Monday, November 26, 2012

Wherefore Science Writing? An Interview of Richard Wintle


Several wonderful interviews between authors in the anthology The Best of Science Writing Online 2012 (Scientific American/Farrar, Strauss and Giroux) have originally been posted here. As a newbie to the anthology, I felt humbled to have the opportunity to interview another newbie, although a more experienced writer than me.

Richard F. Wintle, the assistant director of The Centre for Applied Genomics at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada, joined me for an email chat over the last month. He writes about science, photography and motorsports at the Occam's Typewriter blog, Adventures in Wonderland. His contribution to the anthology is Genome Sequencing and Assembly, Shakespeare Style. It is a lively and witty explanation of genetic code and assembly that uses Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar to explain. Bravo. I loved the piece and requested to interview him. He graciously accepted. 
The Best Science Writing Online 2012 
I had read his piece months ago, but for the interview I had to find him on the jacket cover (designed by Jason Heuer). The cover reminds me of the periodic table, but also stimulates faint memories of The Hollywood Squares. In order for me to ask Richard questions, I needed to lean out of my red square and look down and slightly to the right, to the next group over.

[waves to blue square] Hi Richard!

Hi right back at you! Hollywood Squares - now I know I've made it!

Richard, do you remember the moment when you decided to write this piece? What "forced" you to do it? I'm assuming a conscious decision took place, but maybe not.

I’d been thinking for a while about ways to try and get the genome analysis and assembly problems across to non-specialist audiences, and had been kicking around ideas using jigsaw puzzles, music, literature, and other things. Shakespeare seemed like a good choice, since most English-language readers would be at least a bit familiar with his writing. Likening genome sequence to text is fairly obvious, and I’m certainly not the first to do it – “the genome, if written out in full, would take so many pages,” that kind of thing.

Actually sitting down and writing it was, I’m not ashamed to admit, something I forced myself into because the deadline for OpenLab submissions was approaching, and that was as good a reason as any to finally get it done.

Deadlines can be incredibly helpful. Another deadline looms....any teasers you wish to give at this time?

Unfortunately, no. Somehow this year’s OpenLab/TBSWO deadline has slipped past me. I am still percolating a few ideas though. I’ve had an idea for using music to explain deletions and duplications in the genome, but I’m not sure it will work as a written piece. It will probably make its way into my teaching presentations, though. Otherwise, I’m still enjoying exploring my local part of southern Ontario – lots of history around here, and some interesting science connections that may spur some writing.

I like your musical idea. How about a podcast or some other way to incorporate music into the structure of your writing?

That's a good idea - but not one I think I'll take on. I'm not a huge fan of embedded audio or video in online writing, as I prefer to be able to simply read. Plus, nobody needs to hear me playing instruments or (shudder!) singing online. I'll leave that to someone more talentented, I think.

What were your challenges in writing this piece?

My biggest problem is that I’m very verbose – I constantly need to keep reminding myself to write more concisely. As a result, the posts went through many edits before I put them up on Occam’s Typewriter. The original posts also had a number of photographs with captions that I thought were rather witty. When it came time to include them in the book, I initially had trouble in letting them go – but fortunately it turned out that the writing didn’t depend on them to get the point across after all. I’m glad we had a good editor.

 I agree that editing is a key part of the writing process, very different from the initiation of writing. 

Where did you write your piece? I consider thinking about what you want to say, the pre-planning, a part of the writing process.

I probably thought of parts of this in many different places – while driving, sitting on the train, or when I was supposed to be thinking about something else. I’m pretty poor at formally planning my writing – I never sketch an outline, for example. I have a half-hour train commute every day, and I certainly typed some of it there. Other ideas I’d note down during the work day. But most of my writing I do at home in the evening, when there are fewer distractions, and when I have time and internet access so that I can check background material, access my photos on Flickr, and find links I want to include.

 I can identify with you needing research time without distraction.

I think it is great that you use commuting time for this creative venture. You have something in common with many writers...trains.   

Trains are good. Most of the time.

What are your dreams for your writing? Did inclusion in this anthology change your initial plans?

I don’t think I’m disciplined enough to have “big dreams” of authorship – like writing a book, for example. All the research would kill me.

Inclusion in TBSWO2012 hasn’t changed my plans much, although it’s certainly fun to be included and I would like to be again. My fellow Occam’s Typewriter blogger Stephen Curry has been in several successive editions, which is impressive. I do tend to blog in a much more narrative, diary-like way than I’d like. Writing with OpenLab/TBSWO in mind as a target forces me to be more didactic (and concise!), which I think is a good thing.

