Posts Tagged science
In the almost twenty years since I started writing fiction, I’ve noticed a change in the way I read that same genre. I started my career as a scientist many, many years ago, and the only thing I wrote for a large part of my life were scientific papers. The only thing I read with any frequency was nonfiction, including other scientific papers and the occasional nonfiction book. (With the one important exception of Sherlock Holmes; for some reason which I can’t explain I latched onto Holmes a long time ago and read and reread it. Perhaps it has to do with Holmes’s insistence on using logic and reason—which is an important part of the scientific method—to identify the criminal in the case. The fact that Watson was a physician also didn’t hurt.) But in any event, my life was largely saturated with nonfiction, from biography to all sorts of general nonfiction to straight science and how-to books in microbiology and virology. Then I started a novel.
And as I started, I also began to read novels I hadn’t read before; I studied writing; I read writing magazines and books on writing; I went to writer’s conferences; I joined writing groups and listened to speakers talk about all phases of writing. I read novels and short stories and tried my hand at both. And I have so far gotten to the point that I feel I can write a reasonably good short story, one that stands a good chance of being published. (You can see two examples of my short fiction on this blog site; just go to the Short Stories tab.) Now all I have to do is convince a publisher to agree with me. But all that writing and learning about writing has had another effect.
Now when I read, I read more like a writer. I notice things I almost certainly would not have noticed had I not studied how to write. I’m much more conscious of what the writer of a book or short story is trying to do and say than I would have been otherwise. I look for plot holes; I look for foreshadowing: Ah-ha! He’s introduced an new character/concept. That could be important. I will follow this. To a lesser extent, I am more aware of things that are missing (why isn’t the main character doing this? Or this?). I look at grammar and sentence structure more carefully, I am aware of voice, point of view, and tense more stringently. I look at the author’s voice and style much more than I used to. Before, when I read nonfiction, I only wanted to get the information from the book/article/whatever. And in the case of the odd fiction piece, I read only for the entertainment. I didn’t have the knowledge to understand how it was put together. Now I am much more attentive to style and performance, even in nonfiction. Good or bad, that has been one of the side issues of learning how to write.
That extends to watching TV and movies. I’m now much more tuned in on how the show was put together. I’m conscious of plot holes and things that aren’t there. I look for oddities and peculiarities. I’ve come to realize that Captain Kirk on Star Trek, The Original Series was a lousier captain of a deep space vehicle than I thought he was at first. (Some of the things he did—wow.) But enough of that; who cares? Writing is fun and interesting, and looking at other writer’s works just makes me a better writer in the long run. A fundamental tenet of writing has always been that writers must be readers. This is one reason why.
What is it we are actually doing by being creative? That is, by making up a story such as a novel or a short story, or by producing a scientific paper that adds to the sum of human knowledge about some aspect of humanity, what is it that lies below the surface of this creativity? As a scientist trained to work with viruses, and later as an aspiring novelist, I’ve taken on and conquered (hopefully) two aspects of creativity: fiction and science. Both utilize the power of the human brain to come up with new ideas on a regular basis and do something with them. The question I’m trying to answer here is simply, what is the end result of that creativity? Where does all that thinking up experiments with viruses and writing fiction go? What do we get out of it? (I certainly don’t mean to imply these are the only ways to be creative; they just happen to be the two I’m most familiar with. You can probably think of others. But my comments here will apply to all.)
My first answer is two-fold. First, scientific experiments are done to gather information. Information that, somewhere down the line, can be used to improve the health of people, animals, the planet, or whatever. Some scientific papers are so esoteric that their ultimate usefulness to society may be hard to grasp in the immediate aftermath of their publication, but somewhere, sometime, they should be important. Creative writing, on the other hand, has as its most immediate goal that of entertainment. A good story is worth a thousand words. A story or a movie seeks to take us away from the cares and woes of everyday life and let us lead a different life vicariously in the guise of a fictitious character. Always fun.
