Language and Science

Written by Chad Cowan

As humans, we have always been drawn to stories, whether around the campfire, in print, on the stage or on the screen. It is no different, in science. The scientists I admire take our limited understanding of the world around us, craft a story and tell it. In a way, they are like poets and playwrights for the natural world.

T.S. Eliot begins the “Wasteland” with a line that has always stuck with me, “April is the cruelest month.” Now a resident of the cold northeast where he lived, I understand better than ever the sentiment. Although, I would argue it is March that has proven cruel this year by reminding us of winter’s doldrums. The last two months have been filled with work and colds and dark mornings and dark afternoons, but I see the beginnings of spring. At work, we are busy making plans for more social outings, including a company-wide event. At home, we are packing to go away for two weeks of glorious vacation in the Bahamas. Together these efforts combine what I seek in life, purpose, and joy. It has taken me years to realize that joy is not a private matter but found amongst those we love and those we live with and are together with. A hard truth to come by for a dedicated introvert. So, let’s hope some fun together will bring joy and make April seem less cruel.

As I have been reminded, this blog should speak about how my career path uses writing and language, so to business then. I am a scientist by training and now by mindset. In science, our greatest hope is to discover something worth communicating to others, be it a simple innovation or a deeper truth. As a native English speaker (if we as American’s can claim this), it has been my great fortune that the language of science is English, otherwise I may never have made progress in my chosen profession given my lack of facility in any other language. The reasons for English becoming the language of science are many and not worth re-hashing, but as of today, most if not practically all scientists communicate in a common language. We seek to share our insights and the problems we set ourselves against with the likeminded and learn from those who tilt against their own windmills but have inadvertently solved some of the riddles we seek to puzzle through.

As a result of our common language, I have travelled the world as an academic scientist and attended conferences on almost every continent (Antarctica is missing from my travels). It has been my pleasure to exchange information freely with scientists everywhere I’ve gone because we’ve agreed to communicate in a single language. Science and the community it fosters, transcends nations, cultures and creeds. In a way I have never witnessed in any other endeavor, except sports, it unites us. In my lab at Harvard, we had people from all over the world working together on a common problem. The same was true in the lab next door and the one across the country in California. In the company I’ve founded, it is the same. People from all walks of life gathered around a common purpose and united in their ability to exchange information in a common language.

A final digression, I have taught many scientists over the years how to ask questions and design experiments that will help them understand the answers. The most important lesson I have imparted to those I have worked with the longest is that the best scientists are often also the best at telling stories. As humans, we have always been drawn to stories, whether around the campfire, in print, on the stage or on the screen. It is no different, in science. The scientists I admire take our limited understanding of the world around us, craft a story and tell it. In a way, they are like poets and playwrights for the natural world.

My last words of wisdom for my students, is that whether we tell others stories or not, we are always telling ourselves a story. To make sure the facts as we have collected them agree with the story, we tell ourselves before we tell others. In other words, be willing to rewrite your own story rather than fall in love with the first draft. Otherwise, you may do the world a disservice and communicate a fiction versus a description of the wonderful world around us.

Written by Chad Cowan