Dallas Murphy: Science story-teller (part 2)


Images from the To The Denmark Strait cruise. (credit: Rachel Fletcher)

Last year Dallas Murphy published To The Denmark Strait, the story of the discovery of the ocean current called the North Icelandic Jet. Previously, I asked Dallas about this expedition, as well as his journey towards oceanography and science writing.

This time, I asked Dallas more specifically about his writing. As scientists, we are often told to read well-written science prose to help us improve our own writing. To The Denmark Strait is a captivating read, and I wanted to find out how Dallas captivates his audience and what his writing process is like.

It turns out that even Dallas writes awkward sentences and paragraphs just like the rest of us. However, once he’s found his story, editing is key. Dallas includes more colourful verbs, makes sentences crisper, and clarifies the flow of ideas. Above all, Dallas always considers his audience and never talks down to them. We can learn from all these aspects. With a little effort we can transpose these aspects to our own science writing and even our scientific articles.


The start to one of Ben’s videos from the Knorr cruise. Check out more of his videos here.

But the lessons don’t stop at writing, as To The Denmark Strait contains much more than just words. It is a full multimedia collaboration. This collaboration included videographer Ben Harden, and photographers Rachel Fletcher and Sindre Skrede. All these people contribute and make the book something special to read, watch and enjoy.  But this collaboration can also inspire us to think about our science communication differently.

We might not have the money for a production like To The Denmark Strait, but resources are available to help us make our outreach successful. And we can use To The Denmark Strait as a guide to improve our science writing and communication in new, exciting and inspiring ways.

[Part 1] [Part2]

Within the story of To The Denmark Strait, you seamlessly integrate info about a vast number of scientific issues.  How challenging is it include this information and keep the flow of the story?

Thank you, glad to hear about the seamless part.  You’ve succinctly stated the central problem in this kind of writing.  There’s a basic literary contradiction between the presentation of static information and active narrative that needs to be reconciled.  But on the plus side, there is also an inherent narrative structure in the voyage itself, as centuries of sea literature demonstrate.  You leave land with a particular objective (beginning); you either fulfill the objective or you fail (middle); and then you return to land to tell about the experience (end).  I was fortunate as a writer that we’d know by the end of the cruise whether the hypothesis was correct or not.  That allowed me to more easily fold the science into a ready-made archetypical story structure—the quest.  In order to understand this quest, we needed to understand its scientific objectives.  Once the story was set on track and in motion I had a context for the science.  It was not really a distraction to pause to explain it further, to digress to the ship handling required to measure the ocean as the means of testing the hypothesis, or the day to day life aboard the ship engaged in the quest.  Those things became parts of the story, and unified it.  The more typical oceanography cruises set out to measure a region or particular current, then afterward scientists spend a year or so parsing the data.  It’s much easier to shape the story and enfold the science when there is an element of drama.

What can scientists learn from reading To The Denmark Strait that might apply to their own writing?

I’m a little self-conscious about this one, because the answer might imply that my work stands as writing paradigm to which scientists can turn for lessons and inspiration.  I’m a careful writer, I respect my intended audience, and I don’t talk down to them.  I think constantly about pace, rhythm, verbs, color, and especially clarity.  Like any serious professional, regardless of natural gifts, I question every sentence-structure choice.  The first time through, my sentences are awkward, approximate, artificial, and often off point, because at that stage, I likely don’t know what the point is.  Once I know, I can ask why did I say it that way?  Could it be said more appealingly with, say, a more colorful verb or figure of speech?  Could it be said more economically, more crisply?  And what about the order and flow of separate ideas?  What background information do I need to supply in order to proceed with the central ideas?  But with time and experience, I’ve developed a process, which, if I pursue, usually leads to clarity and coherence.   But scientists—and writers—can learn a lot about writing by reading any quality nonfiction.

I read my betters for the lessons.  Wow, look how the writer paid off that sentence by placing the independent clause at the end—technical stuff that serves the forward movement of the piece as it drives toward the end.  If I read a writer who isn’t bothering with those tributes to me as reader, I usually stop reading.  But if a scientist or two found in To the Denmark Strait useful lessons about anything from syntax to narrative flow, I’d be gratified. 

What does the multimedia add to the To The Denmark Strait experience?