But I maintain there is a higher purpose to creativity, and that is to teach. Scientific experiments produce good information about a subject, but they are also used to teach students how the scientific process works, and students learn more than what is written in the paper. They may learn a new technique from a paper, they may learn how a technique is applied to study a given subject, but most importantly, they take that information and merge it with all they’ve learned previously and begin to understand how the scientific process works in the broadest of terms. Each paper is a brick, and brick by brick, a wall can be built, and eventually an edifice can be constructed in the mind of a student that tells him/her how to proceed with the smallest of experiments he/she may be currently working on. They learn something, specific and general, at the same time.
Likewise with a novel or a short story. A reader gains access to the details of the story, the plot, the hero, the villain, the setting, and so forth. But a student of literature will also read to learn how a story is put together—point of view, description vs. dialogue, telling vs. showing, etc. Reading is the best way to learn, and ultimately, by reading many stories the student learns how to put his/her own story together. Creativity, therefore, is ultimately a teaching tool, not merely a device to convey information. Creativity is death to indifference and boredom, and we need as much of it as we can get.
I’m not by nature a political person. I do have my own strongly held convictions on the political issues of the day, and I vote in every election I can get my hands on, but I generally refrain from discussing politics in person, in writing, on Facebook, or in this blog. I’d much rather write about writing or science or the environment. Those are topics I feel much more strongly about, than, say, the length of Donald Trump’s ____. (You fill in the blank.) But in this day and age, politics is all about us, like a miasma that infects every aspect of our lives. Ignoring it is difficult. Everywhere you turn, you are pummeled with facts, pseudo-facts, opinion, pseudo-opinion, and all manner of intellectual graffiti, designed solely to influence you to believe someone else’s opinion. My feeling about all this is: I have my own opinion; don’t mess me up with yours.
Perhaps that’s why I became a scientist. I like the rigidity of the scientific process. Sure, there’s room for opinion in science; in fact it’s full of it. But your opinion in science is supposed to be based on the facts. You have to quote chapter and verse in order to be believed in science. You have to be able to list the reasons you believe something. No “alternate facts” here, just the realistic facts and data that support and bolster your opinion. Do viruses cause cancer in humans? What are the facts concerning the existence of dark matter? What is the evidence that the Zika virus causes microcephaly in newborns? And so forth. Just the facts.
Politics, on the other hand, is largely reactionary. I’m not talking about extremely conservative politics which wants to take us back to the 1700s or 1800s, but reactionary in the sense that it rarely generates anything new, but mostly reacts to what has come before. Science, on the other hand, is progressive. It is what generates the forward motion in many fields. Science found the Higgs boson; politics has yet to react to it. Science showed that chlorine kills bacteria and viruses in water; only later did political organizations make it mandatory that drinking water be treated to reduce the number of water-borne diseases in the US. Science developed the transistor, the integrated circuit, the computer, the internet, and now politics has to regulate it. Science is on the cutting edge; politics trails and many times cuts itself on the cutting edge.
That’s not to say politics isn’t necessary in our lives, and I’m not trying to say here that politics is unnecessary. Politics concerns itself with the relations between various groups of people, and regulates and restricts those relations. Important, certainly. Politics also takes it upon itself to codify the important discoveries and make them law. In many cases that’s also necessary. But it’s far more satisfying, enjoyable, and rewarding to be in the front of discovery, to be doing what no one else has done before, and to know facts that no one else knows. Especially the politicians. Science is like being in the Lewis and Clark expedition up the Missouri River. Can you imagine how exciting that must have been? Especially after they crossed the Continental Divide and began to work their way down the western side of the Rocky Mountains toward the Columbia River and eventually the Pacific Ocean. No white man had ever been there. I would like to have been there. I couldn’t, obviously, so I explored the interactions between virus particles. It’s the explorer in me.
Damn the politicians—full speed ahead.