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I'd like to write the biography of an important, underrated scientist who performed a really important experiment. He persevered for many years, became ill (and recovered) along the way, and practically invented molecular biology. He and his work deserve to be much better known, as do the times through which he lived (born when Pasteur introduced the idea germs cause disease, lived long enough to see the double helix).

The problem is that he had pretty much no life outside his scientific papers. He was intensely private, kept no diary, and has no legacy of personal letters. It's hard to make a personal connection when so few details are known about a person's life.

I struggle with whether he's too boring to be publishable, or whether I lack the writing skill to portray him skillfully. So I'm looking for advice. For the record, I do have some personal info, but I'm essentially asking for tips on how to turn technical archane papers into a gripping story. ... And suggestions for biographies I might turn to as models?

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3 Answers 3

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Writing biographies like these for a mass audience will require that the reader understand the subject's work. This can be handled by long expository passages, or, as is more frequently done, concepts can be broken up into small, easily digestible pieces. These can alternate with the story of the subject's life, information provided to the reader only as is needed.

Many writers seem to have a knack for getting science writing "right", and I suggest that your best strategy is to read those books. Look at what these writers do well, and learn from it.

Here are just a few examples of the books I've read. While most of these are not biographical in nature, the same issues apply:

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I second Sagan and Hawking. –  Lauren Ipsum Nov 10 '12 at 1:54
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In order to make scientific work accessible to the non-scientist, you need to connect it to something within the experience of your audience. The personal life of the researcher is a very popular vehicle for this but not the only one available.

Look to the events of the world in which he worked to provide the thread that might otherwise come from his private, non-professional activities.

The lifespan from Pasteur to the Double Helix can also be represented as "Dickens to Huxley" or "Franz Liszt to Benny Goodman". Can you see evidence in the mental models that underpin his work reflecting the zeitgeist? How might advances in medicine have shaped the way in which he went about his work?

Every scientist is shaped by the communities in which he worked. A lucky few can see how they reshaped the world around them. In the absence of a richly detailed personal life story, the story of those interactions can open your work to the non-specialist.

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If you have a substantial amount of material on the actual timelines of how he did his work/made his breakthroughs, you can use that. Quiet a lot of books about people working in technical fields that are obscure to a large section of the readership use this sort of playing around with the timelines. You can break it up into chunks, give teasers as to what sort of (theory, experiment, etc.) they were working on in say 1973, then break away to some of the important life events/chanllenges faced by them around the same period in time. Then, after putting that period of their work into their life's context, you can return to the next big step they managed to take in their work, or say the next major breakthrough they were able to make in 1975.

The idea is to give a sort of narrative, or some inkling of tension (e.g the tension often present in the cycles of work-->personalobstacles-->overcoming-->backtowork) to the readers, for them to grip onto so that they find it easy to involve themselves into the signficiance and context of that person's technical achievements.

Of course, you may not have any 'obstacles' or 'personal tragedies' for this particular person's life, but you can still give his/her work context by placing it in that period's overall scientific landscape, or his country's political turmoil/transformation (just riffing here), his quest to find the right people to work with, how progress made by his peers affected his work, etc.

So, "timelines" could be the approach you are looking for.

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@Al C: I just re-read your question and noticed that you have quite strongly stated the absence of any details of his personal life. In that vein, my first paragraph might seem a bit useless, but i think the answer as a whole might still be able to help you –  M.A Nov 10 '12 at 7:37
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