Question: Dr. Wilson, you have written textbooks and the Curiosity Corner for a long time. What are some of your highlights and thoughts on writing? (Asked by a curious column reader thinking about writing.)
Reply: I guess I have done quite a bit of writing. The Curiosity Corner (originally the Science Corner) has been around for over 30 years. When I was teaching physics and physical science at Lander University (Lander College in those days), people would ask me questions about science -- things they had always wanted to know. The Science Corner gave them a place to inquire, and the answers printed in the newspaper were shared with others. The curious inquiries began to go beyond science, so the column became the Curiosity Corner.
I’ve been retired for some time, but still continue to write the Curiosity Corner. Why? Because I enjoy doing so, and I learn. (“A little learning is a dangerous thing” -- Alexander Pope.) Some of the submitted questions require research, and I learn new things. Also, as opposed to textbook writing, the Curiosity Corner newspaper column gives me a license to write lightly and informally. As one reader told me, “Jerry, I don’t understand everything you write, but I enjoy the BS.”
Textbook writing is a different ball game. You have editors and the writing is formal. My most recent book, in 2015, was the 14th edition of a physical science textbook having been in print for over 44 years. During that time, I have been given some editorial lectures. But, textbook writing is somewhat a labor of love of teaching. You think you can write and present the subject material so students find it interesting and easier to understand -- for example, by giving everyday examples and applications of scientific principles. There’s also a bit of personal pride involved. An editor once told me that over the course of time, a professor teaches hundreds of in-class students, but one with a best-selling textbook reaches and teaches thousands.
Several things do bother me in writing style. A recent one is the now common use of the word “countless” in newspapers and on TV. “He has done that countless times.” To me, this term is somewhat senseless and exhibits a deficiency of basic counting. I can count to pretty high numbers -- I’ve counted to infinity twice. A more appropriate term would be “uncounted.” For example, “He has done that uncounted times” -- more realistic. Another good one I saw recently, used by Amy Clarke Burns in The Greenville News, is “She’s one of an untold number.”
Another thing is the use of proper nouns. In some textbooks (and other writings) you see references to the earth, sun and moon (lowercased). There are two “bibles” in publishing and style: The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS). AP says to capitalize planets, but sun and moon should be lowercased. Even so, you often see earth lowercased when referred to as a planet. CMS says that names Earth, sun and moon are ordinarily lowercased, but may be capitalized. To me, such proper names should be capitalized (so I was taught). Earth is the planet and earth is soil or dirt; the sun is a star, as is Polaris (the North Star), I wouldn’t write polaris; the moon reflects moonlight and is our only moon (Moon is its name), Jupiter has 67 moons, one of which is Granymede. I wouldn’t write jupiter and granymede. The sun, Earth and moon are proper names – give them their due.
Then there’s something that really irks me. Notice that I initially defined the acronyms APS and CMS above. Often in newspapers and magazines an acronym is often used without defining what it means, or what it stands for comes later in the text (and you have to hunt and it is without the acronym). You may get away with common acronyms such as IRS. But how about BSOTA? What if this were used alone in text? It should be initially defined with the associated acronym: Benevolent Society for Old Textbook Authors (BSOTA). Acronyms should not leave the reader hanging.
Finally, another editorial no-no is the use of “naked eye.” My editors insist on cleaning it up using “unaided eye.” And a “manned” spaceship is now a “crewed” spaceship. Got to be politically and gender correct.
C.P.S. (Curious Postscript): You’re not a grandfather anymore, you’re a grandperson. -- Herman
Curious about something? Send your questions to Dr. Jerry D. Wilson, College of Science and Mathematics, Lander University, Greenwood, SC 29649, or e-mail email@example.com. Selected questions will appear in the Curiosity Corner. For Curiosity Corner background, go to www.curiosity-corner.net.