Archive for the ‘Writing’ category

Apropos Of Not Much

September 19, 2015

Picked up a Terry Pratchett off my paperback shelf today pretty much at random — The Nightwatch, one of the Vimes strand.  It’s one of my less-read ones, meaning maybe twice, possibly even three times, but not more.  I just idly flipped it open and looked over the first couple of pages,,,and came to this little digression:

The plain old Sam Vimes had fought back. He got rid of most of the plumes and the stupid tights, and ended up with a dress niform that at least looked as thought its owner was male.  But the helmet had gold decoration, and the bespoke armorers had made a new gleaming breastplate with useless gold ornamentation on it.

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Sam Vimes felt like a class traitor every time he wore it.  He hated being thought of as one of those people that wore stupid ornamental armor.  It was gilt by association.

There’s my Terry! — and why I miss him so.  His brain bubbles were the best, and he had  absolutely no shame — none at all — when it came to transcribing whatever floated to the surface.  I tell my son more often than he cares to hear that words are toys.  Pratchett had more fun with the English language than anyone else I can think of.  I take him as a role model (as my students — and family — know, to their sorrow).

As I warned — apropos of not much at all.

Image:  Titian, Philip II of Spain, 1551.

I Hear There’s A Sporting Contest Today…

October 26, 2014

That would be, of course, the fifth game of the World Series.  So, in advance of the stirring triumph by the Sons of Willie Mays,* here’s a nice bit of baseball reporting and writing, one that captures something of the difference of the game fans watch and that which the players play.

Even a Boston-fan-in-adulthood like me knows the lore.  Ted Williams announced on September 26, 1960 that he was going to retire at the end of the season, two days later.  That would be it for  a major league career that had begun in 1939. (For those who are counting, that’s a career that spans four decades, and includes hiatuses for active duty in two wars.)  That season, aged 41, he wasn’t too bad:  a .316 batting average, an OPS of 1.096, 29 home runs in 113 games.  The numbers are a little down from his career averages (sic!), but you’d have to say that the Splendid Splinter could still play.

But he had decided he was done — and who could blame him — and according to every report I’ve ever read, when Williams set his mind, that was it.  So September 28, when the Baltimore Orioles faced the Red Sox at Fenway Park in the last home game of the 1960 season, the crowd knew it would be watching the last of the greatest ball player ever to wear the B on his cap.**

What happened that day is pure Boston sports legend.

John Updike wrote what many think is a classic of baseball writing about that game.  For me, it doesn’t re-read well; too much of what Steinbeck called hooptedoodle for my taste.  The one truly fascinating fact Updike records is the attendance. On the last occasion to see Ted Williams, all of 10,454 people showed up at a park that could seat over 30,000.  Admittedly, the 1960 Boston team sucked, but still…

But most of Updike’s piece is elegant hagiography, utterly focused on Williams…which is fine; Ted was the reason he was there, and Ted gratified the genteel and rabid fan in Updike by delivering the kind of narrative that wouldn’t have been believed had Updike snuck it into a novel.  It was a dank, cold day, a lousy one for hitting, and Williams didn’t do much for a while:  a walk and a run scored in the first, two fly ball outs in the third and the fifth (that second one had a chance, but fluttered down at the warning track).  He came up for what was obviously the last time in the eighth and…well, here’s Updike:

Fisher, after his unsettling wait, was wide with the first pitch. He put the second one over, and Williams swung mightily and missed. The crowd grunted, seeing that classic swing, so long and smooth and quick, exposed, naked in its failure. Fisher threw the third time, Williams swung again, and there it was. The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky. Brandt ran back to the deepest corner of the outfield grass; the ball descended beyond his reach and struck in the crotch where the bullpen met the wall, bounced chunkily, and, as far as I could see, vanished.

Yup.  As every baseball fan knows, Williams went out with the stuff of dreams, a home run in his last at bat in the only home stadium he had ever known in a baseball life as long (and now as long ago) as Methuselah’s.  As Updike notes, he was even able to allow himself to skip the final series of the 1960 season, away games at Yankee Stadium.  A home run, a standing O, no curtain call, and out.  That’s the story.  Full stop.

Except…s another guy had something to do with the moment, the antagonist to Williams’ hero’s role.  That would be Jack Fisher, the pitcher who served up the fateful fastball.

Scientific_American_1886,_Cut_C

There’s Updike’s tale of heroic inevitability (it’s always necessary after the fact), the literary gloss on that routine confrontation between pitcher and batter.  And then there’s the way the guys standing 60 feet 6 inches apart see it.  Which is why I found delightful this brief report from the mouth of Mr. Fisher himself, written up by Elon Green  for Updike’s venue, The New Yorker, on May 1 of this year.  In it, we learn that Fisher didn’t see TED WILLIAMS at the plate.  He saw a guy he knew how to pitch to:

One of the sportswriters looked it up, and he said that Williams lifetime was two for thirteen off of me. So I did all right against him.

Here’s how Fisher remembers the crucial at-bat itself:

As you probably heard, it was a very cold, dank day type thing. Williams earlier had hit a ball off of me to right field—a fly ball that our right fielder, Al Pilarcik, caught back close to the warning track. So Williams had hit the ball pretty well that time, and I thought, Uh oh, but it was an out. So, it’s the seventh inning, and he comes up, and Jackie Jensen was their next hitter, right-hand hitter, and with the short left-field wall there, I thought, There’s no way I’m gonna pitch around Williams.

