Can the laws of physics help scientists write better?

By Sheeva Azma

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cover of the book "subatomic writing" by jamie zvirzdin
Book cover of Subatomic Writing by Jamie Zverzdin

I was lucky to review an advance copy of Subatomic Writing by Jamie Zvirzdin. It’s a book that seeks to teach the principles of writing by analogizing them to the principles that govern matter at the level of the small particles that make up atoms (also known as the subatomic level).

“Where science and language overlap is a comfortable place,” Zvirzdin writes. The book merges Jamie’s love of and deep knowledge of science writing with her love of physics to come up with a set of axioms that scientists can use to improve their writing. “Human communication, like particle physics, is complex, chaotic, confusing,” she writes. 

As a scientist turned science writer, I found this statement intriguing. I had never thought about writing in this way, but it just makes so much sense to me. Just as individual sounds, letters, and meanings make up different words, small subatomic particles make up matter. The words are put together to build sentences which can be strung together to create paragraphs and books, underlying all of human communication. Similarly, atoms are put together to make up molecules which comprise all types of matter in our world.

Studying chemistry in my first year about MIT, I dug deep into atoms and the subatomic particles of which they are composed. I remember learning about foundational theorems from Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and others. We also talked a lot about subatomic particles, the small bits of matter that make up atoms. A typical element on the periodic table is composed of one or more positively charged subatomic particles called protons; neutral charge particles termed neutrons; and negatively-charged particles known as electrons.

That’s the crux of what I understood from high school and college chemistry; I definitely don’t remember all of my freshman year chemistry from MIT these days, though it did get pretty complex at times. Apparently we know a lot more about subatomic particles 20+ years later, though, with new subatomic particles that have been discovered since those days. Those particles, with names like quarks, leptons, and bosons, are the main focus of Zvirzdin’s book. From my casual Googling, it appears that those particles are even more fundamental to matter than protons, neutrons, and electrons. For example, both protons and neutrons are made up of quarks.

Zvirzdin does a deep dive into other subatomic particles like quarks, leptons, and bosons, which I am less familiar with. Don’t ask me to explain what quarks, leptons, and bosons are: I can tell you that they make up atoms just like electrons, protons, and neutrons do, and one or more of those might be subcomponents of those main three particles I know, but that’s about it. Despite the fact that I don’t fully understand the physics aspect of the analogy in Subatomic Writing, I still appreciated the analogy while reading this book. These small particles make up matter, just like words make up sentences, paragraphs, and books.

Zvirzdin holds a Master’s degree in writing and literature, but she describes physics as her “first love.” She is lucky to be able to pursue both: during the day, she teaches graduate students in science writing at Johns Hopkins University; at night, she analyzes data or runs cosmic ray telescopes remotely to track and understand ultrahigh energy cosmic rays. Zvirzdin’s physics work is part of the Telescope Array Project, a physics collaboration in Utah.

One night, programming in Python, she had a realization: “particles of language are like particles of matter.” Words, like atoms, can bounce around chaotically and violently, and their composition creates different physical states. Her book Subatomic Writing explains this metaphor, explaining the rules of writing as analogous to the rules governing subatomic particles of matter.

What if we could break writing into its constituent components, the very basic things that all writers need to know? That is the question that Zvirzdin seeks to answer in this book. She analogizes this understanding to knowledge of how atoms work: atoms are the basic units of matter, and if you understand how they interact, you can predict their behavior and understand the natural world.

I’m totally on board with the metaphor in this book – that by attending to the foundational aspects of writing, one can understand writing at a foundational level that is akin to understanding the fundamental properties of matter. In other words, if you could only grasp the most foundational aspects of writing, you can understand anything about it and write anything based on your knowledge of writing’s building blocks.

Zvirzdin summarizes the fundamental subatomic elements of writing in six lessons – a daunting task, but a huge step forward in helping people merge their love of science and writing to better communicate science. Over the course of the six lessons, Zvirzdin works her way up from the word level, to phrases, clauses, sentences, super-sentences, and finally, the paragraph level. The book concludes with a unifying “theory of everything” as well as some ideas on ways to use Subatomic Writing’s lessons in the classroom.

Make no mistake, this book doesn’t try to make the boring mechanics of writing more interesting. Rather, Zvirzdin uses metaphor to analogize these complex aspects of writing to the complexity found in physics. 

Expect to get a primer in subatomic physics as you read through this book. If, like me, the thought of studying quantum physics makes your eyes glaze over, perhaps you can take solace in the perfection of the metaphor. The book starts out talking about phonemes, the basic units of sound in words, as well as graphemes, the basic written units we see in words. Next, Zvirzdin covers morphemes, the basic units of meaning in words, and builds on her lessons from there. It’s as if she was talking about subatomic particles, how they interact to help form atoms, which form the building blocks of matter. The next lessons on putting words together to form sentences, paragraphs, and more are analogous to getting a primer about the atoms and molecules that make up matter and various elements, how molecular interactions can affect the states of matter, and the chemical and physical interactions that govern interactions between different elements.

