Science Writing across Genres

Recently, we wrote about the Literary Science Writing panel at this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference (click here to read that post). Now, we’re recounting another AWP panel on science writing from last year’s conference in Denver: “Black Holes No More: The Importance of Science Storytelling Across All Genres.”

The panel was chockfull of well-published writers: M.G. Lord, Rebecca Skloot, Leslie Adrienne Miller, and Carol Muske-Dukes,.  M.G. Lord, author of Astro Turf, moderated the discussion. Latecomers who poked their noses in to decide if they were in the right place were provocatively inveighed to come in and sit down: “You’re in the right place. Science publishing is the last part of publishing still making money.” She then encouraged attendees who were already seated to pat themselves on the back for choosing to witness this panel, citing again the correlation that science publishing was the healthy part of a publishing industry hit hard by the economy and struggling to figure out the future of the book. The presence of new rock star Rebecca Skloot was the emphatic punctuation on Lord’s statements.

HeLa Cells

Rebecca Skloot is the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Sixty critics called it one of the best books of 2010, and Oprah wants to make it into an HBO movie. Henrietta Lacks, a descendant of slaves, was a Southern tobacco farmer whose cells were taken without her knowledge and used in a variety of scientific research. Her grave didn’t have a headstone until 2010, and her family didn’t know of HeLa cells until twenty years after her death. The story of HeLa cells—and of the development of the polio vaccine, cancer research, atomic effects testing, and more—is the story of science, ethics, and this woman. As Rebecca Skloot put it during the panel, “People need stories in order to read the science.”

Leslie Adrienne Miller, who was also on the panel about writing and research across genres that Doug organized for AWP 2010, is the author of five poetry collections. The most recent is The Resurrection Trade. That term—the resurrection trade—refers to the commerce involving corpses used for, among other things, anatomical study and the artwork that documents this study. Miller’s interest was in the women whose bodies are depicted in these drawings and paintings as well as in the bodies themselves. The poems explore how the female body—and its related stories—has been understood and misunderstood. She adds to the story of the science of anatomy by imagining the lives these women led and what happened to their physical selves.

Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT)

In her talk, Leslie Adrienne Miller invoked a scientist who wrote poetry. We met Miroslav Holub while Anna was working on her MFA at the University of Maryland. After Holub’s reading, Michael Collier invited the passel of hangers-on out to the local watering hole to spend a few hours leaning in to hear the avuncular poet speak. When Doug asked why he thought more Americans weren’t writing poetry as well as having a career in science or another field, Miroslav Holub lamented that Americans worked too much, that we were putting our souls at risk because we focused on one thing—our job—intensely and left little room for complementary pursuits.

Holub is known for using scientific metaphors in his poems, which is a topic Carol Muske-Dukes discussed during the panel. Muske-Dukes, the author of seven poetry collections and four novels and California’s Poet Laureate, teaches just up the road from us at the University of Southern California, where she has occasion to converse with scientists. As soon as a theoretical physicist discovered she wasn’t conversant in math, he quickly switched to employing metaphor to talk about science. When she spoke with a molecular biologist, that scientist took longer to figure out she didn’t have the scientific language, but the metaphors ended up being much richer: “think molecular scissors.”

Jet Propulsion Laboratory

M. G. Lord’s book is the most autobiographical story in this particular mix (click here for an article Lord wrote about her writing). Astro Turf recounts the pain of growing up with a distant scientist father. The gap between daughter and father widens when her mother dies and her father retreats into his Cold War-era job as a rocket scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.  Other gaps that Lord plugs include the gender gap in the sciences and the possible prevalence of Asperger’s syndrome among scientists and engineers. The story of the individual people offers insight about the larger field and the larger culture, too. As Lord writes in her book’s introduction, “Never mind the differences in age, ethnicity, and background, every engineer I spoke to is, in a psychological sense a stand-in for him [my father].”

The panel abstract contained a focus around which all the authors’ points coalesced: “the importance of filling gaps in history of science by recovering lost figures and dramatizing their stories.” All four panelists use their writing to recover stories that had been misplaced or forgotten. Most good science writing fills in gaps and dramatizes stories. Of course, the story doesn’t need to be lost to make for an important piece of science writing. Scientists talk with each other about HeLa cells and Mars rovers. But science writing isn’t about scientists writing for other scientists. Much of the story and history of science is obscured—perhaps hidden from daily view, perhaps made murky with unfamiliar jargon. Science writing translates science so that those of us who aren’t scientists can understand it too.

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