I think the first pitch was a ball. The next pitch—he swung and missed—was another fastball. The next pitch I just went to another fastball and he hit it out. Made the score four to three.

I mean, all I was trying to do was win the ballgame. The fact that he hit the home run wasn’t that big to me because I’d actually had pretty good success against him.

Love it.

Talk about whatever.

*I hope I may be forgiven my partisanship.  My first pro sports experience was surviving Candlestick as a nine year old, or so.  Saw Mays, McCovey, Marichal, Cepeda, Bonds the elder, even Gaylord Perry.  I switched allegiance to the A’s after a bit — East Bay kid and all that — but I earned (though never grabbed) my Croix de Candlestick, and so there you have it.  Go Giants!

**Was Babe Ruth a better ball player? Probably.  But, of course, that greatness happened mostly in a Yankees uniform.  Goddammit.

Image: Artist unknown, Diagram of the Method of Giving the Rotary Motion to the Ball, from Scientific American, The Art of Pitching in Baseball, July 31, 1886, page 71.

For A Good Time In Cambridge, Take Two: Hendrik Hertzberg-Ta-Nehisi Coates edition

October 23, 2013

Paul_Cézanne_130

Once again:  all y’all in the greater Boston area, something surpassing cool to do next Tuesday, October 29. Ta-Nehisi will be talking with New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg at 7 p.m.  The event description isn’t up on the MIT calendar yet, but it’ll read something like this:

Hendrik Hertzberg has been one of the most influential opinion writers in and around Washington for decades. Most of his career has been spent at the home of the monocle and the top hat (The New Yorker), but he’s also had two stints as editor of The New Republic, during which he led the publication to three National Magazine Awards.

Hertzberg returned to The New Yorker for good (so far) in 1992, and is now senior editor and staff writer (mostly of the Comment section  in Talk of the Town).  He’s won yet one more National Magazine Award — in 2006, for his opinion writing.  In between writing gigs, he’s also worked as a speechwriter for President Carter and has done a pair of tours as a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.  He has three books to his credit, including the 2009 reissue of his 1976 prefiguring of data journalism and visualization, One Million.

The other thing to know about Hertzberg is that he is one of those writers on whose work other writers take notes.  Ta-Nehisi Coates and he will talk about how writing opinion can and/or should be informed by the practices and habits of journalism — and much more, including, no doubt, something about what to make of the current predicaments of American politics.

I don’t think I’m breaking any confidences to tell you that Ta-Nehisi basically reveres Hertzberg — for the reason hinted at above.  Hertzberg works his writing.  Don’t be fooled by the light touch of which he is capable: that comes from the kind of effort John Kenneth Galbraith had in mind when he said (I paraphrase from memory) “the treasured note of spontaneity critics find in my writing comes in between the seventh and eighth draft.”

The_writing_master_thomas_eakins

Ta-Nehisi and I talk a lot about that:  how to write with honesty, passion, and perhaps above all a love of beauty in words that isn’t just about aesthetic — it’s how you infuse your argument with power and meaning both.  I’ve never met Hertzberg, but Ta-Nehisi tells me that it’s that kind of thing that he studies in the work.  So those of us who love the craft, who want to get better at it, should have a lot to chew on Tuesday night.  And, of course, Hendrik Hertzberg has a bit to say about the bitter comedy that is contemporary American politics, so there’s that — should be good for this crowd.

A couple of housekeeping notes.  I’ll be moderating the event, so it’ll be good to put faces to names/handles of any Balloon-Juicers in the crowd.  Another thing:  last time I promoted one of these in this space we had Chris Hayes and Ta-Nehisi together in a hall waaaaay too  small for the crowd, and too many got turned away.  We’re in the biggest lecture hall in MIT’s Stata Center this time, (r00m 123) three times bigger than that first venue, so don’t be deterred.

I’ll probably be posting a reminder or two a little later, but for now, consider yourself invited.

Images:  Paul Cezanne, The Artist’s Father, Reading “L’Événement,1866

Thomas Eakins, The Writing Master, 1882

Good Reads

July 30, 2013

Consider this a shout out to some friends doing fine work that y’all might enjoy.

An aside — or not really:  the early to mid 1980s are sometimes referred (by a highly specialized group of folks, to be sure) as “the Golden Age” of American science writing.  By that we usually mean that there was, briefly, a robust and seemingly ever-expanding ecosytem of newspaper science desks and science magazines (Discover — my alma mater —Science 198x, Science News, Omni and so on) aimed a general audience that seemed to crave focused reporting on really just about anything to do with science.  The tech boom that followed a few years later, brought with it a second wave of venues, places riding the tech zeitgeist, like the much-missed Mondo 2000 and Wired, along with technically literate business rags like The Red Herring and many more.

Now look at us.  Discover is still with us, on its fourth or fifth owner since Time Inc. gave up on it.  Newspaper science sections have almost entirely disappeared, and hundreds of staff science reporting jobs are gone.  That’s what some people point to when bemoaning the state of public knowledge about climate change, for example, or vaccine denialism…and so on.

