Leah Falk: “A Response to Jamie Zvirzdin’s ‘Observations of a Science Editor’”

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As a kid, I would have been grateful to hear Zvirdin’s argument that science writing must rely on figurative and narrative tools in order to acknowledge and reach a learner. The division of school subjects seemed to rely on assigning students aptitudes, not promoting generalized curiosity, and distilling subjects to their conceptual essences, not drawing complex webs between disciplines.

It took me until my early twenties to become bewitched by scientific ideas, and it happened first through literary writing. The best literary science communicator I know is Linda Bierds, whose poems embody Zvirzdin’s plea to “give [humans] science…in the form they need it, using fiction’s tools.” Bierds brings us into the lives of scientists, but not to pity their thought and research as lacking humanism; rather, she catches moments in the stories of scientific investigation and discovery that reveal humanistic preoccupations and concerns. Her work infuses every exploration that interests her with the spirit of Romanticism that Zvirdin prizes as a fruitful blending of reason and emotion. Linguistically, I also love the way Bierds latches on to the precision of scientific vocabulary and lets it drive her prosody, as in the beginning of “Flight”: “Osseus, aqueous, cardiac, hepatic…” She lets the words become her experimental data, painstakingly recording results before she interprets them.

In my own writing, I’ve turned to science narratives and ideas in part because they can get me out of the loop of my own emotions, but also because they can provide a map back to them. While working on poems about Alan Turing, I often found myself facing the question of why I was interested, and where exactly “I” was as a consciousness in poems that sometimes stubbornly looked outward. One thing I find admirable in Michael Faraday’s “The Chemical History of a Candle” is that, as with many of the narratives Zvirzdin references, we’re with Faraday as he explores a phenomenon, as we might be with a character in the middle of a story. When I worked at an institute for historical and cultural research, I found a distinction between scholars who presented their work as semi-closed—i.e., there was a problem, and I’ve found a solution—and those who allowed the audiences to follow along as they simulated the various stages of not-knowing. I want science writing—but really, all writing—to capture that feeling of being inside the experiment or the working through a difficult idea. The poetic lyric seems uniquely suited to this simulation: it already represents an extended pause, an aria of discovery.

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

Karen Luper: I so appreciate that you say “I want science writing—but really, all writing—to capture that feeling of being inside the experiment or the working through a difficult idea.” This, I feel, is at the core of the “science that people need,” that Jamie Zvirzdin describes—learning to think, to follow through (perhaps unfamiliar) ideas in new ways . . . much, much more than being led through, by whatever means, a preconceived story.

Jamie Zvirzdin: I am so enamored with the idea of reader inclusion, of allowing audiences to (as Leah Falk just said) “follow along as [authors simulate] the various stages of not-knowing.” If the goal of science writing (in any form, non-fiction, fiction, or poetry) is to reach a greater understanding through effective communication rather than to establish one’s place in the ivory tower, then accessibility should be a priority when writing about science.

The other half of my original lecture at Bennington College included an examination of Andrea Barrett’s literary fiction. Barrett’s Servants of the Map (which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003) was my primary reference; its six short stories dealt with alpine botany, thermodynamics, meteorology, geology, biochemistry, and pathology—a remarkable lit-science smorgasbord.

Of the many strategies Barrett used to include science in these stories without losing the reader in exposition, foremost among them was A) setting up a character that knew the science who then B) explained it to another character that did not know the science. I called these Versed and Unversed characters.

The designations of Versed and Unversed are fluid, since a character who is versed in one area may be unversed in another area. The relationships in Barrett’s short stories are mostly mentor/protégé interactions, with mentors who know they must “translate” the science for the protégé (although there is something about the notion of treating science as a separate language that still doesn’t sit well with me).

And, of course, the readers get a more accessible version in the process and feel like they have participated in the story and in the science, at least to some degree.

I asked Andrea Barrett if I was seeing legitimate patterns in her writing and whether they were employed consciously or not. Barrett kindly wrote back and said that yes, she recognized the patterns as strategies she uses when she writes about science. She also said that the process is more intuitive than conscious for her, but she sees the value of looking carefully at how we include science in literary fiction. Scientific information works best in literature when the story is grounded in character, when we see how characters react to information, and when the readers are transported into the story and can, as was mentioned before, “follow along as [authors simulate] the various stages of not-knowing.”

