The Changing Face of Science: Part One

Keyboard

While waiting for the L train to attend the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting this week, I came upon Nicholas Kristof’s latest New York Times op-ed: “Professors, We Need You!” In his piece, Kristof portrays professors as out-of-touch intellectuals who study esoteric fields and hide their findings in impenetrable jargon. He also says that academia crushes rebels who communicate their science to the public. I admire Mr. Kristof for his efforts to bring awareness to injustices around the world and I agree that academic papers are often painful – if not impossible – to read. But my experience at the AAAS conference this week highlights how wrong he is, both in his depiction of academics and of the driving forces within academia itself.

AAAS is the organization behind Science magazine, ScienceNOW news, Science Careers, and the AAAS fellowship programs. Among the goals in its mission statement: to enhance communications among scientists, engineers, and the public; to provide a voice for science on societal issues; and to increase public engagement with science and technology. So yes, you would expect their conference to focus on science communication. Still, the social media sessions (Engaging with Social Media and Getting Started in Social Media) were full of scientists of all ages. Another well-attended session taught listeners how to use sites and services like Google Scholar, Mendeley, ORCID, and ResearchGate to improve the visibility of their work online.

Throughout the conference, scientists were live-tweeting interesting facts and commentary from the sessions they attended using the #AAASmtg hashtag. I saw a particularly wonderful example of this at a Saturday morning symposium called Building Babies. All five of the speakers at the symposium have accounts on Twitter and four of them were live-tweeting during each other’s presentations. Three of them (Kate Clancy, Julienne Rutherford, and Katie Hinde) also have popular blogs: Context and Variation, BANDIT, and Mammals Suck, respectively. After the symposium, Dr. Hinde compiled the symposium-related tweets on Storify.

I won’t claim that this panel of speakers is representative of scientists as a whole, but I do believe that they are representative of the direction in which scientists are moving. And contrary to Mr. Kristof’s claims, I would argue that their public visibility and embrace of online communication have probably helped rather than hindered their careers. Increased visibility can lead to more invitations to give talks, more coverage from the science press, and added connections outside of one’s narrow field of expertise. The first two of these can fill out a CV and attract positive public attention to a department, both pluses for a young academic who’s up for tenure. Moreover, while hiring and tenure decisions are made within departments, funding comes from organizations and institutions that typically value plain-speaking scientists who do research with societal relevance. For these reasons (and, I’m sure, others), it’s becoming obvious that scientists can benefit from clarity, accessibility, and visibility. In turn, many scientists are learning the necessary skills and making inroads to communicating with the public.

Of course, public visibility offers both promise and peril for scientists. As climate scientist and blogger Kim Cobb explained in her wonderful AAAS talk, scientists worry about appearing biased or unprofessional when they venture into the public conversation on social media. Science writer and former researcher Bethany Brookshire mentioned another potential peril: the fact that thoughtless or offensive off-the-cuff comments made on social media can come back to haunt scientists in their professional lives. It is also certainly true in academia (as it is in most spheres) that people are disdainful of peers who seem arrogant or overly self-promotional.

In short, scientists hoping to reach the public have their work cut out for them. They must learn how to talk about science in clear and comprehensible terms for non-scientists. They must be engaging yet appropriate in public forums and strike the right balance between public visibility and the hard-won research results to back up the attention they receive. They have good reason to tread carefully as they wade into the rapid waters of the Twitterverse, the blogosphere, and other wide-open forums. Yet in they are wading all the same.

There have already been some great responses to Kristof’s call for professors. Political scientist Erik Voeten argued that many academics already engage the public in a variety of ways. Political scientist Robin Corey pointed out that the engagement of academics with the public is often stymied by a lack of time and funding. Academics are rarely paid for the time they spend communicating with the public and may need to concentrate their efforts on academic publications and grant applications because of the troubling job market and funding situation.

Still, many academics are ready to take the plunge and engage with the public. What they need is more training and guidance. Graduate programs should provide better training in writing and communicating science. Universities and  societies should offer mentorship and seminars for scientists who want to improve the visibility of their research via the web. We need to have many more panels and discussions like the ones that took place at the AAAS meeting this week.

Oh, and while we’re at it: fewer misinformed, stereotypical descriptions of stodgy professors in ivory towers would be nice.

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Photo credit: Ian Britton, used via Creative Commons license

Cuddling Up with a Scimoir

1688897198_28302e8ce6_oYou might call it a Frankenstein genre – two quite different literary genres stitched together and brought to life. For the moment, I am calling it the scimoir. The rare science memoir can be found tucked away in the Science section, in Memoir or Biography, even sometimes in Health, Psychology, or Self Help. It defies categorization, flummoxing librarians and booksellers alike. Science and memoir, memoir and science. It just doesn’t seem right.

