Crushing On Science
I just got back from a 10-day stay in Italy (don’t worry, this isn’t THAT kind of blog post), and one of the benefits of all the planes, trains, and horseless carriages that transported me around the big boot was the opportunity to read Brian Greene’s newest book, The Hidden Reality. And holy shit. That book is for real. My brains are scattered all over the Tuscan countryside.
Sometimes when I talk to people about my passion for science, they are surprised that it can coexist with my passion for writing. But I have learned (largely thanks to the response to this story in PANK) that I am not a rare breed. The sciences, especially their theoretical branches, are deeply creative; it doesn’t surprise me that other creative minds embrace them.
I spent my first two-and-a-half years in college as a Chemistry major. I didn’t know what I’d do with a BS, but I knew that I loved taking science classes. Luckily for me, the liberal arts school I attended had a substantial core requirement and I took an introductory fiction writing class to knock out of a chunk of it. I had always liked writing, but it wasn’t until that class that I read something from a writer that wasn’t dead. Whoa, I thought. People are still writing stuff? I could write stuff? People might read the stuff I wrote? Sign me up! I was an instant convert. Thanks to a very supportive and helpful writing prof, I was able to take three semesters of course overloads and finish school on time, as an English major. Three months later, I went off to my MFA program and the rest, as they say, is history (in progress).
Once I wasn’t required to read science textbooks anymore, I filled the void with reading material a bit more theoretical in nature. Though I’d chosen to study Chemistry, I’d always been equally drawn to Physics. I picked up this very early book on string theory at a used book store and tore through it. I couldn’t believe how much creativity and intuition went into developing ideas like twistors, supersymmetric strings and world tubes. Once again I found myself wondering, why didn’t anyone tell me? Of course, by then my MFA applications were already out, my chances for a BS in the allotted four years long gone.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m really happy about how things are shaking down so far. I love writing, the writing life and teaching writing. I can still engage in the world of the sciences by listening to lectures and reading about the newest developments. There are many physicists (like Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, Leonard Susskind and Paul Davies) who are talented and generous enough to write articles and books on theoretical physics designed for the non-specialist reader. I am grateful to them.
But I can’t say I didn’t think twice about an MFA when my GRE scores came back nearly perfect in math, and only middling in verbal. It was also tough not to be dissuaded when one of my undergraduate mathematics professors called my mother to tell her he thought I was making a big mistake, wasting a mathematically-inclined mind on a life of letters. It’s also a bit sad to look at a technical note in a science book and know that my math skills are fading and falling behind. (Seriously, can we talk about some of these equations? That capital R in the Robin Hood font? What the hell is that standing in for? And the backwards italicized six? I think my calculator is missing that button.) I can understand the concepts, but will likely never again have my breath taken away by the elegance of an equation.
What does any of this have to do with creative writing? I think a lot of writers write to help themselves make sense of the world around them. This is what scientists do, too. We’re all after the same kinds of truth. They just look different from different angles.
A psych professor once told me that we laugh when we hear a joke because we make a new connection in our minds that wasn’t there before. We react to the pleasure in that by laughing. That never made much sense to me until I read Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and laughed and laughed and laughed. It is a wonderful experience to feel like you understand something new about the world around you, if only for a second.
And, for me, a second is often all that I have. Sometimes the concepts in the science books I’m reading get so complex, and the chains of reasoning so long that I can only hold it all in my head for a moment. And I laugh because it feels so good. And then, it’s gone. The picture in my head goes fuzzy. I lose some of the story. Sometimes I read chapters again and again and again, just for the rush.
If I try hard enough, I can sometimes learn these concepts, even when they’re very complex. But mostly, I just let them flow through me like water. When I laugh, my partner will say, “Tell me.” And I’ll say, “I don’t think I can.” I have come to view the experience of reading these books the same way I think about eating a really fabulous meal. I will taste it while I’m eating it, and it will taste so fucking delicious. Then, later, I can think about how good it tasted and there will be pleasure in that as well. But I won’t be able to taste it anymore. And that’s okay. At the very least, it’s no reason not to eat.
And isn’t the experience of reading a great story kind of the same? Especially if it’s all language-y and whatnot? If someone asked you, “What was it about?”, you could offer a brief summary. But what they would really want is the feeling you got from reading it. You can’t transfer something like that. It’s inexplicable. And if you want to feel it again, you have to go back and read the story again.
Here’s a comforting thought: The stories and the science will be there. Ready and waiting.
PS. In case anyone’s interested, I thought I’d tack on a very short list of a few favorite science books. These are all totally accessible to the general reader, and guaranteed to make your brain explode.
- How to Build a Time Machine by Paul Davies
- A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
- The Elegant Universe, The Fabric of the Cosmos, and The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene (Yep. He’s my fave.)
- I love all the books in the “Introducing” series (they’re like graphic novels about science) but my favorites are Introducing Quantum Theory and Introducing Artificial Intelligence.