But while all that’s true —  there has been a collapse of venues (and employment) for science writers schooled, as I was, in the pre-digital journalism world — the reality is that right now is the best time I recall for readers of science writing. There is more available through more channels and conduits than anytime in my working life, and lots and lots of it is smart, literate, important. What’s more, new venues are appearing that offer spaces for both longer and more varied, more expansive kinds of writing — and some of them, at least, are trying hard to pay their writers enough to make this kind of work something that accumulates into careers.

For example — I’ve been loving the work they do at  Atavist and at Matter* too, not to mention an ebook by one of my former students published by The Atlantic (excerpt here),  or the Pulitzer Prize winning journalism by a team that included another one of the fabulous alumnae of the Graduate Program in Science Writing aat MIT [not bragging.  Not me] and I’m leaving out many others, one’s I’ll get back to as I do this kind of post again.

For now, let me  point you to a new kid on the block, Aeon Magazine, which, unlike Atavist or Matter, doesn’t charge for its pieces.  Aeon publishes a long-read every day, each somehow connected with science, and I’ve found it to be an insistent time-sink, really remarkably so for such a recently arrived party to the conversation.

For example, check out this.  Yesterday, Virginia Hughes put up one of the most impressive pieces I’ve read in a long time, a very thoughtful, emotionally rich, intellectually challenging piece on research into the effects on the kids involved of the horrific regimen they experienced and are experiencing now in Romanian orphanages.

Max_Liebermann_Waisenhaus_Amsterdam_1876

Virginia made this piece significant, as opposed to merely affecting, through her carefully framed account of the ethics of running controlled studies on subjects in such straits.  That’s interwoven with  the science involved, and a deeply felt sense of the human cost of doing this kind of research for both subject and scholar.  Really a fine piece of writing.  Here’s a brief sample:

Nelson had warned me several times about the emotional toll of meeting these children. So I was surprised, during our debrief, to hear him say that our visit had upset him. Turns out it was the first time that he had been to an orphanage with older teenagers, not all that much younger than his own son. ‘I’m used to being really distressed when I see all the little babies, or the three- and four-year-olds,’ he said. ‘But here, I almost had to leave at one point, to get myself some air. Just the thought of these kids living like this, it was really depressing.’

How does he do this? I wondered.

Go read the rest.

Then marvel at the sheer elegance of ant society and the almost classical account of hubris and potential tragedy to be read in Ed Yong’s story,  “Ant Farm.”

Big_Ant

Ed’s piece moves from a close-up look at an ant-borne plant disease and its implications for chocolate lovers to consider a globalized agricultural system that is vastly more vulnerable than most of us (certainly me) usually suspect.

Have a taste:

Indeed, scientists with Evans’s skills and mindset — the Yodas of plant pathology — are racing to extinction faster than the crops they study. Admittedly, ‘they’ve made a disastrous job of promoting themselves’, according to Hughes, but sexy modern sciences such as molecular biology have also drawn investment away from more traditional fields. In a recent audit, the British Society for Plant Pathology found that their subject is in free fall, relegated to a few lectures at a smattering of universities. Labs have halved in numbers, most scientists in the field are over 50, and new faces are rare. (The same is true across the pond.) ‘Molecular biology tells us what makes these pathogens tick, which is exciting,’ said Cooke. ‘But if we end up with a cadre of trained molecular biologists who can’t identify an oak tree, you have a problem.’

Hughes sees a deeper tragedy at play — the loss of a patient, contemplative approach to British natural history that allowed Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace to envision the theory of evolution by natural selection. ‘People like Harry [Evans] have spent 40 to 50 years working on groups of organisms, and know them deeply in the same way that Darwin or Wallace did,’ Hughes said. ‘We’re not replacing them, and that’s a lamentable shame.’

As the old guard retires sans apprentices, we lose the knowledge in their heads and we cripple our intellectual immune system. WhenPhytophthora ramorum started killing oak trees in the western US in the mid-1990s, it took a long time before anyone knew what it was, giving the disease a chance to establish a foothold. When ash dieback disease hit British trees in 2012, history repeated itself. ‘There were no taxonomists to identify the fungus,’ Evans said, ‘because we fired them all.’

Last, I’d like to point you again towards a book I’ve mentioned here before, Russ Rymer’s Paris Twilight.  Russ’s is, to my eyes at least, a simply wonderful novel.  Its science hook comes in the deep dive into both the techne and the psyche of anesthesia, beautifully plumbed by Russ through his lead character, an anaesthesiologist called to Paris to take part in a heart transplant operation that does not seem quite on the up-and-up.

Pierre-Auguste_Renoir_063

The book investigates the themes of loss and distance and (usually) return through a number of different paths — the medicine, of course, and history, and what one might think of as either the battlefields or the courtrooms of memory in which love’s victors or culprits get called to account.  The central character is a compelling woman, and her supporting cast…well, when I finally put the book down I felt so deeply aggrieved that I couldn’t sit with them again tomorrow to hear the conversation we might have had next.

When I first read it, in draft, I thought that this was a book to win prizes.  I still believe that, rereading the finished text, so neatly dressed in its Sunday-go-to-church hard covers.  I’d quote here, but the text is so tightly  interleaved that I can’t easily pick out just a paragraph or to. It leads you on, you see.

Sadly, it’s hit the market in the summer doldrums, and so, in case you missed it last time I wrote (and talked with Russ) about it, then take this for as strong a recommendation as I can offer for words (and people) to keep you company on August holiday.

