Friday, August 08, 2008

The difficulty of approaching it

Well, I never did get the cigarettes. But I can announce the first science-in-creative-writing panel discussion at the University of Iowa, part of the much larger and pleasingly ragbag Writing Science conference, to be held Oct. 9-10 (unless it isn’t, because we’ve cleverly scheduled the conference to begin when Yom Kippur does). Despite the fact that I’m neither a university employee nor a serious student, they’ve handed me the panel to run. Here’s the lineup:
  • Novelist Karl Iagnemma, author of On the Nature of Human Romantic Interactions and The Expeditions, MacArthur nominee and winner of enough literary prizes to look like an affirmative-action entry from Engineering. In his spare time, Karl’s the PI of the Robotic Mobility Group in MIT’s Mechanical Engineering department; his group works on robots for planetary exploration.

  • Poet Richard Kenney, author of Orrery and The Invention of the Zero, Guggenheim and MacArthur fellow, and winner of the Lannan and Yale Younger Poets’ prizes. Rick teaches at the University of Washington.

  • Playwright Lisa Schlesinger, author of Celestial Bodies, Harmonicus Mundi, and others. She's won commissions from BBC and the Guthrie, a Sloan fellowship, an NEA fellowship, and other prizes. Lisa teaches at Columbia College in Chicago.

  • Essayist Amy Leach, who writes about Phobos and Eta Carinae, and whose work appears in the Wilson Quarterly, A Public Space, and the Iowa Review. She’s a graduate of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program and teaches at Northwestern University.

  • Possibly Definitely New Zealand children’s science fiction writer Brian Falkner, author of The Tomorrow Code and others, former comp sci student, and recipient of several prizes and awards.

  • And me, not nearly as brass-ring-catching as the rest of this crew. I'm working on a history of the Calvin group at Berkeley in the 1950s & have an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I put in some time doing spectrophotometry experiments with acetylcholinesterase, but in general should not be trusted in a lab.

What'll we talk about? Most likely about craft and thematic issues that arise when we try to use science, and have scientist characters, in our work, such as:
  • questions of audience and obscurity;
  • the social and intellectual meaning and historical context of the science, and how they work with the rest of the story (or poem or essay);
  • how right the science has to be and why;
  • what kind of structures we use to put the science across and how they work;
  • how far the artist is a science teacher, and how we avoid or use didacticism.

I’ll be interested to hear how the concerns might be different across the different forms -- for instance, how does a poet who normally trades in polysemy and the faces and angles of a word work with precisely-defined scientific language? In a story in which a character is a scientist, how can you make a scientist’s work, and his relationship to it, real if you never see him at work? How does one use science as a natural part of the world, without relegating it to scientists, labs, et cetera? Where are the traps and clich├ęs? How do you handle theatrical drama without resorting to politics or scientist biography?

One thing I plan to ask Karl about has to do with what stories there are to tell about the relationship of scientists to science. The Expeditions took some hits from Nature reviewer Jenny Rohn, in part because she found it lite, without much science or compelling sense of science. As I understand it, the book involves a boy with a crush-from-afar on science; he signs up for a surveying expedition, and on this first date finds that science scratches itself, wears grandma undies, and believes it’ll win the Powerball jackpot. Disappointed, he abandons science. I haven’t read the book yet, and it may turn out that I agree with Jenny, but I think this business of an unrealistic crush on science is a serious one.

I can imagine a story, very close to the boy’s consciousness, in which only his delusional perception of science comes through at first -- maybe he's got a starry, clean, energetic romanticism. The boy finds his way to scientists, and the reader -- still very close to his consciousness -- gets his fascination and distaste for the surface of his heroes' habits and reasons. The boy interprets them, as he must, with just enough understanding to come to very wrong conclusions. You'd never get much from the adults, who chose science and loved it, or were trapped enough, to stay. You might know that the adults and their stories exist, might even hear them in some muffled way the boy's too callow to notice or appreciate, but this wouldn't be the scientists' book. The book would tell the story of the boy’s fumbling and disappointment, and what he did about it. That’d be a true story. That might not be the story Karl wrote, of course, but it’d be a reasonable story involving science and scientists that didn't give the reader a good feel for doing science; in the end the reader wouldn’t know the life of science any more than the boy did. What she'd know is the difficulty of approaching it.