20 December 2007

Translating Geology into English

The abstract of a recent geology paper, Dating the First Stage of Planet Formation, says:
    The Mn-Cr chronometer applied to bulk carbonaceous chondrites constrains the solar nebula volatile element fractionation, chondrule formation, and stage I planetary accretion timescale to within +0.91 to -1.17 Myr at 4568 Myr ago. The difference between the initial 53Cr/ 52Cr ratio of ordinary chondrites, defined by Chainpur (LL3.4) chondrules, and carbonaceous chondrites suggests that the former is coming from an isotopically evolved reservoir.

In English, what they said was:

The solar system first began to form about 4.568 billion years ago, though it could've been as much as 0.91 million years more than that, or 1.17 million years less than that. They figured this out by using the Manganese-Chromium dating method on some meteorites (rocks from space) known as chondrites. This is like the carbon dating method, except with manganese and chromium. It's done in a chemistry lab.

How this works: The chromium atom has 24 protons and also a bunch of neutrons. 53 Cr is a chromium atom that has 29 neutrons, and 52 Cr has 28 neutrons. 53 Cr and 52 Cr are called isotopes of chromium. A rock, when it first forms from moltenness, will start out with a certain amount of 53 Cr. As time goes by, the 53 Cr will gradually turn into 52 Cr through radioactive decay. By measuring how much of each type is in the rock (a ratio), it's possible to get a good estimate on how much time has gone by since it first formed.

The authors of the paper did all this on a special type of chondrite (the carbonaceous kind), and by looking at it, they think that the regular kind of chondrite started out from a pool of moltenness that had already done some radioactive decaying before cooling into rocks.

I've read a lot of science papers from all of the main branches of science, and I must say that geologists are by far the grand prize winners when it comes to obfuscatory writing. This is to hide the fact that geology is really so easy to understand that anyone could do it if it was explained clearly to them. I've seen 15-20 page papers, chock full of really big words and dense grammatical structures, that could've been written in 5. Since grant funds tend not to be justified if you only write a few paragraphs to explain what you did, though, professional geologists have to make what they do look bigger and more complicated than it really is.

The above was translated off the top of my head at the request of someone in a chat channel. I felt like putting it here, too, to make me feel smart - as a counter to yesterday's post which makes me feel like a failure. The only thing I looked up was how many protons chromium has. Therefore, take my accuracy with a grain of salt. ;)


Janiece Murphy said...

Thanks for the translation. I always considered geology pretty boring. Now I know why!

Except volcanos. Volcanos are the shit.

John the Scientist said...

You are correct in your explanation. Good work.

Some of the problem is that there are no required classes in technical writing in most curricula. Making scientists and engineers endure the expository composition classes given by most English departments to non-majors is like teaching pigs to sing.

I got most of my pre-grad school technical writing skills from being a technical translator. I've wandered my way through Russian prose that was even worse than that example.

In the absence of real classes in tech communication, scientists and engineers should be required to read and internalize this paper, which is the best practical linguistics paper I've seen from non-linguists. My advisor made every newbie grad student read it.

"If the reader is to grasp what the writer menas, then the writer must understand what the reader needs."

Truer words have not been written.

Nature and Science usually won't let you get away with prose like that, so these guys are doomed to a publication life of second and third tier journals unless they clean up their act.

I hope this wasn't published in Science, was it?

John the Scientist said...

"Since grant funds tend not to be justified if you only write a few paragraphs to explain what you did, though, professional geologists have to make what they do look bigger and more complicated than it really is."

That depends on the impact factor of the journal. Six paragraphs in Nature is worth a lot more to a grant renewal than thrity paragraphs in the Siberian Journal of Mammoth Dung Excavations.

MWT said...

Janiece: Geology? Boring?? Dem's fightin' words!!! Clearly I'll have to write about rocks more often around here...

John the Scientist: Astrophysical Journal Letters, according to the top of the page.

The problem with Science/Nature is that their articles do tend to get very dense. I find them less readable than the journals that call for 15-20 pages (unless they're geology papers (if I can remember what class it was and find my notes, I'll have to dig up my line-by-line translation of an intro to a paper I had to present to the class. It was so bad that I couldn't make heads or tails of it until I sat down at a computer with a text editor and broke it down sentence by sentence.)(Hey look, Shawn! Nested parentheses!)).