At first glance the two genres seem incompatible. Science is the study of the immutable and absolute while memoir is the most personal and subjective of all genres. Yet somehow they can go together, and when done well, they resonate with honesty and relevance. They tame each other. Memoir reminds us that the whirring mechanics of science play out on the scale of our individual lives, while science reminds us that the memoirists’ struggles and stories reflect something of the universal. Moreover, the drama of memoir adds the narrative kick that science writing so desperately needs. It’s a match made in genre heaven.

Why am I waxing poetic about a literary genre? I suppose because I recently discovered that I’m drawn to this combination, both as a blogger and as a reader. The majority of my posts are amalgamations of personal experience and scientific theory. This was never my intent; somehow the combination fell out of my interests and whatever spark motivated me to write about a given topic. I’ve also discovered that I’ve read and enjoyed a number of scimoirs, even though I didn’t consciously seek them out and scimoirs are none too common.

In point of fact, I shouldn’t be surprised that book-length scimoirs are relatively rare. To write a compelling one, an author generally has to be a scientist or science writer who has also personally experienced something dramatic that is relevant to the topic. You might be both a leading researcher and lifelong sufferer of a particular illness, like Kay Redfield Jamison in An Unquiet Mind. You might be the researcher behind an infamous experiment, like Philip Zimbardo in The Lucifer Effect. Or you might be able to approach the topic through your experience with ailing relatives. In Mapping Fate, Alice Wexler wrote about her mother’s battle with Huntington’s disease and her sister’s scientific quest to isolate the culprit gene. In Acquainted with the Night, the science writer Paul Raeburn documented his children’s struggles with mental illness in the context of the current state of juvenile psychiatric knowledge and treatment.

I am on a quest to identify other books in this wonderful Franken-genre and I need your help. Here are the other scimoirs I can think of that I’ve already read (aside from those listed above): My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, The Double Helix by James Watson, A Primate’s Memoir by Robert Sapolsky, and several of Oliver Sacks’s books. I’ve come across a few more that I plan to read: Memoirs of an Addicted Brain by Marc Lewis, Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer, and What Mad Pursuit by Francis Crick.

Please let me know what other scimoirs you’ve read, want to read, or simply know are out there. And do share any other ideas for naming the genre. Scimoir sounds like a half-android, half-alien monster, and who wants to cuddle up with that?

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Photo credit: Karoly Czifra

Flash!

NPR’s All Things Considered sends out challenges to its listeners, inviting them to write and submit samples of very short fiction (so-called Flash Fiction.) The contest series is called Three-Minute Fiction. Their latest challenge had the following constraints:

  1. It must begin with the sentence, “Some people swore that the house was haunted.”
  2. It must end with the line, “Nothing was ever the same again after that.”
  3. It must be 600 words or less (can be read aloud in three minutes or less.)

I submitted a piece for this challenge, although I didn’t win any special mention. (See here for the winning entry.) Still, it was my first attempt at flash fiction and I found it an interesting writing experience. I hope you find it an interesting reading experience too.

A Disappearance

Some people swore that the house was haunted. Our father, a chemical engineer, wasn’t inclined to believe them. He was proud of our new home. “Jealous neighbors are two parts jealous to every one part neighborly,” he’d said, hitching his belt to declare the matter closed.

Still, our mother believed. It was in her nature to believe the unlikely or untrue, as it was to claim crippling fatigue when it came time for evening chores. She believed the neighbors’ stories even though she was smarter than our father, or perhaps because of it. While he applied his ration of intelligence to plastic copolymers, our mother devoted her larger share to a mystical realm unaffected by van der Waals forces and hydrogen bonds.

With her ankly feet propped on cushions, Mother would tell us about the spirits occupying our new house. “Put your ear to the wall and you’ll hear them, knocking about and whispering things.” Or, “don’t you sense their eyes? I feel them like ice on my shoulders, even when I’m dressing in the dark.” My sisters and I suffered her stories without hearing them. We were preoccupied with the asymmetries of our unfamiliar bodies and the baffling social hierarchies at Roberta Lax Academy for Girls. We heard nothing in our walls, felt no ice on our shoulders. When possessions went missing, we never suspected a ghost. We knew it was Mother collecting our handkerchiefs and marbles and Father’s company pens, carrying them in her apron pocket as talismans until we’d notice their absence and steal them back.

Every weekday morning, Mother walked us to the corner to see us off for school, and each afternoon we returned to find her waiting outside in the lengthening shadows, claiming to have just stepped out for a little fresh air. She never crossed the house’s threshold in between.

We learned of her daytime activities from whispering neighbors and their less discrete daughters at school. When Mother wasn’t sitting on our front porch, she was trolling the neighborhood for water, a snack, or a bathroom. She knocked on doors, claiming to be out shopping, and her intrusions and pretenses quickly frustrated the neighbors. After all, our mother had a house, one of the loveliest in town. Some stopped answering their doors; others timed their outings to miss hers. And so in time Mother wandered further, knocking on new doors and tiring new people. My sisters and I imagined that her humiliating excursions could go on indefinitely. And then suddenly they came to an end.