Along with your clinical and research genomics work, you mention teaching a non-specialist audience. Who is that audience, and how has your writing life co-existed with teaching? Do you use either your or other science bloggers' writings in a teaching capacity?

I should first clarify that what we do is 100% research, rather than clinical – although there are certainly diagnostic implications of some of the results we obtain.

Part of what I do is to introduce interested parties to the laboratory here – through seminars, tours, or both. These can range from high school students, through funders and other stakeholders, to people with no science background at all. Some may be philanthropists, some may be parents of patients, or representatives of organizations involved in Autism, which is a large focus of the research we do. One memorable tour was for high school science students from the National Ballet School, which was a slightly different and more athletic audience than usual.

I also do some teaching to community college and university students, typically studying bioinformatics or forensics. Most have some biology background, but generally not a lot of experience with high-throughput genomics, so the focus has to be a lot less specialized than, say, for a talk at a scientific conference. Some examples I use in these teaching activities are drawn from things I’ve written (and vice versa). I tend to stay away from using other science writers’ examples, though. And I’m increasingly using more visuals and less text in my presentations – being an avid photographer, I find I can work images in fairly readily. I’m not sure yet how much this helps to get the point across, but I’m experimenting.

It is great that you look at different ways to present and teach your field. What do your students and/or interested parties want to know about autism and the work you do in your laboratory?

One thing I've been told is to always try and bring the abstract, technical aspects of the genomic science we do back to a disease or disorder, something that people can more easily relate to. In our case, that means patients and families - and for us, the patients are kids. Having said that, I'm not sure that my Shakespeare piece does that at all. But students, particularly younger ones, can easily relate to autism because it's much more recognized now than, say, when I was in grade school. Younger students all seem to know someone in their classroom, or the one next door, who is autistic.

One other thing people ask about is the genetics. Autism is highly heritable - meaning it has a strong component determined by changes in genes, either de novo in the child, or possibly inherited. Many people don't realize that the genetic basis is so strong, so that's often something I'm asked about.

I assume you read many different writings, and you are a photographer. What author and/or photography have particularly inspired you?

I do read a lot, and diverse things. On the scientific side, I like a few that I’ve mentioned from time to time – The Nobel Duel by Nicholas Wade, which is a great example of high-level competition in scientific research, and is clearly thoroughly researched and told in a very engaging way. I like a lot of popular science writing, particularly the books of Jay Ingram. On the photography side, Last Chance to See is wonderful – both versions, the first by Douglas Adams and the more recent one by Stephen Fry, with gorgeous pictures by Mark Carwardine. The photos really help to tell the story – in this case, of highly-endangered species. I also enjoy non-science photography, in particular the wartime reporting of Robert Capa and Gerda Taro. Capa’s autobiography, Slightly Out of Focus, is a hoot, as is his excursion through post-war Russia with John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal. Both are good reads, and great examples of how words and images can enhance each other.

I haven’t gotten to the stage of being able to take a photograph that immediately tells a story without need for any accompanying text, but that’s something to aspire to.

I think readers would miss your text, but I’m sure your wit would become evident through pictures.

Thank you for your time and for answering my questions; I greatly enjoyed our correspondence. Best of luck to you in your writing at Occam’s typewriter, your photography, and in your career. I wish you and your family all the best. I’m going to the library now to look up those books you mentioned.

Perhaps we’ll see you back when The Best of Science Writing Online 2014 is published?

Thanks, Cindy. It should be a New Year's Resolution for me, every year - write more! Maybe 2013 will be the year. All the best!

Richard also interviewed me, which can be read at his blog, Adventures in Wonderland.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Monocyte Fashion


Hyperbolic Blood Cells,
by Cyberxaos; Feb. 2008 
Monocytes play a role in infection-fighting and in inflammation. However, they are only one type of cell that run the body's immune system. But they do it with style.

Each monocyte has different abilities to react to and release chemokines (chemicals that cause action), and each has a different surface, a surface decorated with different types of CD molecules. There are three basic types of monocyte: classicnon-classic or patrolling, and intermediate. They are categorized by their CD molecules, their fashion.

