Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Writing Science

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by John Oughton

A century ago, science (with its offspring technology) and the arts seemed as separate as North and South Korea. C.P. Snow referred to them as two cultures . The scientist of 1900 was generally confident that any event in the natural world could be neatly summarized, analyzed according to formulas and then filed away.

A previously-obscure Swiss patent office worker dispelled those illusions with his Special Theory of Relativity, which theorized that atomic reactions could turn matter into enormous energy. Eventually, as it developed and became the General Theory Of, it led to such unlikely discoveries as lasers, black holes, anti-matter and Star Trek plot contrivances like quantum singularities. Although the most influential, Einstein (who claimed that many of his ideas came to him intuitively) was just one among many scientists who made modern science the often strange beast is it today. Respected researchers are discussing worm holes, black matter, string theory and the possibility that the past can suddenly recur in the present. Even the language of modern atomic scientists sounds like science fiction, or maybe a new form of L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry: charmed quarks, pi-mesons, hadron colliders. In fact, with Indeterminacy Theory and Schrödinger’s Cat*, physics and poetry seem to be pretty much on the save wavelength. Both create metaphors for possible events.

Contemporary physics, once you strip away the math (Stephen Hawking was advised that every formula he included in A Brief History of Time would cut sales in half), does sound a lot like literature. In return, writers and artists generally have shown an increased awareness of science, with poetry, movie scripts and science fiction often drawing on recent ideas from physics, biology and neuroscience

Yet many people who enjoy writing seldom venture into books on the “Science” shelves. They should. The best science books not only make current research understandable to an average reader; by showing us how the world works, science writing can change our sense of what is possible. A recent example of this is the best-seller The Brain that Changes Itself, by Canadian Norman Doidge. Focusing on recent discoveries that prove the brain is “plastic” – able to adapt, even “rewire” its circuits, Doidge has news of great import for learning, teaching, ageing, therapy for stroke and learning disability victims – just about everyone who has a brain, in fact. Sorry, Scarecrow. Oliver Sacks, no mean science writer himself, wrote that Doidge’s book shows “the brain, far from being fixed, has remarkable powers of changing its own structure and compensating for even the most challenging neurological conditions.”

The other reason that good science writing is imperative now: the many global challenges we face. If every person on earth changes energy behaviours, we can slow the growth of global warming. Understanding why – especially in the face of the many nay-sayers and petrochemical apologists – is not easy. Similarly, advances such as genetic engineering mean that modified fruits, vegetables and animals are being produced – but should we be consuming them? What about stem-cell research? Right or wrong? Making ethical judgments on these issues is too important to entrust to scientists alone, but those of us who lack advanced degrees in the hard sciences need writers with the skill of explaining the science in everyday terms – or even, with exciting narratives.

Now a new Canadian book award, offered by the Fitzhenry Family Foundation, is about to close its first call for entries: The Lane Anderson Award. This “honours the very best science writing in Canada today, both in the adult and young reading categories. Each award will be determined on the relevance of its content to the importance of science in today’s world, and the author’s ability to connect the topic to the interests of the general trade reader… The winner in each category will receive $10,000.” That’s not quite Griffin Poetry Prize money, but it’s a lot more than any other science writing prizes offered in Canada.

In fact, links between hard science and soft verse are not that rare. I’ve committed a few poems about science in my own work, but my poetic colleague Kim Maltman is a physicist and professor of mathematics at York University. Another poet, Ron Charach, is a psychiatrist (which requires an MD). Author of six books of poetry, Jan Conn now “does research on mosquito genetics at the Wandsworth Division of Infectious Diseases, New York State Department of Health in Albany, New York,” according to Wikipedia. Got a science poem of your own percolating? In a call for submissions at http://www.durham.net/~neilmac/technology.htm for an anthology of science poetry, Canadian publishers Neil Harding McAlister and Zara McAlister “invite poems of all styles for a collection of poetry for the age of science and technology (both paperback and on-line editions), to be released in winter, 2010. Our fourth volume will be a collection of poetry for the scientific era. We reject the premise that there exists an unbridgeable dichotomy between 'the arts' and 'the sciences.'"

