The world needs the next generation of Rachel Carsons

Pennsylvania native Rachel Carson transformed the world of scientific communication by taking a technical issue and making it public like no one had done before. Carson’s evocative writing remains a gold standard for those wishing to raise the alarm about problems related to the environment and human health. In her 1962 book, Silent Spring, Carson catapulted a problem previously contained within the scientific community to the center of public discussion. This problem was the use of DDT, a pesticide in wide use. Carson and other scientists found these chemicals to have devastating effects on life, from songbirds to humans. Rather than let scientists and politicians hash out a response out of the public eye, Carson wrote Silent Spring, a clear and effective account of these discoveries in the form of an apocalyptic narrative. The “silent spring” she wrote of would be the sound of spring absent of life if we did not act.

Rather than write to the world as a scientist using scientific discourse, Carson opens her book with an idyllic scene of peace and tranquility. Her first line reads, “There once was a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings.” Describing this pastoral setting, Carson quickly shifts to a blight that falls upon the community as “some evil spell” that kills animals indiscriminately. Capturing her readers’ minds, she explains, “No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it to themselves.” So begins a book-length appeal for humans to take notice and change their ways, an appeal that made an enormous impact on the issue of DDT and environmentalism more broadly.

Rachel Carson, Environmentalist and Science Writer
Rachel Carson, Environmentalist and Science Writer

Rachel Carson is a paragon of scientific writing. She both effectively communicated within her domain and, when the stakes were high, shaped public perception of issues that were otherwise invisible to people using rhetorical tactics well outside of the scientist’s typical set of strategies. Take this excerpt from Silent Spring that directly engages the ethical dimension of scientific progress:

“Some would-be architects of our future look toward a time when it will be possible to alter the human germ plasm by design…It is ironic to think that man might determine his own future by something so seemingly trivial as the choice of an insect spray.”

Is this any less resonant today? Substitute “insect spray” with any number of technical hazards created by “would-be architects of our future” and you can see the need for communicators that know how to engage citizens. Alternatively, we have many technologies to cherish that are the fruits of scientific progress, truly deserving of positive public attention. Like Rachel Carson, and perhaps like you, science writers shape public perceptions of scientific progress.

Not only do science writers shape public understanding of scientific progress, they also communicate effectively with other scientists. To advance your career as a biologist, meteorologist, physicist, chemist, or in any other science discipline, you must be able to write. The gears of career and scientific progress turn through published research findings and research grant proposals.

To help Millersville’s students achieve success as scientists and to open new doorways for students interested in being a liaison between scientists and the public, the English Department is proud to offer a new Advanced Writing course in Science Writing. This course will cover both the demands on scientists as they communicate within their fields and as they reach out to the public. If you find this particularly compelling, Millersville is also offering a new Multidisciplinary Studies (MDST) degree in Science Writing.

The world needs effective communicators of scientific progress and threat so that members of the public can be well informed of the issues that shape all of our lives. Just as Rachel Carson used writing to challenge an industry by making a technical issue a public one, you too can shape the world through science writing.

Have you always been fascinated by scientific discovery? Are you a scientist yourself? Would you like to learn about an up-and-coming field of study that could lead to internships and job opportunities? Are you looking to take care of that Advanced Writing requirement in a way that will directly impact your career prospects? If so, consider signing up for ENGL 319: Science Writing.

— Justin Mando