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E. A. Farro: “A Response to Jamie Zvirzdin’s ‘Observations of a Science Editor’”

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As a field and laboratory scientist I used my whole body for work. So totally immersed, I slept on the floor by a Mass Spec to run samples all night and spent weeks without running water in the mountains. While metaphors can breathe life into science writing, I’m more interested in using scientific processes as metaphors to understand life outside of science. How else can you get across the depression that comes with a broken heart than to describe the thickness and weight of a glacier?

I am only able to describe life in the Midwest as an East Coaster as being an endemic species, how aware I’ve become of my body language and habits that do not match the rest of the world.

When the cool kids take over your kid’s spaceship game, change the rules, and kick him out, what else can you do but draw a picture of cells and phagocytosis.

Earth processes and biological processes are awesome, we can learn from them to better understand and manage the intensity of our own lives.

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

L. Shapley Bassen: “While metaphors can breathe life into science writing, I’m more interested in using scientific processes as metaphors to understand life outside of science.” This gave me [good] pause. I don’t think there is or should be conflict/competition about metaphors, whatever source/usage. Whether we model events or emotions, the endeavor is the same—understanding and communication. Your meditation invoked Einstein’s early thought experiments . . . trains and elevators. Hasn’t Einstein himself become a metaphor for so many human experiences? Ditto, by the way, Marilyn Monroe.

E. A. Farro: I didn’t mean to imply a competition. Just as a scientist in daily life I am often stereotyped as a science writer. In job interviews I will be asked, “who is your favorite nature writer?” after saying that I am also a writer. I respect nature writing and read Aldo Leopold over and over before bed because I can never remember what I read, nature writing flow through me, transforms me into a stream bed for words and then dreams. But for joy or fun or challenge, I write stories and science is a rich landscape I can mine as needed.

My motivation to explain science to the public is limited to the parts of my daytime job where I write. And then I strive to make what belongs to us all, belong to us all.

Karen Luper: “And then I strive to make what belongs to us all, belong to us all.” This, to me, is the essence of everything we’re talking about. The ultimate inclusion, the ultimate generosity . . . the ultimate good will. Thank you for putting it this way.

Natalie Mesnard: I’m also an East Coaster who has lived in the Midwest, and I think both literary people and scientists should strive to make what belongs to us all, belong to us all. When I was living in Illinois, I turned to science to make that alien place feel like home. It was a whole body project: I collected and identified prairie plants and preserved them as herbarium samples for a plant taxonomy class. The difficulty of discovering each plant’s name taught me the magnitude of my task. Dichotomous keys, used for identifying plants and trees, felt woefully inadequate when trying to organize the natural world, with stubbornly resists being boxed and categorized. Now I feel deep respect for scientists because they try to do that anyway. Science stands to offer writers much, and not just by providing image-metaphors of systems, structures, and observable phenomena. We can learn from the actions of science too, the actual things scientists think, and go and do.