Contact Address:
Prof. Dr. Klaus Mecke
Institut für Theoretische Physik
Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg
Staudtstraße 7
91058 Erlangen
Phone: +49-9131-85 28441
Fax: +49-9131-85 28444

Contact Address:
Dr. Aura Heydenreich
Germanistik und Komparatistik
Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg
Bismarckstraße 1b
91054 Erlangen
Phone: +49-9131-85 22978

Focus III:

Writing in Physics – Narration and Metaphor Formation in Physics

Physical knowledge is always tied to language. Admittedly, mathematics is a formal and the experiment a practical instrument, but the formulation of ideas and concepts as well as the communication with colleagues and the general public require a physical (technical) language. Scientific writing is thereby informed by norms, which are learned and acquired during the researcher's education (A. G. Gross, et al: Communicating Science, 2002; The Rhetoric of Science, 1990). These norms will be investigated from a historical (see Focus II) as well as rhetorical (see Focus I) point of view.

The 17th-Century already demanded a clear, reductive style, so as not to compromise the universal validity of empirical results through a subjective narrative style. Nevertheless drastic changes in prose are noticeable in the course of time: While Galileo still uses a dialogic form weighting up the pros and cons (Discorsi), the most eminent current journal Physical Review Letters demands a strict formalised argumentation reduced to a page count of four pages. Working group III thus aims to analyse the typical cachet of scientific language, in reference to Winfried Thielmann's Fachsprache der Physik als begriffliches Instrumentarium, 1999.

Scientific Language - “Writing scientific physics”: In collaboration with working group I (Systematic Perspectives), the metaphorical foundations of physical terminology will be analysed, in particular the conceptual principles of thermodynamics, theory of relativity, and quantum theory (see Focus IV). Working group III will attempt to understand scientific descriptions of phenomena as a metaphorical process, which enables, through narrations of measurements, the transferability of quantitative concepts to other realms of experience (Mecke: Das physikalische Modell – eine quantitative Metapher?, 1996). Laws of nature can thus be understood as synonyms of “quantitative metaphors,” without having to refer ontologically to objects of a real world. It is the goal to scrutinise all known fundamental laws of nature for their content of quantitative metaphors, and to examine critically the metaphor-theoretical approach to natural laws. In addition, in view of Focus II (historical perspectives), the historical emergence, conditions, and differentiation of various types of texts in physics and their mediation must be scrutinised. A historical outline of the development of rather aesthetically conceived texts of the Early Modern Period (e.g. Keplers Somnium, 1609) via attempts of formalisation during the 18th & 19th-Century, up to the standardisation of contemporary publications in physics is necessary in order to fathom the characteristics of specialised, didactic, as well as popular and pseudo-scientific representations.

Popular Language - “Writing popular physics”: Physicists have always not only written professional articles and textbooks, but also texts directed at a lay audience. A specific, interest-based genre of texts emerged, motivated by the physicists interest both to appropriately and publically represent their field of specialisation, their research, as well as the genesis of their research process and to present colleagues a coherent order of a constantly fluctuating field, which, as a meta-reflective text of a second-order observation, often employed rhetorically and teleologically different narrative strategies than a (more reductive) professional article. While popular science literature remains marginal within the discipline, texts of this genre often represent a central source for literary and cultural studies interested in physical topics (E. Leane: Reading Popular Physics, 2007). Despite the important role of popular science literature for the dissemination of physical knowledge to the public, neither comprehensive studies of the genre's historical development, nor systematic analyses of the process of representation of physical knowledge - or of the specific medial strategies of communication - of scientific knowledge exist. On the basis of Hayden White's studies of rhetoric in historiography and the rhetoric of science (Bazermann: Shaping Written Knowledge, 2000; Prelli: A Rhetoric of Science: Inventing Scientific Discourse, 1989) we will analyse the tropes, genre patterns, and narratives used to describe the process of research and to contextualise the research both historically and culturally. We will further ask which strategies are intentionally employed, to generate a greater social and political impact and to increase the relevance of certain theories.

Textbook Language - “Writing teaching physics”: A metaphorical and rhetorical analysis of textbooks is necessary, as exemplified by the current controversy over the so called ‘Karlsruhe Course in Physics’. Here the didactic expectations as to the mediation of physical knowledge clash with the expectations of professional adequacy and of traditional conceptual precision, especially on a linguistic level. Working group III aims to revise current textbooks. Textbooks for physics are to be examined and edited in light of their metaphorical and conceptual adequacy, as well as in view of linguistically induced misconceptions. This will be especially conducive to fostering linguistic and textual proficiency of students of physics.