Diane K. Martin: I believe my comment here was lost. I said that I love Andrea Barrett’s writing and remember “The Sea of Information” by her, published in 2004 in Kenyon Review. I love the layers, the story within the story.

I wanted to ask (anyone here) a question about something else, however. The question is about a popular work of fiction, Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, which takes place in an Amazon rainforest and involves a sequestered tribe that lives there. I adore Ann Patchett and enjoyed this novel, but I wondered how many of the facts in the tale were researched and how many were made up. Does anyone know? Would it be ethical to make up “facts”? I’m not accusing her of this. I honestly don’t know. I don’t think there are any footnotes, but maybe I don’t remember.

Karen Malpede: I’m not a reader of Ann Patchett but the question brings up a novel I think is quite wonderful, more so as time passes, and that is Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingslover. She intentionally changes the route of the monarch butterfly migration in order to involve Appalachia and, hence, her characters. Okay; she uses and changes science. The novel itself, given the recent one thousand years in Louisiana, with more to come, is prophetic and profound because it is based on climate change science and brilliant because it shows how people who do the least to pollute and who have been mainly dismissed by society, are themselves, the main character and her son, turned on by science, they learn science and love it, only to watch their home float away in a one-thousand-year flood.

Benjamin Kolp: It’s really interesting to read in Jamie Zvirzdin’s comment above that “The other half of my original lecture at Bennington College included an examination of Andrea Barrett’s literary fiction.” I read and agreed with your points about how fiction tools can enhance science writing, and as a fiction writer found myself thinking that it works the other way around, too, when scientific themes enhance fiction, which was the basis of the response I posted. So I was excited to see that you were already thinking along the same lines, exploring both sides in what must have been a great lecture to attend. I guess we’re on the same wavelength. (That’s a science metaphor.)

Jamie Zvirzdin: Ben, it was definitely a fun lecture to give, and it seemed appropriate after Kathleen Graber, a poetry professor at Bennington (who, by the way, told me that a good science poem holds up to two or three facts but no more), read Brian Doyle’s nonfiction essay “Joyas Voladores” and Rivka Galchen read from a new fictional work that included science.

Unsurprisingly, in addition to having a Versed and an Unversed character pairing, I saw that successful literary science fiction also uses a great deal of metaphors and metes out the expository science prose carefully—sometimes withholding information, sometimes overwhelming the Unversed character, but always making sure that character and story were never compromised by the science. Andrea Barrett loves to use actual historical science texts in her fictional work—the book of science becomes a prop, well wielded in the hands of her characters. Sometimes the authors of those works even end up as background characters.

I didn’t have time to go into science poetry much, although in the Q&A I was able to mention the less-than-flattering portrait of science in Edgar Allen Poe’s “Sonnet—To Science,” where science is a “vulture” that “dragged Diana from her car.” On the other end of science poetry is James Clerk Maxwell’s totally esoteric “A Problem in Dynamics” as well as his excellently titled “Lines Written Under the Conviction That It Is Not Wise to Read Mathematics in November After One’s Fire Is Out.”

L. Shapley Bassen: Am enjoying here especially when several voices echo the reactions to Jamie Z.’s original prompt . . . this conversation really begins to feel like a community. I am looking forward to reading more from the contributors and the other writers they mention. (“Linguistically, I also love the way Bierds latches on to the precision of scientific vocabulary and lets it drive her prosody, as in the beginning of “Flight”: “Osseus, aqueous, cardiac, hepatic . . .”) What an expansion of the sci lit horizon! Delighted by Leah’s last sentence, “The poetic lyric seems uniquely suited to this simulation: it already represents an extended pause, an aria of discovery.” But I think the lyric/metaphor can extend to fiction/drama/essay just as well. For example, Jamie Z.’s own reference to Andrea Barrett’s literary fiction which I must seek ASAP!

Leah Falk: Such an interesting question, Diane. (Hi everyone, I’m also rejoining the discussion after a couple crazy weeks of work). I know a few fiction writers who are pretty orthodox about not implying anything factual unless researched beyond a shadow of a doubt, but my personal feeling is that we can’t avoid some jumping off into speculation if we’re writing fiction or poetry (or some forms of nonfiction). I’m sure that some of the treatment of scientific ideas in the poems I love, for example, would be seen as inexact representation by researchers who specialize in those ideas. So what constitutes a misrepresentation, what constitutes a breach of ethics? Even the act of assuming a persona, especially a historical one, seems fraught with the risk of misappropriation.