Yeah, Ben did a great job; so did the two still photographers Rachel Fletcher and Sindre Skrede.  At-sea oceanography is highly photogenic, particularly in the Artic.  In this, we were fortunate that the science took us to some of the most spectacular sea- and landscapes in the hemisphere, the east coast of Greenland, northern Iceland, and the Faeroe Islands.   Basic to our concept was that we’d portray the expedition in three separate mediums, video, stills, and prose as the best means of bringing the audience aboard R/V Knorr for the most complete vicarious experience.  That’s why I say the book is a collaborative effort, and, if I may say further, what makes it special.

The photography affected the prose, often helpfully.  For instance, I didn’t need to describe, say, the CTD package, because I knew there would be photos of it right next to the text.  I could then concentrate on what the CTD does and why, and so how it fit as part of the quest (by the way I don’t ever say that it’s a quest; that’s just between us.)  That was true, too, of landscapes.  Some are revealed more evocatively by photography than prose, and I didn’t try to compete with fancy prose, at least not usually.  Sometimes, though, when occasion allows, it’s fun to pull out the stops.  And of course, the photography and video carry their own appeal separate from the prose.  So does the graphic design of the book; it’s a sumptuous production by Roher/Sprague Partners.

Why couldn’t one of the scientists aboard have kept a journal and written a book?

I assume you mean write the book for the same intended audience.  In that case, the scientist used to writing for professional journals would have to switch audiences and, therefore, the fundamental relationship between writer and audience.  I sometimes think of outreach writing as an act of translation.  This includes determining what of the science you include and what you leave out.  There has to be a compromise, not of accuracy, but of depth.  Could a scientist empathize with this new audience, with what they need and want, and don’t?  Sure.  Those skills are learnable, and I wish more scientists would write for the public.  But the scientist would have to really want to perform the service.  It would probably be an act of personal sacrifice.

I’m among those who would be thrilled to witness a movement of activist scientists willing to talk about science, including but not limited to climate change in the public and political arenas.  I understand the problems in that for the scientist; plus, it’s really not fair to ask—why not a movement of activists science writers?—and it’s a bit off point in our discussion at hand.  However, communicating with the public is a kind of activism.  It’s not part of scientists’ job description, and it probably wouldn’t benefit them professionally.  The scientist, as I said, would have to really want to do it.  And as to doing it on a ship when sea-time is strictly limited, the scientist, keeping the journal and figuring out how to translate the science, would distract from the work for which he/she was funded…. And if every scientist did it and did it well, I’d be out of a job.  But maybe the public would be better served.

Though I’ve not had a chance to test it in the writing workshops, I’ve been wondering if the effort to write to the general public about their research would serve new science writers lessons applicable to technical papers.  In general ways, the two forms are not totally dissimilar.  But there is that big difference: the language.  Or if you like, the translation from one language to another.

Are there more cruises to come?  Could you see yourself doing this work in other sciences?

We’re scheduled for a 42-day cruise in May/June to the Chukchi Sea aboard the USCG icebreaker Healy.  If plans hold, we’ll have an excellent professional outreach team.  The cruise has more to do with biology than with physical oceanography.  In 2011, Bob and his two colleagues serendipitously discovered an enormous plankton bloom beneath the sea ice.  That’s not supposed to happen.  The purpose of the cruise is to learn whether that under-ice bloom was an aberration, whether such blooms have been happening for some time unnoticed, or whether it’s the new normal.  So, while this is still oceanography, plankton ecology and sea-ice optics are new to me.  I’ve begun reading that lit, and I’ll be talking with Bob’s colleagues before we go aboard.  This is a pleasing part of the gig.  Unlike the harried journalist who has to sweep in with no prior knowledge, conduct a few interviews with experts, then write the story under a deadline, I have the luxury of prior study and, in the writing itself, of no fixed word-count limit.

Outside of oceanography, I don’t know if I have the energy or inclination to do this kind of work for, say, astronomy, interesting as that science must be.  And within oceanography, I’m most interested in the observational kind—because observationalists go to sea.

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Mathew Stiller-Reeve

I am a postdoc researcher at NORCE Climate and the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research. I research the monsoon in Bangladesh and I am the founder of ClimateSnack; a community that hopes to give all young and early career climate scientists an opportunity to practice and improve their scientific communication skills.

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