Writing Bug

Michelle Francl.

Michelle Francl. (Courtesy Bryn Mawr College)

When I started my blog, Culture of Chemistry, it seemed an innocuous enough experiment. I told myself it was just a convenient spot to archive supplemental-course materials for my students, nothing more. But experimenting on oneself is risky. Just ask Seth Brundle, the quirky genius played by Jeff Goldblum in the late 1980s remake of The Fly. One misstep and you’re trying to keep your colleagues from discovering that you’ve accidentally mixed your genes with a fly’s. Seven years ago I wrote my first blog post about flamingos and quantum mechanics. Last year I blogged more than 100,000 words—the equivalent of a 250-page book—and had more than 40 essays appear in print. I juggle conferences and classes with press deadlines and word counts. Hidden underneath my lab coat is a blogger.

Admitting that you are a blogger in some scientific circles is just shy of admitting you exchanged heads with a fly in an experiment gone badly wrong. Bloggers are often imagined to be either ranting political wing nuts or bored teenagers recounting their days in mind-numbing detail, pounding at their keyboards in dark closets—not active scientists writing on the road and from their labs. Yet according to the 2011 Research Information Network survey of scientists in the United Kingdom, 16% of research scientists blog about science, and the percentage who use social media in their research activities is essentially constant across age cohorts. Science and blogging are not mutually exclusive activities.

I teach at a small liberal-arts college, where the standard introductory chemistry course throws English majors fulfilling their lab-science requirement into the same room with physics majors interested in materials science. For a number of years I had been including short sidebars on the history and sociology of science on my assignments—under the heading “Culture of Chemistry”—to help students see how chemistry threads its way through many fields. What’s a hypsometer, and what does it have to do with Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim? Why was the Declaration of Independence stored under expensive, hard-to-handle helium rather than argon? Posting materials on the blog made them easy for students to browse.

The blog soon expanded beyond a simple archive as I discovered the joys of writing off the leash of journal guidelines and granting agencies’ requests for proposals, even occasionally diving into the real-time world of news. When the word nonillion was mentioned on a game show and I live-blogged about its multiplicity of definitions, I woke up the next morning to find that nonillion was volcanically hot, the number-one topic trending on Google, and that my blog was the number-two site coming up in searches. (Number one? A blog that had plagiarized my post. My 12-year-old son was incensed. The lesson in intellectual integrity? Priceless.)

Gradually the wall next to my desk started sprouting sticky notes reminding me of things I wanted to blog about: “What does the ‘p’ in pH stand for?” I would find myself rummaging in my bag for a pen and scrap of paper when a writing idea struck me at the grocery store—“reduced iron/cereal/chocolate”—or pulling out my phone while walking across campus and leaving myself a voice-mail message with a writing prompt: “Inert gases aren’t always inert.” Like Goldblum’s Brundle, who eventually sees the world through the compound eye of a fly as his metamorphosis completes, I now see the world through multiple lenses. Research on topologically intriguing molecules has me musing about my concept of molecular beauty; my son’s sudden interest in incinerating grapes in the microwave pushes me to think about plasmas. These days my blog antennae are always up, waving excitedly when a weird science word shows up in Scrabble or when I notice the odd shades of spring leaves on a late afternoon walk.

My experiment with blogging finally turned me into a writer. Not only do I blog about chemistry, but I also write regularly about life with teenagers and what it is like to spend a week in a silent monastery perched on the coastal cliffs of California or to talk with the abbot of a thousand-year-old temple in Kyoto.

The more I write, the more I discover the similarities between the mind-set of the writer and of the scientist. Novelist Flannery O’Connor wrote, “The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his [or her] attention.” Likewise scientists. The ability of subtle detail to reveal fundamental mechanisms has fueled discoveries ranging from Mendel’s genetics to new planets. Writing hones an attention to detail that the scientist in me turns to good advantage. I’m a blogger, but I’m also a chemist.

Michelle Francl was the 2011–2012 Herdegen Fellow at CHF's Beckman Center and is Professor of Chemistry on the Clowes Fund for Science and Public Policy at Bryn Mawr College. She blogs at Culture of Chemistry and Quantum Theology.