Saturday, August 06, 2005

Further kinds of understanding



To be able to write it is necessary to create - that is see - an audience. Many writers say they just write. I don't believe this to be true in most cases. Here attempting a persuasion on why literary types ought to spend more time on the scientific, I see clearly a myriad of types in weblogs reporting on their latest reading. Never science.

The sort of person I am trying to get to read science tends to value literature or philosophy, or both, over science in any form, whether knowledge or praxis. It is my job to convince this well educated person that science and the lives of scientists are just a valuable and interesting as the canon and the lives of great writers {and artists}. Though, in the process of doing so, I may come to a firmer decision about whether my belief is true.

How am I to persuade a novel reader to read science? A long list of the best popular science writing might work, but to present a single case might work better: offering a particular scientist and his work. I chose the late Richard Feynman, Noble Prize winning physicist. Why not try the first Douglas Robb Memorial Lecture before reading on.


You watch tv science documentary programmes and listen to the occasional In Our Time on BBC Radio 4. But you would not chose to read a popular science book, say by John Gribbon or Matt Ridley over a recently written well reviewed novel or a recently discovered small book of poetry. Why?

Reasons. One is background: you were not educated as a scientist therefore feel you will have too much ground to make up in order to make any headway. Another is that they are writing about subjects you feel you do not need to know or understand, though you are perfectly well aware of the contribution science made/makes to society. Lastly, you find science quite boring.

So, having read hundreds of novels of varied quality and style, you want to read one more. What are you hoping to achieve by chosing this new novel over a science book or article in New Scientist or Scientific American. Overall, you say for starters, a novel gives more pleasure than science reading. Then you will argue there is infinite variety in fiction both in content and style: science can only be the method and its results. Though actually, from the few well know examples you already know such as Pasteur and penicillin, Watson and Crick and DNA, it can be quite exciting and sometimes not unlike a good detective story.

The life and times of scientists are not uninteresting either: most non-scientists tend to plump for science biographies over a work of science proper. Biographies of Darwin or Einstein are tolerable because in the main they do not involve much actual science.

All this is perfectly understandable because of where you are coming from: a tertiary education in English, languages, history, sociology or philosophy.

Surely, having just spent an hour in the company of Prof. Feynman (haven't you watched it yet?) you will have revised your mindset somewhat? Try going back with Feynman to a talk given to the National Science Teachers Association, 1966 in New York City.

Perhaps now is the time to check the man out : wikipedia - Richard Feynman

One of the things he is famous for is Feynman diagrams. The physics is hard even with these, but this is not the point. There are scientists like Feynman who make an effort to interpret. In a sense it is a bit like computer programming. They used to write in code but now you can write software in Visual Basic or some equivalent without knowing anything about how you did it. It is possible to find an interpretation which will bring you closer to what the scientist is talking about and so grasp how incredible some of this stuff is: as exciting as anything you read in a novel.

Pleading my case here, I must stipulate you need to read something, not just say you saw the tv programme, fine as it might have been. I am asking you to try to grasp QED as part of this task of getting into science through one man (and his work) which is just a part of quantum physics.

Stephanie has pointed me from her 8 Aug post to W. Caleb McDaniel's, Blogging in the Early Republic: Why bloggers belong in the history of reading
which I predicted would happen at the top - a side debate. Here, fiction vs. non-fiction. It is clear she is saying people are tending to non-fiction. I wouldn't know excpet in what I read in literary websites, reviews and amongs blitteurs.

Good writing is good writing whether it is fiction of non-fiction. Much travel writing has become almost like fiction (who could trust what Chatwin wrote for example). Reading a review of Passage to Torres Strait by Miles Horden in The Sunday Times review mades it obvious why these books are read: the journey from New zealand to Northern Australia is just a starting point for a dissertation on the maritime history of the region.

The great novelist as well as doing something the ordinary person can only marvel at - bringing to life time and place and character in the written word - is usually also introducing a wealth of mesmerising detail which the great modern travel writers have learnt to mimic in their writing. Mark Twain did both. Read The Innocents Abroad. You cannot beat the bit where he talks about the buying of the kid gloves. Which part was real, which imagined? When I think of it quite a few travel writers are also novelists. At my stage of development (trying to write) the novel is stuck in my mind as story as journey. In fact the overriding metaphor in the best novels is always a sort of road movie.

Who has read Gillian Tindall's Celestine, but who has cannot have been led on the best of all types of journey in her prose which leads into the world of Nohant?

But this is not getting the baby bathed. I need to convince you that the excitement of actually seeing a great scientist demonstrate a scientific journey taken (or re-taken) is just as impressive as any fiction or non-science non-fiction. Feynman's first lexture in the Auckland series is a real journey. He knows his audience is not going o follw everyhting he is going to tell them. He tells them his students don't even understnad quantum theory!

Feeling I was fulfilling Blogging in the Early Republic: Why bloggers belong in the history of reading I went around a few blitteurs, find quite a few running on similar themes (fiction vs. non-fiction)
ending up with Mary Gordon' essay Moral Fiction.

.........

Sylvia in a comment below writes:

...According to Myers-Briggs personality typology, a minority of people are of the "thinking" (curious, rational) type, including only 25% of women, who I think do most of the reading out there.

....asking why more people don't read science is akin to asking why they don't read Aristotle and Plato... in Greek. The vocabulary and underlying assumptions of science are just so different from common culture that it is like travelling in a foreign country (interesting that you brought up travel writing). People might know enough to 'get by' in Scienceland but they can't have a real exchange with it if they don't know the language and the culture. Maybe watching a nature show is the equivalent of lying on a beach at the all-inclusive resort, and we can't expect much more with our current standards of education.



