Sunday, July 31, 2011

Je me souviens

My late friend Cliff Doerksen was the author of The Hope Chest, a Grimm-for-grownups chronicle of people wreaking grotesque forms of havoc and dismembering each other between lunch and supper, early in the 20th century. Not unusual, perhaps, for a fella who grew up with a language which retains words like

tjrepiere: w.v. to die a miserable death (of animals).

He'd have been delighted, I think, by the 50-year-old news I came across recently in JAMA: Quebec has an indigenous beer-drinkers' disease. Great news for some Canadian agency I'm sure:

In a race with Omaha and Louvain for priority? I guess it's big civic business, having a rep for dangerbeer. Reminds me of those gleeful Alps signs that tell you how many people are Todt after trying a climb. Omaha, I regret to inform, has never recovered from the defeat. Anyway, these guys must've come in groaning and clutching themselves, or maybe carried in by les copains, because they were in truly lousy shape:

For those of you who aren't up late with PubMed every night: Apart from the self-explanatory, these guys had shortness of breath; a blue tint to the skin signifying oxygen deprivation (never desirable despite the emo vampires); an enlarged liver; legs and hands so swollen you could leave a finger-dent in them like they were bread dough; a racing heart; an absence of the usual reassuring lub-dub; and low blood pressure. The chemical gobbledygook had to do with damage to and breakdown of one's own muscle.

Furthermore, their thyroids were looking precancerous, their veins were clotted, their guts were all torn up, and their heart muscle tissue looked absolutely like hell. I'll spare you the sarcoplasmic details, but they were gory on the cellular level. In short, they were so badly messed up that half of them died:

You'll note there was full redemption for the survivors. Normally, if you've gotten yourself into a bad way with beer and you lay off the sauce full stop, your odds of recovering -- with the help of heart meds -- aren't bad. Can't put the bottle down? You're likely dead within five years. But these guys kept right on boozing along and got off scot-free. All their nightmarish Quebecois/Omahan/Louvainesque symptoms disappeared. The reason?

The "tireless probing of the Quebec investigators" (here's why Omaha didn't win the title: sloth) determined that they'd been temporarily poisoned by a key ingredient in the beer: cobalt.

Cobalt, the metal used to make that pretty blue glass. (Its name is from kobold, the German for "household goblin".) What fancy footwork led the Quebec investigators to the heavy metal? Pretty simple, really. The parade of the wretched arrived at the Quebec hospitals shortly after local breweries began adding cobalt, and ended when cobalt was taken out of the recipe.

Cobalt was used as a beer foam stabilizer in the 1960s. After all, you didn't want to be sitting around drinking half a case of headless beer. So this was better living through chemistry. These days we have better better living through chemistry; you can credit the clarity of your beer and the creamy excelsior nature of its head to compounds like DRACULAR DARACLAR, a silica additive from the W. C. Grace corporation.  À votre santé.


The Hope Chest, though delightful, was one of just many literary forms of screwing around for Cliff. You can also read his serious book, which he described as "slightly longer than a Hallmark card",  or hear why hotel room service might not be all you'd want in a day job. There's quite a lot of Cliff's writing at the Chicago Reader and Time Out Chicago, including the mince-pie history for which he had the good sense to win a 2010 James Beard award, though I'm particularly fond of his roundhousing of this book.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

refractions of the thousand theatres

I’ve been reading the late Lily Kay’s The Molecular View of Life, which she began by riding hell-for-leather on the thesis that Caltech – and indeed American biochem and mol bio -- came out of the eugenics movement of the 1920s and 1930s. The thesis rests on the idea that the funding came from business types interested in eugenics, notably the Rockefeller Foundation trustees, and she spends a good long time nailing down the origins of the business class’s interest in eugenics.

Though Kay was careful to show that most of the scientists involved played the eugenics interest assiduously, I don’t know that in the end the motive for giving money was all that important. I suspect that the money bent those scientists’ work about as much as Templeton money bends its recipients’ labwork today. It’s true their talk in the service of the Templeton money may influence where other money goes, and how the labwork is interpreted; but the story Kay told suggests even Templeton is pissing into the wind, and that the bent of future research will be controlled neither by scientists nor by moneymen with grand social ideas. What put an end to the (frequently diffuse and incoherent) eugenics talk in funding, and made the funders recollect themselves and start talking human welfare, wasn’t some bunch of opposing moneybags. It was Hitler and Hiroshima. The first made eugenics shameful; the second made humble lifesaving opportune. And so postwar, by Kay’s story, we embarked on 60 years of lifesaving-driven science, and wrote new copy for science done in the name of “the biological improvement of the race”. The scientists throughout seemed obsessed primarily with the question of how things work.

