Yesterday, I wrote about one of Orwell's essays, and about Watson and Crick's famous letter to Nature. The theme: short expositions win. Today, I continue the theme, with two more brief but brilliant must-reads for the aspiring writer.
Like the Watson and Crick letter, Einstein's 1905 paper Does the inertia of a body depend on its energy content? was profound and eternal. In it, he derived the expression m = E / c2. Though the paper was arguably little more than an extension of others he published that year, it was very short: exactly three (small) pages long. His concluding remark couldn't be clearer or more succinct:
If the theory corresponds to the facts, radiation conveys inertia between the emitting and absorbing bodies.
Einstein's writing style was influenced by Ernst Mach's book, The Science of Mechanics (Minor, 1984). Mach adopted a pedagogic, step-by-step style that guided the reader through the scientist's reasoning. Asking the reader to imagine an analogous scenario or simplified example was, in my experience, common in physics books of the period. Richard Feynman used a similar straightforward style. I try to use it myself, but sometimes the desire to impress gets the better of me.
Years of reviewing journal papers has convinced me: the abstract is one of the most abused and misunderstood animals of science. I regularly hand Landes' brilliant little plea to new writers, and it bears re-reading once every couple of years. Landes points out that the abstract should "concentrate in itself the essential information of a paper or article". Here is his superbly cheeky, information-free counterexample:
A partial biography of the writer is given. The inadequate abstract is discussed. What should be covered by an abstract is considered. The importance of the abstract is described. Dictionary definitions of 'abstract' are quoted. At the conclusion a revised abstract is presented.
Read his short note for the improved version of this soggy squib of an abstract.
What do we draw from these authors? I'll be brief: so should you.
Einstein, A (1905). Ist die Trägheit eines Körpers von seinem Energiegehalt abhängig?, in Annalen der Physik. 18:639, 1905. Published in English by Methuen, 1923.
Landes, K (1966). A scrutiny of the abstract II. American Association of Petroleum Geologists Bulletin 50 (9), p 1992.
Mach, E (1883). The science of mechanics. Later English translation here.
Minor, D (1984). Albert Einstein on writing. J. Technical Writing and Communication 14 (1), p 13–18. [Requires subscription or purchase].