Autobiographical fiction in popular science writing

A winning package was found for popular science writing in the late 80s and early 90s: an account of a scientific discovery alternates with an uplifting and upbeat sequence of autobiographical vignettes.  The epistemological perspective is generally empiricist and positivist in the extreme, but here I want to focus on the autobiographical sequence.  Chapter 2 was written as a deliberate pastiche, if not a parody, of “the package.”  The autobiographical details I included were chosen to be as impersonal as possible, in keeping with the chapter’s sociological theme; my goal was to show how my personal experience conformed to a Weberian ideal-type.  Thus Chapter 2 presents the following stages in logical and chronological order:

1.  Awakening of the vocation with the help of an inspirational high school teacher
2.  Initiation into the discipline by the undergraduate advisor
3.  Initiation into a specialty (in the book I call this a conversion experience)
4.  Choice of a thesis advisor and a Guiding Problem
5.  Ratification of routinized charisma in the form of tenure at a research university.

My contention is that these stages form a more or less invariable ideal-typical sequence that characterizes entrance into the profession.  The anecdotes that link them to my individual experience are immaterial; they were included in order to call attention to the conventions of “the package.” Also, of course, because including personal details allows for narrative tension, an indispensable element of any nonfiction book, according to Thinking Like Your Editor by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato (recommended to me in 2011 by an agent who declined to take on my book proposal).   But although I wrote explicitly that

The “I” of this chapter’s title is not the hateful “I” of Blaise Pascal’s Pensées but rather the hypothetical “I” of a Weberian ideal-type.

Robert Schaefer, in his review for something called the New York Journal of Books, missed the point that the autobiographical elements were not about me but about the ideal-type.  After all, as Henry Lord Brougham wrote perceptively in 1845 (and I quote on p. 14),

When the studies of a philosopher, and especially of a mathematician, have been described, his discoveries recorded, and his writings considered, his history has been written. There is little else to say of such a man: his private life is generally uninteresting and unvaried.

[I actually found this quote in Steven Shapin’s The Scientific Life and I’m a little worried because it’s not quite the same as the version I just saw on Google books; but Shapin is certainly reliable.]

If I had really had the courage of my convictions, I would have simply invented at least some of the autobiographical details.  Maybe I’ll do that in the next book.  I think the only thing I really made up is the claim on p. 80 that

All that fall and through the next spring I would wake up having dreamt of crucified engineers of quantitative finance — the so-called quants — lining the 7.7 miles of Broadway joining the Columbia mathematics department with Wall St.

It’s an image I did share at the time with a few friends, but of course I never had any such dreams.  Does it make any difference?

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2 thoughts on “Autobiographical fiction in popular science writing

  1. Pingback: Performing truth | Mathematics without Apologies, by Michael Harris

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