*One more example of one of my student’s work. Yes, it does make me happy to see folks we may have helped a little on the way do good in the world.  How not?

Images:  Max Liebermann, Amsterdam Orphan Girls 1881.

Pro Hart, The Big Ant, photo 2010.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Landscape at Sacre Coeur, c.1886

For Your Reading Pleasure (TL;Ta-Nehisi edition)

September 29, 2012

[BTW:  Self-aggrandizement alert]

I believe many reading this site will have already checked out Ta-Nehisi Coates much discussed “Fear of a Black President,” the cover essay in the September issue of The Atlantic.  If not, go check it out, it is smart, rich, and a fine piece of prose style.

As some of you may know, I have the pleasure of calling Ta-Nehisi my colleague this year — he’s teaching at MIT as a Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Professor.  Better yet, his office is literally across the hall from mine, so we chat fairly often.

On the matter of “Fear of a Black President,” that exchange became more formal.  I was struck when I first read the piece by some the craft choices Ta-Nehisi and his editors had made in putting together that long and complex piece of writing.  So I asked Ta-Nehisi if he’d be willing to talk about the writing choices he had made, questions of structure and approach.  He was, and we had two sessions with a digital recorder running.  Unsurprisingly, we couldn’t confine ourselves to technical writing issues:  you make choices about how to write something based on what you’re writing about and what you intend your words to do.  So we talked about the evolution of the themes and meaning of the piece as well as questions of approach or organization.

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and, as you can  now check out the edited outcome of all this over at the Nieman Storyboard site.  (The Nieman site is a great resource for both aspiring and established journalists and writers btw, if that’s where your interests lead.)

And with that, how’s the weekend shaping up?

Pieter de Hooch, Conversation, 1663-1665.

Instrumental, With Words (Self Aggrandizement Alert)

September 9, 2012

Just in case any of y’all might be interested, I’m going to be talking with the really wonderful interviewer, Desiree Schell, about my almost twenty year old book, Measure for Measure, my attempt to retell the history of science through the stories of a series of musical and scientific instruments — from the pipe organ to the digital synthesizer, with stops along the way at the microscope, the scale, chimeric mice (sic!) and the ‘cello:

The conversation will take place on Desiree’s Skeptically Speaking radio show, and can be heard live there at 8 p.m. EDT, 5 p.m. PDT.  It’ll be archived and podcast later too, of course.  (If you are a glutton for punishment, you can catch my earlier chat on the same program with Desiree’s guest host, Marie-Claire Shanahan, on my more recent book, Newton and the Counterfeiter.

In the meantime, I hope everyone is enjoying the first full day of NFL football (Patriots begin as I hope they go on…), and that’s about it.

Image:  Amedeo Modgiliani, Cello Player, before 1920.

For A Good Time On The ‘Tubes (Self Aggrandizement Alert)

August 29, 2012

Just a quick heads up for fans of smart (I hope) talk.  In just about an hour, at 5 p.m. EDT (10 GMT, 2 PDT) I’ll be trading views with science writer Jennifer Ouellete (AKA Jen-Luc Piquante), proprietor among much else of Cocktail Party Physics, which gig gives me the excuse for this pic:

The conversation will take place over at my more or less regular monthly gig on Virtually Speaking Science.  Listen live or later here. Alternatively, come join the virtually live audience in Second Life.  Podcasts of VSS, including the work of my co-host, Alan Boyle, can also be downloaded at the iTunes store.  Lots of back issues there — of particular current interest, you might check out my conversations with climate scientist Michael Mann; science studies scholar Naomi Oreskes, and science journalist and “framing” advocate Chris Mooney.

Jennifer and I will be leaping off from the impulse that led her to write her most recent book, The Calculus Diaries. That’s her account of being an admitted math-phobe coming to grips with the beauty and practical value of what is truly one of the handful of greatest human inventions ever.  As I blurbed for her — calculus allows one to think rigorously about change in time and space; it just doesn’t get bigger than that, really.

We’ll go from the book to the latest kerfluffle about what kinds of math should be taught in school (see the algebra controversy sparked by this piece. For a good reply, see this.)  More broadly we’ll use the question of how to present the actual importance of thinking mathematically in everyday circumstances to think out loud a bit about an issue that is bugging me more and more these days.  To put it in personal terms — I’ve been doing science writing/film making for public audiences for just about 30 years now.  Looking at the convention of one of our major political parties in which that party declares its denial of anthropogenic climate change, evidence based medicine, investments in science education and research and so on and on and on (without even going into the anti-evolution lunacy, nor the pseudo-science with which it justifies government regulation of ladyparts and … you get the picture) — looking at all that and more, it’s depressingly easy to conclude that my career has been a net negative.

Yes, I know, correlation is not cause, which is why some of us still believe that milk drinking does not  lead to heroin addiction. But really, for all that we live in something of a golden age of popular science writing and communication other media, it is past time, in my ever-so-humble opinion, to think about what, if anything, we should be doing to reach a mass audience we clearly have not fully attracted, much less persuaded.

Finally, Jennifer is near the end of a book that has proved much more challenging to write than she blithly thought going in.  I’m just starting a book I’m convinced I have got under control. (Thus every folly begins, in innocent confidence…) So we’re going to talk just a bit of shop:  how every book project trips you up, and what you can do about that terrible moment when you are finally, utterly, deeply certain that you computer is going to reach through the display and throttle you; just put you out of your and everyone else’s misery.