What we know of her last outing is pieced together from witnesses around town, impassive eyes that watched our mother meet closed doors one after another without offering to help. They say she passed the park and crossed Main Street, plumbing new terrain. An electrician would be the last to see her as she disappeared down Sycamore, her dirty-blond hair and pale fingers dissolving in a blinding midday glare. No one knows which door she knocked on and what she found behind it; no one who’s telling, anyway.

When we returned from school that afternoon, our mother wasn’t waiting on the porch. We found her inside at the kitchen sink, running a sponge over the curves and crevices of a teacup. Astonished, we crowded around her. I touched her hip, smoothing her empty apron pocket and she said, “Yes, of course, in a minute,” but that was all. The walls were silent. The teacup was already clean. And nothing was ever the same again after that.

Jaded

In December 2008, I stared up at one of the great marvels of the world, the gleaming Taj Mahal. And I felt – nothing. Curiosity about its fabled history, yes. But other than that, all I felt was ambivalence about posing for pictures in its imposing foreground and a certain reluctance to leave my shoes unattended as I toured the palace itself.

I should have been awestruck. The Taj Mahal is stunning, a brilliant feat of engineering and craftsmanship, design and artistic grandeur. But the problem was, this wasn’t the first time I’d seen it, or even the second. Over the years, I’d seen the iconic structure in countless photographs, documentaries, and movies. By 2008, I’d encountered the great edifice so many times from the comfort of my couch that now, having traveled halfway around the world to gaze upon it, I was wondering what we would have for lunch.

It’s shameful, I know. But I suspect I’m not the only guilty one.

Recently, a friend told me why she couldn’t stand modern literature. “I hate the descriptions,” she said. “They’re flowery and over-blown and just plain weird.” Although I enjoy contemporary fiction, I knew what she was referring to. While authors of the past could devote full paragraphs to describing fields in bloom or dank urban alleys, they generally used concrete, sensible words. Contemporary writers tend to rely heavily on metaphors, or else they describe things in odd, non-literal ways. In her novel A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore uses the term “a papery caramel of leaves” to describe the wet waste that lined the roads. Whoever thought of soggy, caked leaves as caramel? And yet I think the description gives us something – a sense of color, of texture, and a fresh perspective.

It occurred to me that modern writers are faced with an interesting challenge, namely jaded readers who have seen (if not experienced) it all. Readers like me who can look upon the Taj Mahal without being awestruck. Not only are we more well-traveled than days of yore, but we’re exposed to places all over the world by way of screens large and small. In movies and through television we have seen rainforests and polar expeditions, villages from Scotland to Africa to Guatemala, Texas rodeos, Manhattan sex clubs, Roman amphitheaters, ocean floors, mountain peaks, and even the surface of the moon. No wonder we’re jaded. And no wonder fiction writers today have to sweat and toil to describe the world in a different way if we are to take note of it at all.

I’m torn about the vicarious exposure we get to our world through TV and movies. It’s a strange sort of life without living, experience that is like reality without actually being real. On the one hand, it gives us access to other places, times, and ways of life, showing us things we may never otherwise see. It can educate us, but I think it also steals something from us – the freshness and newness of discovery. I don’t want to be jaded, so I’m going to take this as a challenge. I’m going to push myself to experience each new surrounding fully, to open my eyes and look. More than that, I’m going to challenge myself to touch, taste, and smell the world around me. As yet, technology doesn’t stimulate those senses in our living rooms and movie theaters, which means the real world has got that market cornered.

Science and Literature: Strange Bedfellows?

Something I’ve been thinking about lately: what do science and literature have in common? On the face of it, nothing. One is dedicated to making stuff up; the other is all about not making stuff up. I would have abandoned the question, or probably wouldn’t have asked it at all, if it weren’t for the fact that these two fields have been the intellectual passions of my life. Am I a splintered human being, or is there something that unites them?

Science is fundamentally a list of rules, like a lengthy version of the Ten Commandments. However, these rules dictate, down to the most minute of scales, how our universe IS. And as boring or unintuitive as each rule may be, their interplay and repercussions are stunning. I think scientists are drawn to the field because they appreciate this beauty and because they want to uncover a new, equally beautiful truth that has never been known before. Maybe every scientist is Moses; certainly there are some who think they are.

Moses Complex aside, I believe that fiction tugs on authors for the same reason that science lures scientists. And in some ways, the fields serve the same purpose. I know, I know – pipe down, you scientists. It’s true. Good literature should put us inside thoughts and situations we haven’t imagined and provide perspectives that reality doesn’t afford. In doing so, it should reveal its own beautiful truths. Why? Because we don’t always see truth through truth; sometimes it takes fiction to make us understand.

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