The intensely scientific metaphor may appeal to scientists who loathe writing but seek to improve their craft. As an engineering and then science undergraduate at MIT, I talked to tons of my classmates who didn’t like writing, or didn’t realize why they should care about writing. Maybe if the principles of good writing were framed in terms of the hard sciences, writing could be more accessible for those who have to do it but don’t exactly consider themselves writers.

What’s more, the book seeks to “speak truth to power,” as Zvirzdin writes, by breaking down silos in academia that complicate communication. She suggests that scientists should familiarize themselves with writing concepts to help streamline the scientific process. “Sure, scientists can pay for editors to come in…[b]ut when [scientists] learn how to fix these flow issues themselves, it saves everyone time, confusion, and frustration.”

Subatomic Writing is a new type of reference book, one that grounds itself in interesting metaphor both to instruct and to keep the reader engaged. It’s the type of book you can read from cover-to-cover to get an idea of everything you need to know about writing without being bored, or just skim specific sections to learn or refresh your memory. Even though I consider myself a seasoned writer, having (as of writing) spent nearly 10 years as a science writer, I found new nuggets of insight that could help me write better. Naturally, after reading, I had to ask Zvirzdin a few questions. Keep reading for my interview with her!

Interview with Jamie Zvirzdin, author of Subatomic Writing

Sheeva Azma: What inspired you to write Subatomic Writing?

Jamie Zvirzdin: One night in 2018, I thought, “Hey, what if particles of language are like particles of matter?” I remembered from my linguistics and editing courses in college that some grammar bits are literally called particles (for example, see “adverbial particles” and “the particle movement test” on pp. 96–97 of Subatomic Writing). A background in cosmic-ray physics helped me map all the particles of English to the subatomic particles that make up our universe. It’s one giant metaphor—a memory system, a mind palace—that helps students learn both English and, as a bonus, a little particle physics.

photo of jamie zvirzdin
Jamie Zvirzdin is the author of Subatomic Writing. Photo credit: Jamie Zvirzdin.

The six lessons flowed onto the page pretty quickly once I asked myself what the rock-bottom writing fundamentals are, and the MA in Science Writing Program at Johns Hopkins let me create my own class around those six lessons. For the next four years, students loved the structure of the Subatomic Writing course (where they earn subatomic particles instead of points), and they kept asking for the lessons to be in textbook form, so I reached out to JHU Press. My Acquisitions Editor, Tiffany Gasparrini, was willing to entertain a new narrative structure surrounding the lessons . . . a grounding fictional story with a demon that would serve as the basis for a lot of the grammar examples. A shared world between narrator and reader, in other words, that would put all those little particles in context.

SA: You call Subatomic Writing a textbook “rebellion.” What makes you say that?

JZ: It’s one thing to present the dry facts you want to teach or share. It’s another to present those facts so readers remember them. Funny. Interesting. Insightful. Emotional. Sensory. We love learning from teachers who make the facts come alive with humor and energy, so why should their textbooks suddenly become so deadly dry and brittle? For ten years, I proofread upper-level textbooks on all kinds of STEM topics—engineering, math, physics, programming. I do know, more than most people, what a textbook “should” look like. But I hardly remember anything I read. I’m not the only one: I have had many conversations with students and professionals in STEM fields who admitted they did not read the assigned textbook for their science courses. It’s too much and too boring, with no system provided on which to hang those facts, like a million coats to hang up but no hangers in the closet. I think anyone who has had to slog their way through a boring science textbook is ready for a rebellion. Not a rebellion against facts or learning but a rebellion against the traditional way those facts are presented. One can have scientific authority and be an interesting writer. The two are not mutually exclusive. Subatomic Writing shows you how to imbue science writing with better word choice, better pacing, even better rhythm.

SA: What is your advice for science communicators seeking to make an impact without being boring?

JZ: Besides going subatomic on our own writing—making it as clear, concise, and vibrant as possible—I have always loved mnemonics, tricks to help the brain remember something. I used many of these tricks to write Subatomic Writing, and science communicators can do the same. I recommend How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teaching by Joshua R. Eyler. I also recommend this Kenyon Review discussion on the Poetics of Science. It does take a little more time to package information in memorable wrapping, and the information must still be accurate and honest, but there are a lot of subatomic things we can do to make the learning experience more enjoyable.

Get Subatomic Writing here.


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