Should be fun.  Check it out when and as you have a notion.

PS:  As a DEW — Sunday, September 9, 8 p.m. EDT, 6 p.m. MT, I’ll be talking one of my old books, Measure for Measure: A Musical History of Science with the incomparable Desiree Schell on Skeptically Speaking. I’ve been on the show once before as a guest of Marie-Claire Shanahan, and it was a lot of fun.  Desiree is a fabulous interviewer, so I’m looking forward to this one too. But it’s relevant to the post above, if only because the book that both nearly killed me and most taught me to write was Measure…in which I succumbed to what I have decided is the dreaded second book syndrome.  More to come…

Image: Edgar Degas, L’absinthe, 1876

Yup. Maxwell Perkins Is Still Seriously Dead (Or, Let Me Help You Procrastinate On Your Book Project)

February 21, 2012

How have I missed these guys all this time?

Also too:  this vid puts me in mind of an old Journal of Irreproducible Results paper on the natural history and psychology of editors.  The one unifying characteristic:  all of them as children, had been whacked by a book. 😉

You may consider this a completely GOP genital-invasion gift to the blogosphere.*

*Though, on reflection, one may catch a whiff of big-swingingness in the sketch above.  Ah well.  One can run; one can’t hide.

All The World’s A Stage, But It Ain’t No Sitcom Out There

February 20, 2012

This is outsourced almost entirely to Wallace Shawn, who is one of those exceptionally intimidating talents who seem capable of making art and engaging ideas in almost any way he chooses.

He’s got a new book out, (that would be a new book in 2009; yes I’m that slow) which I’m about to buy, titled, simply, EssaysCommenter Arundel pointed me to this selection from that work, (an addition to the paperback) a piece published in 2011,  titled “Are You Smarter than Thomas Jefferson.”

It’s a genuinely wonderful example of essay-form, a direct descendent from the ur-specimen we credit to Montaigne.  Shawn puts on a masterly display, demonstrating  just how much power derives from the concentration of a sharply individual point of view on experience and ideas — which is the essence of the personal essay.

In this case, it’s the gaze of a man of the theater that leads us into a sequence of images and thoughts that land at a devastating moment of moral vision.Beyond the story it tells in it’s own frame, the piece captures for me some large part of why our current politics leaves me so full of dread and sorrow.

And with that, let me turn over the podium to Mr. Shawn, adding only that there’s more and better (for not being chopped and excerpted to avoid the charge of simply stealing the piece):

I’ve sometimes noted that many people in my generation, born during World War II, are obsessed, as I am, by the image of the trains arriving at the railroad station at Auschwitz and the way that the S.S. officers who greeted the trains would perform on the spot what was called a “selection,” choosing a few of those getting off of each train to be slave laborers, who would get to live for as long as they were needed, while everyone else would be sent to the gas chambers almost immediately. And just as inexorable as were these “selections” are the determinations made by the global market when babies are born. The global market selects out a tiny group of privileged babies who are born in certain parts of certain towns in certain countries, and these babies are allowed to lead privileged lives. Some will be scientists, some will be bankers. Some will command, rule, and grow fantastically rich, and others will become more modestly paid intellectuals or teachers or artists. But all the members of this tiny group will have the chance to develop their minds and realize their talents.

As for all the other babies, the market sorts them and stamps labels onto them and hurls them violently into various pits, where an appropriate upbringing and preparation are waiting for them.

If the market thinks that workers will be needed in electronics factories, a hundred thousand babies will be stamped with the label “factory worker” and thrown down into a certain particular pit. And when the moment comes when one of the babies is fully prepared and old enough to work, she’ll crawl out of the pit, and she’ll find herself standing at the gate of a factory in India or in China or in Mexico, and she’ll stand at her workstation for 16 hours a day, she’ll sleep in the factory’s dormitory, she won’t be allowed to speak to her fellow workers, she’ll have to ask for permission to go the bathroom, she’ll be subjected to the sexual whims of her boss, and she’ll be breathing fumes day and night that will make her ill and lead to her death at an early age. And when she has died, one will be able to say about her that she worked, like a nurse, not to benefit herself, but to benefit others. Except that a nurse works to benefit the sick, while the factory worker will have worked to benefit the owners of her factory….

Even those of us who were selected out from the general group have our role and our costume. I happen to play a semi-prosperous fortunate bohemian, not doing too badly, nor too magnificently. And as I walk out onto the street on a sunny day, dressed in my fortunate bohemian costume, I pass, for example, the burly cop on the beat, I pass the weedy professor in his rumpled jacket, distractedly ruminating as he shambles along, I see couples in elegant suits briskly rushing to their meetings, I see the art student and the law student, and in the background, sometimes looming up as they come a bit closer, those not particularly selected out — the drug-store cashier in her oddly matched pink shirt and green slacks, the wacky street hustler with his crazy dialect and his crazy gestures, the wisecracking truck drivers with their round bellies and leering grins, the grim-faced domestic worker who’s slipped out from her employer’s house and now races into a shop to do an errand, and I see nothing, I think nothing, I have no reaction to what I’m seeing, because I believe it all.