By the middle of the book she’d left the funding ideology behind and was busy telling science stories from Caltech. I was stopped by the tension between structural chemistry and molecular biology -- a minor one in the book, but interesting to me. I may be misunderstanding what the two fields are, or were, but it strikes me that the tension comes from structural chemistry’s static view – coming as it did from x-ray crystallography -- and molecular biology’s insistance on dynamics, time, sequence, mass action. This is not a tension that’s unique to science; it’s a major tension in art. There is tremendous energy and presence in the static thing, as any good painting shows, and yet we know it is a lie; things move, things join, the world is flux.

How can we know a thing by watching it move, though? Every impulse of mine is to catch a thing and hold it still, examine it and know its qualities. Fixed things have enough motion of their own. Let them go, and too much happens; there are too many frames going by too fast, to understand the life of a crowd or a town except in broadest description, which is unsatisfying – to me, anyway. I imagine that to some a cell is also too busy and in too much motion. Mass action instead of the particular.

Here is Hart Crane on New York, all motion:

Performances, assortments, resumes –
Up Times Square to Columbus Circle lights
Channel the congresses, nightly sessions,
Refractions of the thousand theatres, faces –
Mysterious kitchens….You shall search them all.
Someday by heart you’ll learn each famous sight
And watch the curtain lift in hell’s despite;
You’ll find the garden in the third act dead,
Finger your knees – and wish yourself in bed
With tabloid crime-sheets perched in easy sight.

and on the Brooklyn Bridge, a thing:

Through the bound cable strands, the arching path
Upward, veering with light, the flight of strings, --
Taut miles of shuttling moonlight syncopate
The whispered rush, telepathy of wires.
Up the index of night, granite and steel –
Transparent meshes – fleckless the gleaming staves –
Sibylline voices flicker, waveringly stream
As though a god were issue of the strings….

It hardly moves less. How strange that we should want to understand things in ways we seem not to be made for. To understand life and flux as ferociously and deeply as a butterfly on a pin, or crystallized hemoglobin, or a red chair, or a bridge, or a face, or any other thing we can hold still and stare at. Why should we understand the mass as rapturously as we know the particular?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

in Sumerian, charmingly

The conference went off surprisingly well, and all declared it a success, though I'm suspicious of the number of conference organizers and panelists in the audience. I suppose that's how it goes for academic conferences, but in theatre you're in trouble if the cast is buying tickets. I'll have a video up soon of our panel.

First thing: Rick Kenney's poetry, which you should read. The first book's out of print, which is unfortunate, because it has this. But there are good ones in the new book, too, The One-Strand River; my favorite, "Epicycles", is like something Bradbury might have written if he'd been a much better writer.

In the course of preparing for my panel I read some of the panelists' work (once again, I do "academic" wrong; you're supposed to have read something about their work, I guess, and have a pocket full of brilliant and lyrical to sprinkle during introductions), and accidentally read the wrong book of Brian Falkner's: The Real Thing, a nifty YA novel about a Coke-formula heist and a New Zealand teen with a fantastic sense of -- well, all perceptions, but taste is most important here. International industrial espionage ensues. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and admired the way that he'd used science without ever getting sciencey. Food chemistry? Experimental setups? Just facts of life.

It turned out he was coming along to talk about The Tomorrow Code, which has gamma rays and computers and mutant viruses. Nothing wrong with that -- actually I think the book will make Brian's name in the US -- but I'd have been perfectly happy to talk about The Real Thing, just as I'd have been happy to talk about the use of things scientific in "In Spring". The use of science in both of them is conversational, is part of the mind of the person who wrote them, and I think this sort of thing gets lost in the rush to connect art and science.

The other thing that hit me in the course of meeting these writers -- only one of whom I'd met before -- was how large a subject "using science in literary arts" is. Even if you're talking about the sort of writing that stares straight at science, there's tremendous variety in the use. I'll post more about that after I get the video, since you'll be able to see how varied, even with only five writers, the flavors and intentions are, and how each of them is concrete about science. Five totally different animals, their work.

Rick said something, before the panel began, about wanting to be deep in the lineup so that he could choose poems that would work conversationally -- that would respond to the other panelists' work. I'll have to ask him why. I can see the panelish trouble with having "science pieces" so different from each other that they don't seem to talk to each other at all, but it also seems to me that this is fine, so long as the writers talk to each other.

Other new stuff: A review of Tania Hershman's short-story collection The White Road. The interview with Karl Iagnemma is coming soon.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Writing Science at the Writing University of Writers!

I'm not really supposed to make fun of the Pimp My Workshop theme the University of Iowa has going. However. The conference is set for October 7-10, with the program link here. I'm working on arrangements for a downloadable video podcast of the creative-writing panel. Fingers crossed also for a podcast of E. O. Wilson's talk on the 8th.

