Writing makes science possible01 Oct 2015
Years ago, I was forced to go through a series of audio lectures by Professor Steven L. Goldman on Great Scientific Ideas That Changed the World. It was part of a undergraduate course, so I had to listen, read and understand the lectures. Turned out, it was one of best things I did during graduation. I recommend anyone interested in learning history of science and how it evolved and shaped our modern world to go through the lectures. If you are more of a reader than listener, transcript of those lectures is available in PDF which you can read on your kindle or print out and read on paper. It will be one of best things you’ll read about our modern world and how science played an elementary role in building it.
One of lectures focuses on writing, its history and importance in modern world. As computer scientists writing is and should be as important to us as to any other scientific discipline. Imagine Java without documentation or no msdn or no stackoverflow. What kind of world will that be? How many times do we have some brilliant idea that we just juggle in our minds and let go? What if we actually documented all those brilliant ideas and refined them to build awesome projects? Admit it, we have great ideas but we are too lazy or forgetful to convert them into actual products. In next paragraphs, I will paraphrase professor Goldman’s lecture and we’ll discover how writing has shaped science and helped transfer our knowledge from generations to generations. Original transcript of lecture is available at this link. Hopefully you’ll appreciate writing more after reading what follows.
Modern science is unimaginable in absence of ideas, data and steps taken to reach a certain conclusion in writing. It was already true in 17th century at beginning of modern science. After Gutenberg made movable metal print technology in middle of 15th century, Europe embraced print with open arms. Galileo used print technology brilliantly to document why he thought earth revolved around sun. This notion, that earth isn’t center of universe, got popular years after Galileo passed away. If it wasn’t in writing, this fundamental idea of astronomy would die with Galileo and who knows how long it would have taken for anyone else to convince everyone to accept this fundamental concept of astronomy.
Greek philosophers, at least from 500 B.C wrote books and those surviving textbooks were studied at very first established universities in medieval era between 10th and 15th century. Theology, comments on religious scriptures such as bible or quran and religious scriptures themselves were all in writing. So formal learning in universities was, since inception, associated with study of texts.
The reason why writing is important to science is because science is about abstraction. It’s about concepts that we can not visually see and experience, unlike know how which we can observe and learn. For example, if you see someone making a bronze pot, you can see and learn how is it made, how good is potter’s know how and copy it yourself. Such know how, can be transmitted from person to person and generations to generations without writing. Fact that ancient civilizations learnt to domesticate animals, grow farms and build complex structures are examples of complicated work that was achieved without writing. What we mean by science is about realities that we do not and can not experience. We can’t experience atoms, quarks, photons, dark matter, metabolism, cells, microwave, radiation and earth’s rotation etc. Writing is what describes science.
Writing is a human invention, it’s a technology. There’s a possibly, direct relationship between our writing and thoughts, when we write, we think differently because we can read our own thoughts, that clears things up. Also, your writing of your ideas prompts other people to think differently. Have you felt like expressing your ideas face to face verbally and running out of proper words? A lot of people prefer written conversations over verbal ones in our internet dominated world. Writing makes expressing ideas easier and more reachable.
One more interesting thing about writing is that it becomes more valuable as it becomes more widespread, just like a lot of other technologies. Phones became more valuable as more distant people started using them. Value of internet and websites go up as more and more people use them. So as we write, we increase value of our previous writings and give a positive butterfly effect to increase overall knowledge of humanity.
Now that you know how important writing is, as a software engineer, take it seriously and document and comment as much and as clearly as possible so people can make sense of your ideas. As they say “Always code as if the guy who ends up maintaining your code will be a violent psychopath who knows where you live.”.