The classic monocyte sports relatively a lot of CD14 and no CD16 molecules. Tim Gunn refers to them as CD14++CD16-; at least he would if he wrote about the fashion of monocytes. These are the monocytes we mainly think of, the divas or warriors that go to sites of infection and differentiate further into macrophages and dendritic cells. If the body does not need all of them, they are sent back to the bone marrow fitting room where their fashion is altered...they get down-regulated to CD14+CD16++ and become patrolling monocytes.

Different cells within blood
from Wikipedia
The CD14+CD16++  non-classic patrolling monocytes hang out on the lining of blood vessels and in the spleen, but also participate in general, not-too-inflammatory, wound healing. These monocytes are the least inflammatory of the bunch.

Of course, there are monocytes in the middle: the intermediate, pro-inflammatory ones. They secrete tumor necrosis factor and other chemokines to keep inflammation going. They have been linked to atherosclerotic activity. The fashion for this function is CD14++CD16+, in between the classic and non-classic patrolling design.

Most fashion is superficial, but the surface of monocytes determines their actions and how they react to their environment. And we have only touched the surface of monocytes. Other posts will convey how they develop, how they are trafficked within the body, and how they function in trauma and infections.

Source: Pamer EG, Shi C. Monocyte recruitment during infection and inflammation. Nature Reviews/Immunology. November 2011; 11:762-74.

This is the third post of a series: Inflammatory Language. The series will briefly emphasize aspects of inflammation, mainly in response to microorganisms, but not always. You can contribute to this column by submitting a 300-400 word piece to me by email, along with byline.  If deemed appropriate (it can be serious, political, scientific, or funny as long as it pertains to inflammation), we'll publish it here and not use it for anything else--thank you. At some point, I may be able to offer compensation, but can only now offer the warm fuzzy feeling you get when you post something for people to read.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Short Story Science: Stone Link

Red Granite Stones at Braewick Beach
A section of a photograph by Mike Pennington

Richard usually liked staring out the window, but not this evening. His neighbor, Mrs. Gerkart, was standing still at her door, with her key in her hand. Richard didn’t like what he saw. He ran to her, but she disappeared. A small red granite stone lay on the stoop as her substitute.

“Okay. That was not real. No more coffee so late in the day,” he stuttered to no one but Sam, his red Persian. Sam looked at him as he would any other day, and returned to the house, to his nap on the couch.

Richard had had Sam only a month. He had followed Richard home from a walk. It was Don, his best friend at the college, who said he should keep Sam. “Give him a chance. You’ll be less lonely,” he had said while tapping Richard on the shoulder. Richard never learned where Sam had come from, but they settled in nicely together. Sam liked the food, warmth, and occasional attention that Richard gave him.

That night in bed, as he lay thinking about gorgons, Richard got an awful headache. He opened his eyes, and in front of him was a man in sandals carrying a large bag. The man wasn’t standing; he was two feet off the ground. Richard couldn’t breathe. The bag was familiar. He heard hissing—perhaps it was his fan. Sam leapt from the bed, making a most uncharacteristic sound for a cat, and ran out. Within a few moments, there was nothing, the room empty, and the fan was off. His headache was gone.

Richard blinked into the dark. Perhaps he had had too much salt at dinner. Sleep was now out of the question, so he went downstairs to make coffee. Mrs.Gerkart’s porch light was on. With no worries, but in need of distraction, he went back upstairs with his mug to the den, to work on a work-in-progress, Mythology and Modern Man. He taught ancient history at UW, but found mythology and its link to modern life fascinating and was slightly obsessive about it.

A half hour into his work, he noticed that Sam as nowhere around. Finding this strange, he went back down stairs—in  his slippers, untucked USC t-shirt, Green Bay Packers pajama pants, and hair channeling Einstein—to look for him. Standing three feet from the stairs was Sam—stiff and staring.

“What’s wrong Sam?”

Sam didn’t move.

“Sam…?”

For only an instant, the headache returned and he saw the head of Medusa in Perseus’s hands. Perseus knew what he was doing.

Richard hardened and fell to the floor.

***

“Richard, I got worried about you when you didn’t attend the Spartan webinar with us last night,” Don was at Richard’s bedside at the hospital.

“Oh. I guess I forgot. What happened to me?”

“The doctors say you have toxoplasmosis. You probably got it from Sam. Your arthritis medicine weakened your immune system, and you got a brain infection. They have you on medications, so you’ll be okay now.”

Richard wasn’t too sure. “But Perseus had Medusa’s head.  He was there, Don. And Sam and I were turned to stone." He knew Don wouldn't believe this. "Where’s Sam?”