Argumentative? Living in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, or London, and you've seen or are planning to see John Adams' opera Doctor Atomic? You can argue with me if you read my review here. Shortly, meaning probably December, I'll also put up a review of Tania Hershman's sciency stories, which remind me of that Bjork video where an animated Bjork tears the chicken in half, and an interview with Karl Iagnemma, who isn't really a poultry-rending kind of guy.

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 clichés? 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.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Thirty White Horses

As promised in the last post, here's a link to "Thirty White Horses" (pdf). When I went back to clean it up, the science seemed muted, which was fine with me. The story's still got other problems, but I don't think "wheeling in Science" is one of them. I've also got a paper up about how (it seems to me) Richard Powers uses narrative structure to help get the science across Galatea 2.2 and The Gold Bug Variations. I still don't think they're good novels, but they've got a clever, pretty, operatic structure involving a tension between student and teacher that I haven't seen before, and it's a structure that I think could be useful to others. It's also nice that Powers tried it in two books, one where the student's essentially a wide-eyed undergrad, and one where the student's a strung-out RA, so you can see the pros and cons of the variation. Ordinarily I'm not a fan of academic fiction -- the settings become academic nowheres, tethered to nothing -- but it seems natural in Powers' books.

I missed SLSA '07 thanks to childcare issues, but organizer Aden Evens and panel chair Jay Labinger were terrific and generous in making sure my work got presented. For next year, I'll see if the organizers will call in some conference childcare.

I'm working on something to do with popular science illustration, but first I've got to get a 6th-grade social studies book out of the way. Who knew 11-year-olds needed to learn about trade barriers? I guess now they do. I hope the books come with a good world map, too. Meantime, enjoy the beautiful E. coli by David Goodsell.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Idling speculation

When I started this blog I was looking for ways to use science in literary fiction that didn't involve wheeling in Science, stopping the action to point at Science, and wheeling it off again. Or, worse, stopping the action to point at Science and then build some literary metaphor around it before wheeling it off. I wanted to use science the way it seems to me to exist in the world -- as an influential, incoherent, anonymous authority, one that has vivid images and partial flashes of explanation but no compelling story.

My first shot at this, "Thirty White Horses", showed me how easy it is to go wrong and veer off into SF or speculative fiction. The story takes place in a world where rapid population growth led to violence over gravesite scarcity; the political solution was to sell a mechanistic view of life. "Peace for the living," was the phrase. People soon corrupted this into a spiritual-mayfly view of ever-changing life and a sentimental, rather breathless idea of death as profound cleanliness. Nice people don't stop for it. The protagonist is a sixtyish woman who has an unreformed sense of life and death. The story begins with the death of her ex-husband, and she finds there's no longer any way to mourn him in a way she knows as meaningful, except in secret. Young people don't know how to mourn, and old people know better.

It's a failure because as soon I got interested in the science and the what-if, the story turned into into speculative fiction, which feels to me like a cheat. "Imagine a world that's like _______!" Except the world isn't like that, and there's already a perfectly interesting world with more complexity and sharp story than you're likely to come up with on your own. The only non-hard-SF "speculative world" stories I can think of that I've really liked turn out not to be speculative at all: 1984, for instance. Victory stew, still a reality in 1988, and I know because I ate some in East Berlin. (Without benefit of Victory gin.)

The other problem, of course, is that you're staring at the science. I tried steering away from that by focusing on the politics, and framing the social change in news reports and through the lenses of a sixth-grade history text and the woman's memory. I also wrote, and then took out, a chunk of science documentary that made the mechanistic view lively and appealing. But even without overt science infodumps, it seems artificial, too model-building. And I suppose that's because it isn't personal enough.

So how did this happen? I'm guessing the problem was right there at the start: asking myself how people could live with an idea of life as machine process, and then failing to notice how people already do this. For instance, in being willing to go to the hospital for transplants. Instead I took an easier route and built a future world. Which I completely enjoyed doing, but there's more to mine in real relationships, I think. Obviously there's a thinness in fake worlds. But since the story is essentially about a woman who has no licit way to mourn her ex-husband, the real story becomes the way history has left her behind and turned her into a symbol of something socially despised -- the old way of looking at death. While she's not at all responsible for that old-fashioned notion of burials and mourning, it really does animate her, and she genuinely doesn't understand the shift in attitudes. And that part's not new or fake at all; that happens every time an important social reality changes. There are always people left behind.

I think this is what bothers me so much in speculative fiction or sociological SF. You get a very dense social reality grafted to an exceedingly thin historical reality, and the effect is twee or odd. The density of the social reality -- in this case, the problem of living as a pariah -- demands an historical reality as rich and real, I think.

I'm looking for a way to post the story conveniently.