Sunday, August 06, 2023

Subatomic Writing: 6 Fundamental Lessons to Make Language Matter

Jamie Zvirzdin. 2023. Johns Hopkins University Press. [260 pages, including index. ISBN 978-1-4214-4612-7. US$29.95 (softcover).]

“The demon wasn’t as ugly as I’d feared, although the cheerful IKEA lighting and the sun-yellow rug in our library can make anything seem cozier, even a blue-skinned night fiend (p. 7). A very dubious quotation from what is overall, a textbook about grammar, style, syntax, and punctuation—a summary and application of rules like those in The Chicago Manual of Style or Strunk and White.

In Subatomic Writing: 6 Fundamental Lessons to Make Language Matter, Jamie Zvirzdin outlines her knowledge of advanced writing in detail and provides students with exercises at the end of each chapter. By day, Zvirzdin is a science writer and educator at Johns Hopkins University and, by night, a program analyst for the University of Utah.

Her unique approach incorporates her knowledge of the mechanics of grammar and science with her love of narrative, action, and mystery into a one-of-a-kind textbook. Zvirzdin’s imagined demon is modeled after the famous hot/cold sorting demon of the brilliant physicist James Clerk Maxwell. The author uses her fabricated “demon” to suggest the metaphor of the book that “particles of language are like particles of matter” (p. 4). And when her house cat is “Schrodingered” (disappears) upon the threat of NOT creating a manuscript, Zvirzdin is forced to comply. To get her cat back by Halloween night, she composes six lessons. In each lesson, she takes a physics concept and likens it to some aspect of writing. Some of her metaphors work better than others, but for the reader it is the process of thinking about the validity of each that makes the book achieve its goal, to provide clarity and a source of communication between these elusive subjects that so desperately need each other for mutual success.

For example, there is a problem with her metaphor that likens writing to collisions between little balls: “Because if all the world is to be explained mechanically in terms of little balls (molecules, electrons, photons, gravitons, etc.), then the only way one ball affects another ball is if the little balls hit. If that is so, collision becomes the essence of physical interaction” (p. 16). Scientists who research molecular motion and thermodynamics will recognize this as an overgeneralization about their topic—most molecules do not behave this way and that is why equations like the ideal gas law are just that—for unreal, ideal situations.

After several chapters of rather exhaustive definitions of physics terms (like quarks and leptons), Zvirzdin concludes her textbook with a return of her demon. To conclude, the mystery of the “Schrodingered cat” resolves itself when Zvirzdin submits her manuscript to the demo, and the cat miraculously reappears. A clever application of the statistically disappearing feline of quantum mechanics.

The narrative approach to Subatomic Writing provides humor and a breath of fresh air in an otherwise arduous, backbreaker science communication textbook. Zvirzdin tackles two challenging subjects by likening them to each other hoping to bring them in closer collaboration: a demon of a task.

Julie Kinyoun

Julie Kinyoun is an on-call chemistry instructor at various community colleges in Southern California. An avid reader, she enjoys reviewing books that help her become a better educator.