: much more forbidding in the imagination than they are in person. In real life, as opposed to bound volumes or online screens, scientists tell stories, make jokes, and bubble with excitement and ideas.

Here are 10 scientists speaking briefly about moments in their lives that never would be included in journal articles and still have so much to do with why they are scientists. To watch a video, please click on a play button.

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The video of Michael Wysession was made by Sean Garcia; all other videos by Clark Bowen.

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