I simply believe it. I believe the costumes. I believe the characters. And then for one instant, as the woman runs into the shop, I suddenly see what’s happening, the way a drowning man might have one last vivid glimpse of the glittering shore, and I feel like screaming out, “Stop! Stop! This isn’t real! It’s all a fantasy! It’s all a play! The people in these costumes are not what you think! The accents are fake, the expressions are fake — Don’t you see? It’s all –”

One instant — and then it’s gone. My mind goes blank for a moment, and then I’m back to where I was…

As I said, there’s more, presented as Shawn intended.  Go read the whole thing.

Image:  Pieter Paul Rubens, The Massacre of the Innocents,  1611 or 1612.

The Uses of the Past: Science/Science Writing Talk

January 17, 2012

I’ve always found that the best way to tackle a complicated story – in science or anything else, for that matter – is to think historically.  But even if I’m right in seeing a historical approach as an essential tool for writers, that’s not obviously true, however well (or not) it may work for me.  Science news is or ought to be new; science itself, some argue, is devoted to the task of relentlessly replacing older, less complete, sometimes simply wrong results with present-tense, more comprehensive, and right (or right-er) findings.

Thinking about this, I put together a panel on the Uses of the Past that was held at last year’s World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha, Qatar.  The panelists – Deborah Blum, Jo Marchant, Reto Schneider and Holly Tucker led a  discussion that was lively and very supportive of the history-is-useful position (not to mention valuable in itself).  But the conversation was far from complete.

So we’re going to do it again, this time at Science Online 2012. (You can follow all the fun by tracking what will be in a few days a tsunami on Twitter, tagged as #scio12).  This is an “unconference,” which means that I and my co-moderator, Eric Michael Johnson, will each present what amounts to a prompt – really a goad – for the audience/participants to run away with.  As Eric and I have discussed this session, one thing has stood out:  where I’ve thought of the term “uses of the past” as a challenge to writers about science for the public, an opening into approaches that will make their work better, Eric has been thinking about the importance of historical thinking to the practice of science itself – what working scientists could gain from deeper engagement not just with the anecdotes of history, but with a historian’s habits of mind.  So just to get everyone’s juices flowing, Eric and I thought we’d try to exchange some views.  Think of this as a bloggy approach to that old form, the epistolary novel, in which we try to think about the ways in which engagement with the past may matter across fields right on the leading edge of the here and now.

So.  Here goes…

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Dear Eric,

I have to confess; I’ve never needed convincing about history; I’m a historian’s son, and all my writing, just about, has had a grounding in the search for where ideas and events come from.

But all the same, it’s simply a fact that the professional scientific literature from which so many stories for the public derive seems, on first glance, to be as present-tense as it is possible to be.   As I write this, I’m looking at the table of contents of <a href=”http://www.sciencemag.org/content/335/6064.toc”>my latest (January 6) digital issue of <em>Science</em></a>. In the “Reports” section – where current findings are deployed — there is nothing but the now and the near future under discussion.  Just to pull up a few of pieces at whim:  we can learn of the fabrication of wires on the nano-scale that obey Ohm’s law (an accomplishment its makers claim will support advances in both classical and quantum computing to come).  We can read of a new measurement of the ratio of isotopes of tungsten (performed by some of my MIT colleagues in concert with researchers at the University of Colorado) that suggests (at least as a preliminary conclusion) that the terranes that make up the earth’s continents have remained resistant to destruction over most of the earth’s history. And then there is a report from researchers into that living genetics/evolution textbook, <em>C. elegans</em>, that adds yet one more telling detail within a broader understanding of the intertwined behavior of genetic and environmental processes.

All of these – and all the rest of what you can find in this issue of that journal, and so many others – tell you today’s news.  Each of these could form the subject of a perfectly fine popular story.  Yet none of these do or necessarily would as popular stories engage the history that lies behind the results.

That is: you could tell a story of a small step taken towards the goal of building a useful quantum computer without diving into either the nineteenth century’s investigation into the properties of electrical phenomena or the twentieth century’s discovery of the critical role of scale on the nature of physical law.  You can talk about the stability of continents without recognizing the significance of that research in the context of the discovery of the intensely dynamic behavior of the earth’s surface.  You certainly may write about mutation rates and stress without diving into that old fracas, the nature-nurture argument that goes back to Darwin’s day and before.  This is just as true for the researcher as the writer, of course.  Either may choose to ignore the past without impairing their ability to perform the immediate task at hand:  the next measurement, the next story.

You could, that is, but, at least In My Humble Opinion, you shouldn’t.  From the point of view of this science writer, history of science isn’t a luxury or an easy source of ledes; rather, it is essential for both the making of a better (competent) science writer, and in the production of science writing that communicates the fullest, most useful, and most persuasive account of our subject to the broad audiences we seek to engage.

In briefest form, I argue (and teach my students) that diving into the history of the science one cover trains the writer’s nose, her or his ability to discern when a result actually implies a story (two quite different things). It refines a crucial writer’s tool, the reporter’s bullshit detector. At the same time, explicitly embedding historical understanding in the finished text of even the most present-and-future focused story is, I think, more or less invaluable if one’s goal is not simply to inform, but to enlist one’s readers in gerunds of science:  doing it, thinking in the forms of scientific inquiry, gaining a sense of the emotional pleasures of the trade.  I’ll talk more about both of these claims when my turn comes around…but at this point, I think I should stop and let you get a word in edgewise.  Here’s a question for you:  while I can see the uses of the past for writers seeking to extract from science stories that compel a public audience – do working scientists need to care that much about their own archives.  What does someone pounding on <em>C. elegans</em> stress responses, say really need to know about the antecedents of that work?

