Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Science Communication in 20th Century Europe

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin | Projekte | Science Communication in 20th Century Europe | Reflections on the Basic Function of Text in the Popular Presentation of Science

Reflections on the Basic Function of Text in the Popular Presentation of Science

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Safia Azzouni (Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany)


Maurice Goldsmith (1913-1997)

British science writer, founder-member of the Association of British Science Writers in 1947, science editor at the UNESCO, founding director of the International Science Policy Foundation.

"Each medium has its own grammar, essential for the language used by its particular communicators, who have their personal perspectives with which they select and interpret the phenomena they seek to communicate."

(Goldsmith 1986, 17)

"An experienced science writer will know that it is possible to devise a basic vocabulary of 200 English words which occur so regularly in our spoken and written language that together they would make up 60 per cent of the words used in a Times leading article. This does not mean that a foreigner or an infant familiar with these 200 words would understand 60 per cent of a Times leader, since the remaining 40 per cent, drawn from a vocabulary of many thousands of words regularly used by leader writers, are the words used to convey meaning, and a point of view."

(Goldsmith 1986, 35)

“The main problem is that in many instances the broadcaster is talking about what really needs to be seen to be understood. Thus, where a piece of machinery has to be described, the only effective way of helping the listener who wants more detail is to provide a back-up service of written material.”

(Goldsmith 1986, 49)

“Radio is of importance because for the majority of people the spoken word is still the most important form of communication. Most people live in rural areas and have been brought up in an oral tradition, learning about their village and the people who live there through songs and stories, many of which will have been passed down by word of mouth for generations.”

(Goldsmith 1986, 77)

“But there is a basic distinction: and this is true for all the media concerned with the popular presentation of science, they cannot ever 'deliver' to the public an understanding of science: their function is to alert, to set agendas, and to provide materials for imaginative play.”

(Goldsmith 1986, 46)

Walter J. Ong (1912-2003)

Philosopher, Professor of English at Saint Louis University, Missouri.

“Since in a primary oral culture conceptualized knowledge that is not repeated aloud soon vanishes, oral societies must invest great energy in saying over and over again what has been learned arduously over the ages. This need establishes a highly traditionalist or conservative set of mind that with good reason inhibits intellectual experimentation. [...] Writing is of course conservative in its own ways. […] But by taking conservative functions on itself, the text frees the mind of conservative tasks, that is, of its memory work, and thus enables the mind to turn itself to new speculation […].”

(Ong 1982, 41)

“At the same time, with telephone, radio, television and various kinds of sound tape, electronic technology has brought us into the age of ‘secondary orality’. This new orality has striking resemblances to the old in its participatory mystique, its fostering of a communal sense, its concentration on the present moment, and even its use of formulas […]. But it is essentially a more deliberate and self-conscious orality, based permanently on the use of writing and print, which are essential for the manufacture and operation of the equipment and for its use as well.”

(Ong 1982, 136)



  • Goldsmith, Maurice (1986): The Science Critic: A Critical Analysis of the Popular Presentation of Science. London / New York.
  • Ong, Walter J. (1982): Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London / New York.