Don knew Richard was confused, but toxoplasmosis could cause confusion, and Richard had been working too hard. “He’s at home, fine—eating tons and frisky as anything.” Sam was different, but okay.

“It seemed real. Mrs.Gerkart too, the neighbor. How is she?”

“I don’t know. She wasn't home when I went over there. Probably at her daughter’s house in, where was that? Michigan?” He looked unsure. “Get some rest now. I’ll be late for class if I don’t get going. Be back later.” He saw Richard’s upturned gaze. “It’s okay Richard. It wasn’t real.”

Richard was not too sure. There was a chill in the room, and the smell of water and rocks entered his sleep. 

Don did not return later.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Petroplague: Oil-eating Microbes


For the most part, I prefer walking along rows and rows of books in bookstores to online shopping. Ebooks, not being on real bookshelves, don’t currently have much of a chance with this non-nook, non-kindle, non-ipad, I-want-to-turn-an-actual-page reader. However, I may need to change. Many great science ebooks and many works of fiction with science are available only in digital format, and Petroplague has gotten my attention. There are no zombies. There is gas and a petrol-feasting organism that jeopardizes the way we live. This was a different plague. I read…<gasp>…PDF.

The title didn’t grab me, nor did the cover art. But the author did. Here is my disclaimer: I’ve corresponded with Amy Rogers, so there may be bias. 

I started my correspondence with her (or her with me) because of our shared passion and enthusiasm for science and science writing. It drips off her. It runs through her website and into her support of other authors. I’m sure the enthusiasm runs into her home-life too, into her family and children—they will benefit immensely from her.

So, because of Amy and her enthusiasm, I read. I found great microbial science, oil-eating microbes running amuck, a well thought-out Los Angeles landscape, children’s stories and songs, references to art, and  characters who grew with knowledge.  Here is what Amazon says about her:

Amy Rogers, M.D., Ph.D., began her writing career in elementary school by (unsuccessfully) submitting anecdotes to Reader's Digest in hopes of earning twenty-five bucks. By junior high her real passion was science, especially microbiology. In the bedroom of her home in rural southern Minnesota, she kept Petri dishes of bacteria in an egg incubator and won purple ribbons in science fairs. That passion led her to study biochemistry at Harvard, and ultimately to earn a doctorate in immunology. Wee beasties animated her years of teaching microbiology at the university level. More recently, micro-critters inspired her to write novels and short stories that highlight their amazing powers.

Amy's thrilling science-themed novels pose frightening "what if?" questions. Compelling characters and fictionalized science--not science fiction--make her books page-turners that seamlessly blend reality and imagination. Relentlessly curious, Dr. Rogers works for scientific literacy and nature education for kids.

This author loves dim sum, Ted Drewes, redwood forests, Minnesota lakes, Hawaiian beaches, and cats. She lives in Northern California with her husband and two exceptional children who believe she has an unreasonable tolerance for mysterious things growing in her refrigerator.

What is not to like?

File:USA tar bubble la brea CA.jpg
From Wikipedia: La Brea tar pits
In Petroplague, Syntrophus, a microbe, escapes experimental confines and begins to eat up oil-derived chemicals like the tar in the La Brea tar pits, the gasoline in cars around the Los Angeles area, and the oil within California’s geological structure. Big problems result (understatement).

Within the text, there is an exhibition of contagion theory and the growth of microorganisms…

“Christina cordoned off her grief and started to work. She picked up a bacterial culture needle—a thin platinum wire mounted on a pencil-like handle—and lifted the wire into the hottest part of the burner flame until the metal glowed red. After allowing the wire to cool in the air, she plunged it into a flask of cloudy yellow liquid:  an old culture of the photosynthetic E. coli bacteria. Then she dipped the tip of the wire into a tube of fresh sterile broth. To the naked eye the wire looked clean, but Christina knew it was covered with thousands of invisible bacteria that would slip off into the fresh food and begin to grow vigorously, doubling in number every half hour. Only a touch was all it took to spread bacteria from one liquid to another.”

And Petroplague outlines well in the following three scenes how microorganisms can potentially spread and lead to disaster:

“He poured about a half cup into the borehole, and the plague-infected fuel disappeared into the depths. Jack expected to repeat this process all the way to Mission by looping back east across the valley floor to the city of Bakersfield and to the Kern River oil field where he knew pump jacks covered the arid plain as thick as paparazzi around an A-list celebrity.