Best,

Tom

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Dear Tom,

The British novelist, and friend of Aldous Huxley, L.P. Hartley began his 1953 novel <em>The Go-Between</em> with a line that, I suspect, many working scientists can relate to, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” The process of science, much like the process of art, is to dredge through what has been achieved in the past in order to generate something altogether new. That is perhaps the only thing that the two fields of creative endeavor have in common; the past must be understood only so that you can be released from it. However, much like you, I’ve never needed convincing about history either. While I agree that the past can be a foreign country at times, I’ve always enjoyed traveling.

I came to history through my work in science, but I found that understanding the historical context for why scientists in the past came to the conclusions they did helped inform the questions I was asking. I’ve always believed that the scientific method was the best way of eliminating our own personal biases when seeking answers about the natural world, but that unexamined assumptions can still slip through the scientific filter. By examining how these flawed assumptions made it through I hoped it would help me in my own work. Perhaps the best way to explain what I mean by this is to briefly discuss how an early brush with history encouraged me into the research direction I ultimately pursued in graduate school. The book was <em><a href=”http://www.amazon.com/Natures-Body-Londa-Schiebinger/dp/080708901X”>Nature’s Body</a></em> by the Stanford historian of science Londa Schiebinger that I found in a used bookstore during my senior year as an undergraduate in anthropology and biology. In one chapter of her book she discussed the early history of primate research and how the prevailing assumptions about gender influenced the hypotheses and, as a result, the conclusions about those species most similar to ourselves. One of the earliest descriptions of great apes in the West, after <a href=”http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=415874″>Andrew Battell’s exaggerated stories about “ape monsters,”</a> was by the Dutch physician Nicolaes Tulp, probably the most widely recognized figure in the history of science that almost no one has ever heard of.

In 1632 Tulp commissioned the artist Rembrandt to paint his anatomy lesson, which ended up being one of the Dutch master’s most famous works (if anyone today recognizes Tulp’s name, it’s most likely from the title of this painting). Nearly a decade after he posed for this portrait Tulp published his Observationes Medicae (Medical Observations) in which he described the anatomy of a female ape he’d received on a ship bound from Angola. He was immediately struck by the similarities with humans and the drawing he published, identified as Homo sylvestris, demonstrated a striking example of cultural bias. Made to look the way he assumed this female would appear while alive, Tulp emphasized his own culture’s gender stereotypes. The female sat with her hands in her lap, framing what appeared to be a pregnant belly, and her head was glancing downwards in a distinctly demure pose.

By itself this depiction wouldn’t have been particularly revealing; it was just one individual allowing their own social biases to influence his science. What was remarkable, however, is the way Schiebinger showed how Tulp’s depiction would appear time and time again in the subsequent centuries when describing female primates, not just in appearance but also in behavior. More than two hundred years later, when Darwin described the differences between males and females in his theory of sexual selection, he had the same unmistakable gender bias that influenced his thinking. I had never taken a women’s studies course in my life, but this insight was an enormous wake up call for me. I realized there had been a common set of assumptions that endured for centuries, what the historian Arthur Lovejoy called “the spirit of the age,” and had gone unexamined until relatively recently when a new generation of primatologists–such as Jane Goodall, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, and Frans de Waal–began studying the female half of the equation that had been largely ignored as an important area of study. Knowing this history pushed me to ask different questions and focus on a topic that I discovered hadn’t been addressed before: why female bonobos had such high levels of cooperation despite the fact that they had a low coefficient of genetic relatedness (violating the central premise of <a href=”http://scienceblogs.com/primatediaries/2010/05/punishing_cheaters.php”>Hamilton’s theory of kin selection</a>). Different scientific topics have their own entrenched assumptions that otherwise critical researchers may not have considered; that is, until they see the broad patterns that a historical analysis can reveal.

Cheers,

Eric

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Dear Eric,

I love your story, partly because the original painting is so extraordinary and it’s good to have any excuse to revisit it.  But I value it more for your argument that engaging with the thought and thinking (not quite the same thing) of scientists past fosters insight into present problems.  That goes just as much for science writers – that is to say, those seeking to communicate to a broad public both knowledge derived from science and the approaches, the habits of thought that generate those results.

Rembrandt’s painting itself gives some hints along this line.  There’s a marvelous and strange discussion of the work in another novel written in English, W. G. Sebald’s <em><a href=”http://www.amazon.com/Rings-Saturn-W-G-Sebald/dp/0811214133/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1326733737&sr=1-1″>The Rings of Saturn</a></em>.  There, Sebald points to the fact that none of the anatomists are actually looking at the corpse under the knife. Tulp himself stares out into the middle distance, whilst other members of his guild peer instead at an anatomical atlas open at the foot of the table. As Sebald studies the one of the often-discussed details of the painting, he argues that what appears to be simply an error in the depiction of the <a href=”http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17225789″>dissection of the left</a> hand reveals an artist seeking to see past the formal abstraction of the lesson, drawing attention instead to the actual body on the table, the physical reality of a single dead man.

