Unseen Text: A Question of Time
Text Type: Scientific Article – Information Text
Guiding Question: In what ways does the use of language in this article help to interest and entertain the reader?
This text was provided by the IB as an example of what kind of writing to expect in Paper 1, so it’s worth paying attention to. In the past, there have been several examples of something you might call ‘general interest scientific writing,’ whether the journey of a water molecule through the universe, an investigation into declining bee populations, or an article about robotics and artificial intelligence. You shouldn’t be worried about needing any specialist knowledge to understand these texts – remember, Paper 1 is primarily a language analysis exercise. As such, you should be more concerned with the formal and stylistic features of the text than having to understand esoteric concepts. After you’ve practiced once or twice with texts like this, you’ll also realise that this kind of scientific writing is carefully balanced. Of course, it has an inherent appeal to people interested in and knowledgable about science. But casual readers can follow these texts too: the authors often explain ideas clearly, use comparisons to help you visualise, and employ technical language carefully. Read the sample response below to find out how this text tries not to exclude casual readers (this is just one possible approach to this paper; alternative responses can be equally valid):
This article is from the website of Nature, a scientific journal published in both print and online versions. Publishing online allows the magazine to broaden its readership: scientific writing is quite niche, but the topic of this issue – ‘time’ – has broad appeal. This particular piece is an editorial, introducing the theme and setting the tone for the entire issue. The success of the magazine, and its appeal to a wider audience than one might think, is indicated by the issue count at the top of the page: it reads ‘7484’. As the first piece in a published magazine that a reader would encounter, an editorial has to introduce the topic in an interesting and entertaining way, encouraging potential readers to find similarly themed articles in the issue itself.
Firstly, the heading introduces the overall concept: ‘a question of time’. This is an example of hyperphora: in order to hook the reader, the first paragraph introduces some interesting ‘questions’ which the article later answers. An example of an interesting question at the start of the article is: ‘why, well into the information age, millions of people still paid to dial a number on their phone to find out the time.’ The statistic in this question might surprise the reader – how such a mundane concept as ‘telling the time’ can interest ‘millions of people.’ The first paragraph gives information about the UK speaking clock; we find out that it is ‘the world’s original telephone time service.’ Discovering the origin of something is an inherently interesting process, so the first paragraph is likely to succeed in hooking a reader of the magazine into the topic.
After giving us the origin of timekeeping, the article presents a key statement: ‘accuracy matters.’ This is the true theme of this piece. From here, the article is presented chronologically, taking the reader through people’s efforts to be more and more accurate when telling the time. Having begun with a mechanical telephone speaking clock, the article explains how BBC Radio used pips to set the time. We learn these pips lose ‘roughly one second every 138 million years’ because they are matched to a clock that is powered atomically. Again, statistics are used to interest the reader: the precision and accuracy of even early timekeeping devices is impressive. We then learn about ‘the latest advance in chronometry’ and find out about a ‘super-accurate strontium atomic clock’. The way the writer stacks adjectives in this phrase makes the clock sound extremely advanced and impressive. Finally, the article projects into the future, making predictions and indicating that there are more interesting ‘breakthroughs’ on the horizon. The past-to-future, mechanical-to-atomic structure of the article places readers inside a timeline, with both interesting historical events to read about and promises of more exciting discoveries to come.
The article uses language in a way that is carefully balanced to engage readers who may have more than a passing interest in the topic of time, without putting off readers who are less knowledgeable. The use of technical vocabulary is a case in point: the article uses synonyms such as ‘chronometry’ and ‘metrology’ – but the topic of ‘timekeeping’ was introduced in the subheading, so these words are easy enough to work out through context. Scientific language like ‘strontium’, ‘caesium’ and ‘ytterbium’ is likely to appeal more to scientifically minded people – but others will know that these words refer to elements of the periodic table. Moreover, certain concepts are briefly explained in parentheses; for instance, the difference between an ‘accurate’ and a ‘stable’ clock was given between lines 27 and 29. I found this clarification helpful and interesting too. Therefore, the text does not exclude the casual reader.
Perhaps mindful of being too dry, the article employs language to entertain as well as to interest. In the early part of the article, the link is made between science and culture through the phrase, ‘Time… is woven into the cultural fabric of everyday life.’ Here the writer employs a metaphor to express the abstract concept of time in a concrete way – as a thread in the ‘fabric’ of life. When describing American timekeepers, the metaphor ‘time lords’ is used, bringing the idea of a hierarchy or competition between nations into the text. This is later developed when we find out that ‘other laboratories across the world have their own designs’ for super-accurate clocks.The text makes it seem like there is a global ‘race’ to create the most accurate clocks. Words and phrases like ‘fuelling debate’, ‘fresh debate’ and ‘related group’‘ reiterate this idea. The text raises the stakes by introducing the idea that something as fundamental as ‘the second’ can be redefined by the winners of this race.
Finally, the text ends in an entertaining way by using a pun: ‘the latest development in atomic timekeeping has arrived bang on time.’ By poking fun at itself the editorial promises that, even though the articles in this month’s journal are scientific, the tone won’t be too dry. In this way, readers with a scientific interest and more casual readers are both encouraged to find out more in this months’ time-focused issue, and a box-out with clickable links is provided to do just that.
Categories:Paper 1 Analysis