Jay Mann, Nederland. One of my favorite courses while studying Ecology at Colorado State University was a class called, “Creative Science Writing.” It was taught by a pathology professor at the veterinary school who had also published poetry. The class was a mixture of undergraduate and graduate students; their fields of interest ranged from the humanities to medicine, mathematics to journalism. The goal we shared was to become better science writers.
We began by asking “why is science writing so boring?” It didn’t take too long to figure out that the main reasons were a general lack of imagery and a passive voice. Over the course of the semester we read and then wrote in a variety of genres – poetry, science fiction, personal narrative, and finally science writing. The focus was always on science. For example, a classmate wrote a beautiful poem about how a golden beam of sunlight illuminating their stone fireplace took eight minutes to travel there from the sun.
Most of us found writing the science essay to be the most challenging. An interesting piece requires more than just colorful imagery and an active voice. It needs to strike a balance and form a connection between the reader, as an individual, and the scientific field it is describing. Metaphors are one tool that writers use to help us understand complex subjects. To help explain their respective views on evolution, Stephen J. Gould used baseball and Dawkins used the analogy of a blind watchmaker. Another way to make science more palatable to the layperson is to focus on the scientists.
David Quammen’s Song of the Dodo comes to mind. It is a hefty book but one that you can become lost in. Some books are memorable in that you remember where you were when you read them, and you did so without feeling guilt over other activities you were neglecting. I read Quammen’s book over the course of a few days in a small cabin outside Lake City, glancing up periodically to watch the rain fall, knowing that the butterflies I was helping a graduate student study, would not be flying.
Quammen’s book focuses on the theory of island biogeography, which combines many disciplines, such as plate tectonics, evolution and climate change, to explain why you find species in some places but not others. The science in the book is fascinating, the scientists even more so. Did you know that Darwin sat on his theory of evolution for years and that he was prompted to publish his work by a contemporary who was threatening to go public with a similar theory?
Science can be thought of as our current best understanding of reality. The Song of the Dodo traces the lineage of scientists who built upon each other’s work in their quest to understand and expand our knowledge of the natural world.
Jay Mann is the Director of the Nederland Community Library.
The Nederland Community Library Science Café Discussion Series, made possible by a grant from the National Science Foundation, continues on December 12 with William Kamkwamba’s “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.” Details at www.nedlib.org/cafe Be among the first to find out about our events by subscribing to our newsletter.