Not wishing to push too hard on that (unproven, unprovable) interpretation, Sebald still points out something that rewards the attention of science writers.  Rembrandt depicts both facts — the body, the tendons of the exposed hand – and ideas, at a crucial moment of change in the way natural philosophers sought verifiable knowledge.

We see, amidst the reverence for the book, the authority of prior learning, an event actually occurring on the canvas:  the effort to extract understanding from the direct testimony of nature. Amidst all else that can be read there, Rembrandt’s painting reminds the viewer of the time – not really all that long ago – when a fundamental idea was being framed with its first answer:  yes, it is possible to understand biological forms as machines, and to investigate their workings directly.

So, to take the long road home to the question of why bother with history when covering the news of today and tomorrow, here are two thoughts (of the three with which I will hope to provoke our fellow unconferees on Thursday).  First: as you argue for scientists, understanding of the past can lead writers to stories they may not have known were there.

To give an example, I’ll have to leave anatomy behind (about whose history I sadly know very little). I recently had an occasionto look back at <a href=”http://books.google.com/books?id=KniUvcxFtOwC&pg=PA281&lpg=PA281&dq=michelson+sixth+decimal+place+ryerson+physical+laboratory&source=bl&ots=0oDZa8vpy3&sig=6_BQaDfvsUE-G_nLWBmNF8l4boM&hl=en&sa=X&ei=91oUT_3mAeXq0gHvuI22Aw&ved=0CE8Q6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=michelson%20sixth%20decimal%20place%20ryerson%20physical%20laboratory&f=false”>A. A. Michelson’s infamous remark</a> from 1894 when he asserted that physics was done except for that which could be discovered in the sixth decimal places of measurements.

There is a lot wrong in that claim, but if you look more closely at what he said, you can find something less obvious in Michelson’s claim – and that can lead to insight into what goes into the making of all kinds of very modern physics, from (possibly true) observations of faster than light neutrinos to the ways in which cosmologists are extracting knowledge from high-precision measurements of the cosmic microwave background (and much else besides, of course).

So there’s a story-engine chugging away inside history, which is there to be harnessed by any writer – facts, material, from which to craft story.  There’s also a story-telling tool, a method that derives directly from historical understanding.  A core task for science writing is the transformation of technically complicated material into a narrative available to broad audiences – which must be done without doing violence to the underlying ideas.  If the writer remembers that every modern problem has a long past, then she or he can prospect through that history when the problems and results in that sequence are intelligible to any audience.  For just one last, very quick example:  general relativity is a hard concept to explain, but framing the issue that it helped to resolve in the context of what Newton’s (seemingly) simpler account of gravity couldn’t handle – that spooky action at a distance that permits the gravitational attraction of the sun to shape the earth’s orbit – and you’re in with a chance.

Best,

Tom

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Dear Tom,

I think you touched on something very important with regard to the idea that science writing is a transformation that takes the technical language of science (primarily mathematics and statistics–that is, if it’s done correctly) and interprets it into the communication of everyday experience. Science writing is a process of translation. The history of science as a discipline is precisely the same thing, though historians typically engage in a different level of linguistic analysis by looking at language meaning and the way that science provides insight into the process of historical change. But it seems that there is no better way to think about how the history of science can be useful to science journalists than to consider what we do as essentially a process of translation. Art is involved in any translation work and there is never a one-to-one correspondence between the original and what it eventually becomes. We must be true to our source material but also evoke the same overall meaning. To put this more simply: why are the findings being reported important to scientists in a given field and how can that same importance be conveyed to a readership with a very different set of experiences? It seems to me that there are two primary ways of doing this: engaging with the history of <em>why</em> this question matters or tapping into contemporary <em>attitudes</em> that evoke connections with the findings reported (where the latter approach <a href=”http://scienceblogs.com/primatediaries/2009/10/grand_evolutionary_dramas_abou.php”>goes wrong</a> happens to be one of my <a href=”http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/primate-diaries/2011/09/02/male-chauvinist-chimps/”>favorite</a&gt; topics of critique, one that is <a href=”http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eric-michael-johnson/intelligent-design-creati_b_636200.html”>unfortunately</a&gt; an extremely rich resource to draw from).

However, there is one other reason why the history of science is important for science journalists that we haven’t quite touched on yet. A journalist who knows their history is better protected from false claims and the distraction of denialism. The scientific press release is a unique cultural invention and all too often seeks to manipulate journalists into framing a given story so as to exaggerate that study’s actual impact. The historically minded journalist is less likely to get bamboozled. In a similar way, the <em>he said-she said</em> model of reporting is a persistent and irritating rash for almost every professional journalist I’ve interacted with. But the temptation to scratch is always present, even though the false equivalency reported is rarely satisfying over the long term. The history of science can be the journalistic topical ointment. Those who know the background of anti-vaccine paranoia, or who recognize the wedge strategy of creationist rhetoric, can satisfy their need to report on a story that captures the public’s attention while also providing useful information to place that issue within it’s proper context. History matters.

Your friend,

Eric


Eric Michael Johnson
Department of History
University of British Columbia
http://www.history.ubc.ca/people/eric-michael-johnson
http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/primate-diaries/

Images:  Johannes Vermeer, Lady Writing a Letterbetw. 1665 and 1666.

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533.

Nicholaes Tulp,  “Homo sylvestris” Observationes Medicae, Book III, 56th Observation, 1641

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632