I think often about the fact that historians have to imagine, too, at some point, in order to give their narratives continuity—there always connective tissue they can’t conjure through research. Have you all read Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages, her biography of Ben Franklin’s sister Jane? Instead of being stymied by the—unavoidable—gaps in the life of a barely educated woman born in eighteenth-century America, she reconstructs them in the form of probabilities. In this beautiful way, Jane’s probable life becomes the life of more or less every woman of her standing at that time—punctuated here and there with the few unique marks she managed to make herself.

Diane K. Martin: I’ve just put the Jill Lepore book on hold in my local library. (I loved the idea, partially fleshed out by Virginia Woolf, of Shakespeare’s sister.)

L. Shapley Bassen: Now this gets gripping . . . Sophie’s World (read!), State of Wonder (read!), and Book of Ages (WILL read!) . . . none of the reviews I could find about State of Wonder focused on Diane’s (for me) pivotal question about its sources/science. I felt on more solid ground in Patchett’s musical Bel Canto although the skimmed political aspects of that one also rankled. Loading any lit with info that isn’t buoyed by necessary character/plot tends to sink the ship. Poems founder fast. Short story/play can take only just so much detail before you can hear Marc Antony’s crowd demand, “Read the will, read the will!” A novel can contain more, but again, it must be essential, never extraneous flourish. Mention of State of Wonder reminded me of James Hamilton-Paterson’s excellent fiction Gerontius (even better, I think, about the Amazon—composer Elgar’s nineteenth c. trip) . . . especially during the Olympics just ended in Brazil. “Versed” and “unversed”—also memorable. Information theory came instantly to mind. (I once wrote a poem about it.)


We eat words. We cook words after we lay words down
beside the brook and sit on the words. After
we eat the words we have garnished with relish
we shake ants out of the words and fold up
the words and put them in the trunk of the words.
We drive the words back to the city of words
and press the words in the elevator for our floor
of words and unlock the words and put the children
to bed in their words under clean words that smell
good of static-removing words from the dryer and
become warm quickly from the little bodies of words
sucking their words to sleep. Tired of the words
after a long day even of picnicking, we take off
our words and settle down ourselves in our queensize
words under the new down comforter of words and lie
naked in our words in the dark of words and sleep
dreaming words. We wake to one wordless moment
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
then replace the face of words more quickly than
we can disremember our dreams of words. A wordless
echo shimmers in the memory of words like a
backyard tree of words that only once
shivered silver in a summer sun.

Jamie Zvirzdin: To Leah Falk: Sara Turing’s work sounds fascinating. I’ll have to look up Sophie’s World, too.

To Diane K. Martin: I enjoyed Andrea Barrett’s “The Sea of Information” as well, thank you for posting it. I didn’t get very far into State of Wonder when I read it (that’s most likely because I’m less interested in biology), but as a reader I prefer that the author stick to the [currently accepted] facts as much as possible, or that it’s clear when liberties are being taken. Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius took plenty of liberties as a nonfiction book, for example, but the addendum Mistakes We Knew We Were Making was meticulous in where the narrative bent away from absolute accuracy. As Leah said, however, all narratives take liberties, so in fiction there’s no escaping it at least to some degree. I’d rather have Book of Ages than nothing at all.

To L. Shapley Bassen: Thanks for your poem on information theory and all your other comments. I feel like I am not as well read as I would like to be, so it’s been refreshing to trade titles and experiences.

We are in the process of creating a Science Lit Library at the Pierre and Marie Curie School in Managua, Nicaragua, where I teach a new interdisciplinary astronomy/writing class, so books (fiction, nonfiction, and poetry) that include science and that are also appropriate for a high school audience have definitely been on my mind (suggestions welcome).

Leah Falk: To Jamie: I love the concept of Versed and Unversed characters. Reminds me, too, of the classic Sophie’s World, where the mentor/mentee relationship is extreme, taking the form of whole lectures on philosophy. What a challenge for a fiction writer to be able to establish the “Versed” character’s knowledge in a way that doesn’t seem pedantic to either the “Unversed” character or the reader—and in a way that doesn’t upset the illusion of a steady point of view.

In the poems I’ve been working on I became very interested in Sara Turing, who struggled to write a brief biography of Alan Turing, her son, after his death—this idea makes me realize that I’m so interested in her partly because she’s the Unversed one, trying desperately to accumulate an understanding of her son through an understanding of his work.