September 16, 2016KR BlogKR

Jennifer Bowen Hicks: “A Response to Jamie Zvirzdin’s ‘Observations of a Science Editor’”

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I come at science writing from the backdoor, not as a scientist, but as a writer greedy for wonder. For me, science and writing intersect at awe. The beauty of the circulatory system sang to me in Biology 101. To my surprise, the miracle of potassium and sodium working it out in our very veins stirred me as much as any poem I read in literature classes. Rather than thinking about ways we must, as Zvirzvdin suggests, “give [humans] the science they need in the form they need it,” we might think about how to best lay bare our own incredulity. Humans crave wonder and mystery and discovery; science delivers. Lewis Thomas, for instance, writes in The Lives of a Cell about the pheromones of a female moth. It’s riveting:

“At home, 4 p.m. today,” says the female moth, and releases a brief explosion of bombykol, a single molecule of which will tremble the hairs of any males within miles and send him driving upwind in a confusion of ardor. But it is doubtful if he has any awareness of being caught in an aerosol of chemical attractant. On the contrary, he probably finds suddenly that it has become an excellent day, the weather remarkably bracing, the time appropriate for a bit of exercise of the wings, a brisk turn upwind. En route, traveling the gradient of bombykol, he notes the presence of other males, heading in the same direction, all in a good mood, inclined to race for the sheer sport of it. Then, when he reaches his destination, it may seem to him the most extraordinary of coincidences, the greatest piece of luck: “Bless my soul, what have we here!”

And voila, Lewis’s has plot and an arc, sex or thwarted sex, the imagery of a hundred quivering moths. He’s got my attention. He makes me laugh. Threaded through it all, is wonder: one single molecule of bombykol? All those moths racing toward another, all parties unawares, but eager. (The metaphors create themselves!) Sure, Lewis crafted a light narrative, gave us a “character,” and some imagery. Yes, he anthropomorphized the moths. More than anything, though, I feel like he followed the miracle that science revealed. Such an impossibly orchestrated ruckus from one tiny molecule, from one tiny moth, in one tiny corner of our world so that the world (in its way) will go on. Maybe it’s irresponsible, but I don’t worry about craft tools in the face of hard data like this. Are you kidding me? I’d follow that moth orgy anywhere.

Comments from other contributors to the Poetics of Science online discussion:

L. Shapley Bassen: Laughing and can’t agree more! Also loved Lives of a Cell just as much. In The Anatomy of Criticism (a drum I perpetually beat), Northrop Frye defined the four story types of literature, among which is Romance, the heroic quest. Even noir mystery finds solutions, and genre mystery is always Romance. Science out-Sherlocks Sherlock.

Karen Luper: I love that you approach this from an angle of “laying bare our own credulity,” and couldn’t agree more that “the metaphors create themselves!” They sure do, if we’re open enough to let them (rather than to impose them). I prefer to offer this gift to readers, too—that they might come to the metaphors on their own, as another aspect of their own discoveries in reading science.