Tuesday, January 17, 2012

First Impressions

We are talking about sentences and how to write good ones, especially first sentences.  In the last post, I gave several examples of famous first lines in literature and promised to examine examples from the scientific literature.
I looked up a few papers in the journal Nature to see how their opening sentences were constructed.  Here are a few at random from the most recent issue (first line of abstract with citations removed):
 “Most known extrasolar planets (exoplanets) have been discovered using the radial velocity or transit methods.”
 “Angelman syndrome is a severe neurodevelopmental disorder caused by deletion or mutation of the maternal allele of the ubiquitin protein ligase E3A (UBE3A).”
 A conserved protein from enteropathogenic Escherichia coli, NleE, inhibits innate immune defence against infection by disrupting the NF-κB signalling pathway through methylation of ubiquitin-chain sensing proteins.”
 Insights into the rotary mechanism of the Thermus thermophilus ATP synthase are obtained using electron cryomicroscopy to determine its three-dimensional structure calculated to subnanometre resolution.”
 “In 1969, a palaeontologist proposed that theropod dinosaurs used their tails as dynamic stabilizers during rapid or irregular movements, contributing to their depiction as active and agile predators.”

 I don’t know about you, but from the list above, I would be most likely to select the last one to read.  Based on that first sentence, I would expect this paper to (1) be interesting, (2) tell a good story, and (3) be written in such a way as to be understandable by someone unfamiliar with the topic.
 Here is the second sentence of the abstract:
 “Since then the inertia of swinging appendages has been implicated in stabilizing human walking, aiding acrobatic manoeuvres by primates and rodents, and enabling cats to balance on branches.”
 And here is the last sentence of the abstract:
 “Leaping lizards show that inertial control of body attitude can advance our understanding of appendage evolution and provide biological inspiration for the next generation of manoeuvrable search-and-rescue robots.”
 The title of this paper is, not surprisingly, intriguing and also concisely conveys what it is all about: “Tail-assisted pitch control in lizards, robots and dinosaurs”.  Both the title and the first sentence were written with full comprehension of what this work is all about and its broader significance (robot design).  They even got in some alliteration and reference to a comic book exclamation (leaping lizards!). 

 One of the interesting aspects of good first sentences is that they can convey an enormous amount of information about a topic in a very short space or they can stimulate curiosity or anticipation with just a few choice words.  That is what a novelist or a scientist writing a journal article may strive for.
Do you have any favorite first lines in scientific papers? Do you notice first sentences; do they grab your attention or leave you uninspired?

In the next post, I'll take a look at a famous scientific treatise and how the first line is structured.

Photo by DrDoyenne

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