When I was in college, the biology dept. did have a thing going about good writing. Every paper we wrote got graded on how well-written it was. I guess they were trying to reverse the tradition of inscrutable, impenetrable prose. But the old guard is still set in their ways, so it might take a while before things really get readable. ;)

John the Scientist said...

Yeah, the brevity requirements in the top two do lead to some dense sentense structure. But if you don't understand something it's generally just that you don't understand the definition of a word the authors are using, it's not because the sentence structure is messed up. I never had any comments about the grammar in any of my papers except the one I published in Nature (they took issue with an acronym we used until we showed it was used elsewhere). Most editors don't edit - they leave that up to the reviewers, who seldom critique the language.

Janiece Murphy said...

MWT, I thought you were a fish scientist...are you also a geologist?

Eric said...

You overlook the benefit of obfuscatory writing by geologists: it keeps the young-earth creationists' attention focused on those heathen biologists. After all, if the YEC-ers actually understood that testing carbonaceous chondrites led to a conclusion that the solar system was nearly 4.6 billion years old, they might burn down UC Davis, where the authors of the paper probably keep a lot of their stuff.

MWT said...

I was planning to be a geologist until I discovered my total inability to do geological fieldwork. That is, I couldn't do the hiking up and down mountains that it requires. Not even after six weeks of being forced to do it, 10 hours a day, six days per week (twice, at that - I did field camp in two separate summers). It was how I discovered just how much of a physical wimp I really am, and the first I ever encountered any kind of limit to things I can do if I put my mind to it. (Yes it was as traumatizing as you might imagine, no I haven't fully gotten over it even now.)

I did end up getting my BS degree in geology, but haven't looked at it since. But I still love rocks and will blather on and on about them at great length at the slightest excuse.

And I have a BS degree in biology due to a dual-degree program, and then an MS in marine biology. With minors in English and history. And Tibetan as my required language. And the only reason I don't have a chemistry BA is because a dean talked me into doing a thesis instead (with the combined requirements from biology and geology, it was only two courses short).

So in some sense I'm similar to Random Michelle in having taken a very wide variety of courses, but I somehow managed to make them all fit toward degree requirements.

MWT said...

Eric: Oh, those guys already go after plate tectonics almost as much as they do evolution directly.

And they can't burn down a rock lab. They're rocks! Meteorites even, that have already survived severe burns once! So HAH! Take that, YECs!

Jeri said...

I am the proud owner of a completely useless minor in Geology. At my college, they called it "Rocks for Jocks" because it was one of the easiest minors to earn, at 15 credits.

That's not why I took it though... my dad was an accomplished amateur geologist and prospector, and I grew up identifying rocks and understanding the structural stresses that produced mountains. My friends used to joke that dinner with my dad ought to be worth a college credit.

I was going to major in geology until I realized I'd probably have to work on an oil rig somewhere -- ewwww. So I majored in technical writing instead.

All this is a roundabout way of saying - I understood the first version, but would sure have preferred to read your edition, MWT!

Janiece Murphy said...

I'm so uneducated compared to this crowd...

Anne C. said...

You, the perpetual student? I highly doubt it, Janiece.

MWT said...

Jeri: Yeah, oil was pretty much it for any kind of geology career outside of Academia. I was planning to stay in Academia though. ;)

Janiece: 'Course you're educated. You got to travel around the world on boats! That beats classrooms any day.

Michelle K said...

I'm not sure about geology papers being the most dense--medical journals usually just hurt my brain, and I've read articles from a broad spectrum. (For my own research, and then for various papers I wrote in the MPH (Master of Public Health) program. (Note: Still no degree. Probably won't happen either, but I learned lots of neat stuff. As well as more about Medicare and Medicaid than I ever wanted to know.)

And I have to admit that despite having taken an obscene number of university courses, I have never taken a geology course. Despite being in the heart of coal country.

Never taken a geography class either, unless you want to count plant geography, which I don't, because I slept through it. (Class was right after lunch, teach talked and a monotone, and turned off the light to show slides. Even though I was interested in the subject I couldn't stay awake.)