Organic chemists (and anyone who’s written or read a standard scientific paper) may be interested in this article about R. B. Woodward’s writing style (Wavefunction has a lot on it here). I respect Woodward’s achievements and abilities immensely – any chemist who doesn’t is probably a dolt. All scientific fields have figures like this, people whose work you can review and immediately say “Yeah, this person had it”, and for organic chemistry Woodward is way up on that list.
His outsized personality added to the mystique that would have surrounded him anyway, and (as that article shows) his writing style was a big part of that effect. But I’ve got to come down on the side of the people who don’t care for it. There’s a famous passage from his synthesis of colchicine that’s often quoted:
Our investigation now entered a phase which was tinged with melancholy. Our isothiazole ring had served admirably in every anticipated capacity, and some others as well. … It had enabled us to construct the entire colchicine skeleton, with almost all of the needed features properly in place, and throughout the process, it and its concealed nitrogen atom had withstood chemical operations, variegated in nature, and in some instances of no little severity. It had mobilized its special directive and reactive capacities dutifully, and had not once obtruded a willful and diverting reactivity of its own. Now, it must discharge but one more responsibility—to permit itself gracefully to be dismantled, not to be used again until someone might see another opportunity to adopt so useful a companion on another synthetic adventure. And perform this final act with grace it did.
I actually don’t mind the personification of the isothiazole at all; I picture compounds that way myself sometimes. I find the idea of tribute to it a very nice touch, and I think it provides an insight into Woodward’s way of thinking about organic synthesis. But the idea and the execution are two different things. I find the writing itself too flowery – just to pick one example, I would much prefer saying “withstood variegated and sometimes severe chemical operations” to “withstood chemical operations, variegated in nature, and in some instances of no little severity.” When I read phrases like that, I can’t help but be reminded of Mark Twain going after James Fenimore Cooper for his wordy prose style, with Woodward in this case bearing the more preferable fragments of his molecule to the stopping-place. (That’s Twain’s second whack at Cooper – the first one is probably more famous).
Admittedly, it’s not quite fair to compare Woodward’s style to Cooper’s, because they were trying to accomplish very different things. Weighing against Woodward, though, is the fact that he was writing reports of his scientific work for technical journals. As much as I can enjoy a distinctive literary style, that ain’t the place for it. Reading a good scientific paper should be like being served by a good waiter in a fine restaurant, in that you never even notice how quickly and completely everything’s getting done. That’s what you are as a technical author: a waiter. The lab is the kitchen, where the dish is prepared, but publication is when you deliver the goods to the customers. I think that some chemists read Woodward’s prose and think “Now this is class”, the equivalent of a table setting with orchids, violinists, finger bowls, fish forks and the complete service a la Russe. But when I read it, I feel as if I’m sitting in a restaurant that, no matter the setting, has waiters who are twirling the plates and juggling the cutlery rather than bringing out the excellent meal.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to imply that writing clear technical prose is easy. It’s actually very hard, which is why reading many journal papers is like walking through a trough of pea gravel. Some of them are like eating a trough of pea gravel. Opinion writing or journalism can be done so clearly that it’s as if the author’s points (and points of view) are dropping directly into your head – Orwell had a gift for writing like that, although he worked hard on it as well. (Given the power of his writing, it’s a good thing that he was a sensible a man as he was). But doing that with a technical subject is much harder still, what with all the layers of background knowledge, specific vocabulary and abbreviations, and the intrinsic difficulty of getting across some of the concepts themselves.
Woodward’s thoughts about chemistry were at a high level, and to me they often come across despite his prose style, rather that because of it. That isothiazole section is one – he’s talking about a protecting group, in the end, but one that not only just sandbags a nitrogen atom for a few steps, but also allows for new chemistry to take place around it while it’s in place. That’s quality work, and he produced a great deal of it. Complaining that he tended to present it in too rococo a style is, in the end, a minor problem – but I still think it’s a bug, and not a feature.