Science has been part of the subject matter of the essay for as long as the essay has been a distinct genre. In the 20th century, the science essay has developed primarily as a means of informing the general public about scientific theories and what it means to be a scientist. These essays often use personal reflection as a means to teach, use a story to make a case, and discuss major cultural and scientific questions by relating episodes of the authors’ lives. Loren Eiseley, one of the foremost science essayists of the 20th century, writes in his autobiography, All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life (1975), of creating “the concealed essay, in which personal anecdote was allowed gently to bring under observation thoughts of a more purely scientific nature.” The science essay is also characterized by its use of comparisons and allusions to familiarize the reader with the sometimes esoteric details of the scientific information being discussed. Usually there is an emphasis on style, as poetic devices and rhetorical figures focus the reader on the language of the message.
Montaigne, in his innovation of the essay genre, did much to make the form amenable to the concerns of science and natural history. In his essays he frequently functioned as an ethnographer or anthropologist, as in “Des cannibales” (1580; “Of Cannibals”) and “De l’usage de se vestir” (1580; “Of the Custom of Wearing Clothes”). In both essays, he recounts information without judging, and explains his abstract, philosophical ideas through appeals to specific examples, often from his own life. Many contemporary science essayists also use their own lives as examples and starting points for their essays.
Montaigne also established the essay as a genre characterized by a skeptical and ironic attitude toward old ideas and an interest in new knowledge. He celebrated diversity and backed it up with a multiplicity of quotations. The essay, as Montaigne conceived it, helped engender the scientific method, and the essay genre that developed is permeated with natural history subjects and underpinned by a sense of the importance of the trial and error of scientific inquiry.
The originator of the essay form in English, Francis Bacon, apparently conceived of his Essayes (1597, 1612, 1625) as a way of presenting knowledge. Although the subtitle of his book of essays is Counsels, Civill and Morall, he also included scientific information about agriculture in “Of Plantations” and “Of Gardens.” Both Montaigne and Bacon wrote about the medical practices of their time and included information about ways to live a healthy life. In such essays Bacon functioned as a teacher; in doing so he effectively utilized the persuasive power of the essay. The essay as Bacon wrote it allowed the presentation of facts and observations without the drawing of conclusions.
His Essayes are laden with quotations and short narratives, which are not personal, but instead “represent the discussion of a man, not involved in a private reverie or confession, but involved in public debate or address” (Otis Winchester and Winston Weathers, 1968).
The science essay has throughout time been associated with public debate on issues of scientific controversy.
In the 18th century the term “science” came to acquire the definition it has today. Most educated men had some interest in natural history, science, and medicine. The 18thcentury essayists included scientific topics among those they wrote about, a notable example being Samuel Johnson’s “On Birth, Health, and Diligence” (1753). Most scientific writing was aimed at the educated populace rather than specialists, and many of the articles included in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London would today be considered science essays rather than scientific articles.
In England, the first collection of natural history essays—Gilbert White’s The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne—was published in 1788. White’s essays were to prove widely influential. His writings are full of poetic quotations, literary and biblical allusions, and he merges scientific diction with his own Augustan style. His stated aim in the author’s “Advertisement” was “to bring his readers a greater appreciation of the wonders of the creation and to enlarge the stock of scientific knowledge.” White’s prominent place in the history of nature writing has been characterized by Joseph Wood Krutch in Great American Nature Writing (1950): “White was the student of natural history who used the materials of science in the composition of a work which became belles-lettres because these materials, treated intimately rather than with complete detachment, take on emotional significance.”
In the 19th century, science fundamentally changed people’s conception of the universe and their place in it. While specialized scientific publications did exist, and became more significant for the professional scientist, the majority of scientific information and debate was disseminated in general literary publications. The debate between two prominent American scientists, Asa Gray and Louis Agassiz, on the validity of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) was waged in the Atlantic Monthly. When science became controversial to the average citizen, scientists took advantage of the popular press to present ideas and opinions. T.H.Huxley is perhaps the preeminent scientist of the 19th century concerned with the presentation of scientific ideas to the emerging literate population; his prose ranks him as one of the best stylists of that century. His principal technique was to take a specific, commonplace object, such as a piece of chalk, and use it as an example by which the public could learn to appreciate and understand the scientific mode of apprehending the world.
Twentieth-century science essayists have continued the pedagogic tradition, engaging the public in scientific debate, and personalizing science through autobiography. Almost every significant 20th-century scientist, from Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein to James D.Watson and Stephen Hawking, has written essays aimed at the general public. In addition, many academic scientists write in the genre to extend their own teaching beyond the classroom, examples being Lewis Thomas, Jeremy Bernstein, Stephen Jay Gould, Freeman Dyson, Harold J.Morowitz, and Gerald Weismann. Essays on scientific subjects have also engaged nonspecialist writers such as John McPhee, K.C.Cole, and Diane Ackerman. All of these writers produce essays that blend scientific fact and documentation with philosophical discussion and evocative, even emotional description as their hallmarks.
The Faber Book of Science, edited by John Carey, London: Faber, 1995
From Sea to Space: An Anthology of Scientific Prose, edited by J. D.Stephenson and A.R.Moon, London: Edward Arnold, 1962
Great American Nature Writing, edited by Joseph Wood Krutch, New York: Sloane, 1950
Science in Writing: A Selection of Passages from the Writings of Scientific Authors, edited by Thomas Rice Henn, London: Harrap, 1960; New York: Macmillan, 1961
The Scientific Background: A Prose Anthology, edited by A. Norman Jeffares, London: Pitman, 1958
A Treasury of Scientific Prose: A Nineteenth-Century Anthology, edited by Howard Mumford Jones and I.Bernard Cohen, Boston: Little Brown, 1963; as Science Before Darwin: A NineteenthCentury Anthology, London: Deutsch, 1963
Bazerman, Charles, “The Writing of Scientific Non-Fiction,” PreText: A Journal of Rhetorical Theory 5, no. 1 (1984):39–74
Beer, Gillian, “Parable, Professionalization, and Literary Allusion in Victorian Scientific Writing,” AUMLA 74 (1990):48–68
Black, Joel Dana, “The Scientific Essay and Encyclopedic Science,” Stanford Literature Review 1, no. 1 (1984):119–48
Dowdey, Diane, Literary Science: A Rhetorical Analysis of an Essay Genre and Its Tradition (dissertation), Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1984
Findlen, Paula, “Jokes of Nature and Jokes of Knowledge: The Playfulness of Scientific Discourse in Early Modern Europe,” Renaissance Quarterly 43, no. 2 (1990):291–331
Gates, Barbara, “Retelling the Story of Science,” in Victorian Literature and Culture, edited by John Maynard, Adrienne Munich, and Sandra Donald, New York: AMS Press, 1993
Gross, Alan G., The Rhetoric of Science, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1990
Harre, Rom, “Some Narrative Conventions of Scientific Discourse,” in Narrative in Culture: The Uses of Storytelling in the Sciences, Philosophy, and Literature, edited by Christopher Nash, London: Routledge, 1990
Rousseau, G.S., “Science Books and Their Readers in the Eighteenth Century,” in Books and Their Readers in EighteenthCentury England, Leicester: Leicester University Press, and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982
Selzer, Jack, editor, Understanding Scientific Prose, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993
Winchester, Otis, and Winston Weathers, The Prevalent Forms of Prose: The Popular Article, the Professional Article, the Personal Essay, the Formal Essay, the Criticial Review, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968
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