So most don't have it in them ? There must be some link between curiosity (scientific or not), inventiveness and imagination.

Suggesting physics as a starter is a big hill to climb, true, but the counter-intuitiveness of it makes it so wierd one would imagine readers of novels with a lot of wierdness in them might be attracted to the sub-atomic world too. Draw a discreet veil over sci-fi readers....

A hidden agenda exposed by thinking about this: I have found progressively over the years I can't sustain many novels, though happy to learn the stories, dip into interesting passages, to read commentaries and critiques. To know they are good is not necessarily to spend half a life reading them. I can accept a good opinion. This is probably connected with a increasing desire to write myself. I've read that some writers feel they will pollute their work if they read too many other authors. There is probably a lot of truth in it.

Being curious about the world of creative writing and not about something equally wonderful (life itself...) seems strange to me. The word vicarious comes to mind.

A question of curiousity. {Good title for a book...} If you yourself are incredibly curious about almost everything, it is hard to see others are not so curious. Brings to mind the old saw attributed to Sir Thomas More, paraphrased roughly as:

To each man his own fart smells sweet.

I don't know if one might call this the naturalistic view of science: people who might be interested in the sort of plants growing on limestone (they notice how different they are from the local flora on a hillwalking holiday) don't follow the thing through to the scientific conclusion - such as why it is that some plants should prefer or only grow in limestone areas. The question has been asked (the difference has been noted) but the next stage is not considered: what is is about limestone? And: how can I find out?

The general methodolgy of science is pretty basic so anyone can do some experiments: such as the great little ones I remember from a book called Science Experiments You Can Eat - lot to do with yeast there! And it is all about that isn't it ? If you encourage the kids young it becomes part of their nature to be scientifically minded.

A dead leaf from a rather nice Oxalis in my kitchen left a wonderful blue colour on my fingers. I immediately squeezed the leaf in a glass of water to create a beautiful blue. I want to know what the dye is and if is it poisonous. Don't all people in a similar position want to know what the dye is and what it could be used for ? { ;) } And can't you imagine this in some fine novel where the heroine who is turning slowly mad manifests her madness through carrying a little glass bottle with blue fluid in it? We now know she is mad. Everyone stars looking back to see when she first started with this blue fluid business....

I think I'll put a plea here for scientific/technlogical descriptions in novels (reminds me of Electricity by Victoria Glendinning: a strange, annoying, yet wonderful little novel. To be fair Charlotte's husband is a technician not a scientist, though I think he attends lecturers at the Royal Society. The book cleverly brings in, if my memory serves at all, some of the most satisfying experimental science : that of Michael Faraday.



3 Comments:

At Wednesday, August 10, 2005, Blogger Sylvia said...

I'm embarassed to say that I'm a scientist and yet haven't read any biographies of great scientists. I have observed, though, that if you dig beneath the surface of most scientists you will find a great intellectual passion for their particular field that makes the drudgery of science worth it for them. However I think it takes a certain personality type to be able to relate to that kind of impersonal passion. According to Myers-Briggs personality typology, a minority of people are of the "thinking" (curious, rational) type, including only 25% of women, who I think do most of the reading out there.

I think asking why more people don't read science is akin to asking why they don't read Aristotle and Plato... in Greek. The vocabulary and underlying assumptions of science are just so different from common culture that it is like travelling in a foreign country (interesting that you brought up travel writing). People might know enough to 'get by' in Scienceland but they can't have a real exchange with it if they don't know the language and the culture. Maybe watching a nature show is the equivalent of lying on a beach at the all-inclusive resort, and we can't expect much more with our current standards of education.

 
At Thursday, August 11, 2005, Blogger Sylvia said...

You're probably right about it being a question of curiosity, burning curiosity, curiosity that is willing to work for an answer.

I tried finding out what chemical makes Oxalis water blue without much success (other than to find out it dyes things yellow). What if a nonscientist were to look and find someting like the word carotenoid, what then? Finding out what that is and why it makes things yellow (after looking blue initially) would lead all the way through chemistry to quantum physics. It's a long, hard trail for the autodidact. Not impossible, but you have to pretty darn curious to make it all the way.

Now that I think about it, mystery/crime writers do put science in their stories. I guess they are by definition the writers most determined to solve mysteries and therefore the writers closest to science.

 
At Friday, August 12, 2005, Blogger Stefanie said...

I think there are quite a lot of reasons people don't read science and you've touched upon a few.

The biggest one as you and Sylvia mentioned is curiosity. People are not ecouraged to be curious and not just about science. Plus you've got to fight the bad science experiences with boring textbooks from grade school and college.

As someone who prefers to read novels, I can also say that I choose novels first because they are about people and how they relate to the world. I tend to think of science books as books about things. I'm not saying that things don't interest me, they do, but people and their stories interest me more. That's why I think the movie A Beautiful Mind waas such a hit, it wasn't about the math, it was about the person.

I do enjoy science fiction from time to time, and on occasion will read a book on something scientific. I have a Brian Green book on my bedside shelf waiting to be picked up after I finish the next novel. I also have Some Richard Dawkins and Stephen J Gould in waiting in my tbr pile and I hope sometime to get to John McPhee.

Reading a book of science is a lot different than reading a novel. It requires a different way of reading and thinking. People who have gone through school majoring in English, etc, are not taught how to read science so it becomes a scary thing. We are not good at math. We are often terrifed of math. We tend to equate math with science. And so books on scientific matters are scary. There is a lot to overcome.

 

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