Why abstracts of scientific papers are like haiku

After reading the abstract of my most recent paper, Raymond commented

I'm amused by the writing pattern characteristic of abstracts. They always go

"Statement of something everybody knows. Statement of something nobody knows. I found out the thing nobody knows."

The part that amuses me is the "Statement of something everybody knows." Why state something everybody knows?

True.  The abstract is a highly stylized form.  In general, the conventions are implicitly assumed, but the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics even encourages authors to write “structured abstracts” making some of them explicit.

With abstracts, as with haiku or sonnets, the trick is to say something original and striking within the severe constraints of the form.  Of course, most abstracts, not excepting my own, fail to do this — as, probably, do most haiku and sonnets.  There’s no getting around Sturgeon’s Law.

Max Tegmark published a paper with the abstract in rhymed couplets.  I believe it was part of a bet.

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Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

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