It will be interesting to see which books are nominated for this new award. It will be even more interesting if one of them is not an explication of current research but a creative book like a novel or poetry collection. Hey, in the world of quantum physics, stranger things are possible.

* Haven't met the feline in question? Here's the Cole's Notes version from techtarget.com:

Here's Schrödinger's (theoretical) experiment: We place a living cat into a steel chamber, along with a device containing a vial of hydrocyanic acid. There is, in the chamber, a very small amount of a radioactive substance. If even a single atom of the substance decays during the test period, a relay mechanism will trip a hammer, which will, in turn, break the vial and kill the cat.
The observer cannot know whether or not an atom of the substance has decayed, and consequently, cannot know whether the vial has been broken, the hydrocyanic acid released, and the cat killed. Since we cannot know, the cat is both dead and alive according to quantum law, in a superposition of states. It is only when we break open the box and learn the condition of the cat that the superposition is lost, and the cat becomes one or the other (dead or alive). This situation is sometimes called quantum indeterminacy or the observer's paradox: the observation or measurement itself affects an outcome, so that the outcome as such does not exist unless the measurement is made. (That is, there is no single outcome unless it is observed.)

Makes you think, no? No real cats were harmed in the writing of this article.

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Born in Guelph. Ontario, John Oughton has lived in the Middle East, Japan and Eastern Canada. After completing an MA in English Literature at York U., where he studied with writers including Frank Davey, Irving Layton, Miriam Waddington and Eli Mandel, he began a series of careers in Toronto that included publishing, corporate communications and free-lance journalism/photography. He also went to the Jack Kerouac Disembodied Poetics summer writing school at Naropa Institute where he learned from Anne Waldman, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan and William Burroughs. Since the late 1980s, he has focused on teaching in community colleges and is now Professor of Learning and Teaching at Centennial College. He has facilitated the Long Dash writing group for years and published a series of chapbooks, monographs and art catalogues under his Sixth Floor Press imprint. A long-time member of the League of Canadian Poets, he served as Treasurer for two-and-a-half years and also edited the www.youngpoets.ca website. John has one daughter, Eireann, a share in a century-old house in Prince Edward County and a couple of almost-working vintage Yamaha motorcycles.
Read more about John Oughton at http://www.library.utoronto.ca/canpoetry/oughton/index.htm and at http://www.redroom.com/author/john-parker-oughton

2 comments

Goethe is an eminent example of a writer better known for his poetry, plays, and novels than for his scientific writings, but he considered himself primarily a scientist and projected that he would be best remembered for his phenomenological works, The Metamorphosis of Plants (1790), and his magnum opus Theory of Colours (1810). Goethe's method and findings in the latter, though counter to the mainstream Newtonian paradigm, have over the years found vindication, have continued to bridge between science and art, and informed the work of creators as wide-ranging as JMW Turner, Vassily Kandinsky, Rudolf Steiner, Ludwig von Wittgenstein, and Werner Heisenberg. I wasn't too surprised to discover last week that The Art Gallery of Ontario generously stocks a new hardcover edition of Goethe's The Metamorphosis of Plants, with an introduction and glossy photography by Gordon J. Miller, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and beautifully printed and bound in Spain.
Thanks for an informative and enjoyable blog, John, and for the submission tip.

Yes, I recall someone describing Goethe as "the last man who knew everything." Da Vinci was an earlier genius whose career bridged science and the arts... I remember a Nobel Prize-winning physicist named Piet Hein who published books of short poetry called "Grooks" -- maybe not great poetry, but memorable verses like this one:

PROBLEMS

Problems worthy
of attack
prove their worth
by hitting back.
(Piet Hein)

John Oughton

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