Science Writing at AWP 2013 (Part 2)

Also see Part 1 of “Science Writing at AWP 2013.”

We like to keep busy at Lofty Ambitions, but attending an AWP panel that is comprised of Pireeni Sundaralingam, Alan Lightman, C. Dale Young, and Sandra Alcosser tends to make one pause, get a little introspective, and ask, “Could I be working just a tad bit harder?”

AWP 2012: Lofty Ambitions bundled up in Chicago

Three of the four panelists are writers who happen to moonlight as accomplished scientists (Sundaralingam and Lightman) and a physician (Young). The fourth panelist (Alcosser) is a poet who has collaborated deeply with scientists, particularly in the area of the environment. When we originally saw the panel “Engaging with Science: Poetry and Fiction” in the program, we were hoping for a craft panel. Our initial disappointment at finding out that the event was a reading was short-lived, disappearing completely once the artists began sharing their work.

Light BulbsThe first reading was from poet Sandra Alcosser. Alcosser is the author of seven books including Except by Nature, Sleeping Inside the Glacier (for which she collaborated with the artist Michele Burgess), and A Fish to Feed All Hunger and is co-director of the MFA program at San Diego State University. She was also Montana’s first poet laureate and has called Big Sky Country her home for more than thirty years. Alcosser began her reading by defining a word that was new to the Lofty Duo: Zugunruhe. Alcosser told us that scientists had appropriated the word from German—its literal meaning is “move” + “restlessness”—in their attempts to explain the human desire for travel. And travel she did. Drawn from her newest book, Alcosser read a sequence of poems that ranged over human experience: Serbian myth in The Winged Hussars, a widowed cellist’s musical elegy for his dead wife in The Blue Vein, and a scientist’s work on a blood ranch—raising lambs whose blood would be used to feed a zoo’s vampire bats—in Lamb of God. Alcosser also mentioned her recent tenure as a poet-in-residence at the Brookfield Zoo. This work was a part of a larger project, The Language of Conservation, sponsored by Poets House. A pdf of the book that resulted can be found here.

The panel was heavy on poets and poetry. This happy occurrence dovetailed neatly with Robert Fredericks’ comment in the previous science writing panel; he said something to the effect that scientists are the second heaviest user of metaphors after poets.

The second panelist to read was poet C. Dale Young. Young balances his writing career with a career as a physician. As a part of his writing life, Young is the poetry editor for New England Review and teaches at Warren Wilson College. Interestingly, Young’s MFA preceded his MD, which is contrary to the way we often think of artists whom are also scientists. Each of the poems in Young’s reading–“Influence,” “Sigma,” “The Ether Dome,” and “Sepsis”–were directly concerned with medicine and science. Young preceded his reading of “Sigma” with a touch of irony by relating how he loathed mathematics, particularly statistics, as an undergrad. Naturally, in his career as a physician, he wound up in the one field in medicine that makes use of math on a daily basis, radiation oncology.

This particular comment resonated deeply with Doug. Once, as an undergrad, Doug swore that the last thing he would do with his life was to write software. This, of course, is a perversely un-prescient act by someone who would go on to spend much of his career in IT and writing software. Observing events like this in his life and the lives of others has led us to occasionally posit to friends that, perhaps, irony is the most powerful force in the universe. This semester Doug is teaching programming to a classroom largely comprised of Creative Writing majors. Oh, the circular irony of it all.

Anatomical Dissection HeadThe Lofty duo have been fans of the next panelist since we encountered Einstein’s Dreams. Alan Lightman was the first person at MIT to hold appointments in both the humanities and the sciences. Lightman’s books Einstein’s Dreams and Good Benito have been praised for their seamless blend of spare, lyrical prose and physics, specifically general relativity. For the panel, he read from his novel Reunion. Lightman’s reading elicited enormous laughter as he shared the second chapter from the novel. The chapter relates the curious fictional story of German astronomer/lothario Carl Schmeken. Schmeken is fond of naming the asteroids that he discovers for his lovers: Asteroid Catrina 1894, Asteroid Eva 1894, Asteroid Ilsa 1895, and Asteroid Winifried 1895. The chapter takes a humorous turn when Schmeken meets the woman he surely hopes will result in the discovery and naming of Asteroid Lena 1898. Instead, after being rebuffed by the young Lena Hammans, Schmeken falls apart, and 1898 is the end of the astronomer’s career. As longtime readers of Lofty Ambitions know, we never pass up a chance to mention serendipity. Here’s a sentence that describes Lena’s realization after observing Schmeken’s reaction to being rebuffed by her: “She was shocked that a man of science could act in such a way, until she understood sometime later that sex is the most powerful force in the universe.” While we appreciate Lightman’s use of his character to proffer an alternative theory, until we see more evidence, we’re sticking with irony and serendipity as the most powerful forces in the universe.

The panel’s final reading came from the moderator, Pireeni Sundaralingam. Sundaralingam was the third poet on the panel, and she is also trained as a cognitive scientist. In fact, she has managed to make the intersection of art and science the focus of her scientific work. Her dissertation was on metaphor and the brain, and she is currently writing a book about poetry, the brain, and perception. Sundaralingam’s selection of poems intimately stitched together art and science. In particular, her poem “Vermont, 1885” rendered the story of W. A. Bentley, the first person to photograph a snowflake, into compelling verse.

We founded Lofty Ambitions together, a poet and a computer scientist, as a way for the two of us to combine some of our lifelong interests by writing about aviation and science. And we like to keep busy at Lofty Ambitions. We emerged from the two science writing panels that we attended at this year’s AWP invigorated and focused in a way that we know will allow us to continuing doing this thing that we call Lofty Ambitions.

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