The rod on the contaminated pump jack rose and fell, rose and fell as Manley and Jack strolled away.”

And

“When unfolded, the gauge stick was twelve feet long. Ronny lowered it through the port and dipped it into the gas. The overfill alarm was right; the tank was nearly full. He refolded the stick and kept it handy because he’d be using it at the stations he visited next. Then he sealed the access port, packed up the gas hose, and wheeled his tanker tuck back on the road.”

And this scene in which a mechanical “pig” is used to run through fuel lines to check their integrity:

“Did you bring the pig, Al?” Ken asked.

“Wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t,” Al replied. “I’m the pig keeper.”

They both smiled at his joke.

“These smart pigs are my babies,” Al continued. “The one in the truck is new. I used it for the first time yesterday. Worked like a charm.”

”Which in-line inspection did you use it for?”

“We ran the pig through the gasoline delivery pipelines. Got data on the integrity of all the 87 and 89 octane pipes, from storage tanks to trucks.”

”Then I expect the pig will do a good job again today. We’ll run it through the jet fuel pipelines from here to LAX. Program the pig to record information on metal loss and corrosion, and temperature and pressure in the pipe. Of course if there are any early signs of fracture, I want to know. Get pictures, if you can.”

”It’s as good as done,” Al said.

Uh oh. Insert ominous music here. Christina, the main character—a PhD. student and Dr. Chen, her mentor, are working out the details:

They would get more details from the DNA tests and the chemical analysis of the gasoline, but Christina could no longer deny the facts. Her bacteria were eating L.A.’s gas.

Just before dawn, Christina and her boss shared their data with each other. In laboratory science, results were often ambiguous or conflicting, but their efforts tonight had produced clean data and an inescapable conclusion. Dr. Chen looked defeated, his shoulders sagging and his face wooden.

“I have to contact the authorities. If the infection spreads…” He paused, and shuddered. “The oil-eating bacteria mush not escape the L.A. basin. The city must be quarantined.”

Is there a solution? Dr. Chen leads Christina to a potential cure, but is it?

“…an antibiotic that seems to affect Syntrophus.”

“I thought we tested all the antibiotic classes and none of them worked.”

“This is a new substance. I don’t have a clue what it is, I just know that it’s produced by one of the microbes in our collection”

“From an oil field?”

“Yes. Presumably these bacteria compete with each other in the wild, and one species evolved to make an antibiotic that kills the other.”

Of course, there are twists that I can not divulge. It is a thriller with disaster at every turn. And aside from the wonderful science, the characters grow throughout the story. 

Even the assumingly thick boyfriend of Christina’s cousin can grow—from a man who places grilled chicken on the same platter as the uncooked pieces—to a curious conversationalist regarding mutated bacteria.

“Mutated?”

“Not exactly. More like, they learned a new skill from some friends.”

“We’re talking about itty bity microbes here, right?” Mickey said.

 “We are, but even bacteria have ways of sharing information. The information is in the form of genetic material. Bacteria can actually give some of their DNA to each other in a process called horizontal gene transfer. It happens in the wild. Last night I found DNA in my Syntrophus that wasn’t there before. The new DNA codes for aerobic survival.”

Don’t worry. Aerobic is explained, but not pendantically. The story will show you what it is. 


File:Hieronymus Bosch - The Garden of Earthly Delights - Prado in Google Earth-x4-y1.jpg
A section of Hieronymus Bosch's dark and
disturbing work;from Wikipedia
Also well placed within the story are details of microbiology experiments, details of what bioremediation is, description of bacterial predators, growth of microorganisms, PCR, and DNA hybridization and ELISA analysis, lateral genetic transfer…whew! It is not, however, written with the PhD in mind. It truly is written for all readers from high school on up (some middle schoolers may enjoy it too). Humor and references to children’s songs and stories and to artwork (nod to Hieronymus Bosch) added interest as well.

For the curious-minded who wish to learn more, end notes on various topics (i.e. collapsitarianism and lateral gene transfer) are provided. This is where Dr. Rogers explains how the real science was used in the story.

In short, the science of the book holds high honors, channeling the work of Craig Venter and numerous bioremediation scientists. Petroplague explores what happens when the products of great and interesting science get into the wrong hands of ecoterrorists (and a greedy businessman).

I think Petroplague and the idea behind it is fantastic. And it can now sit on your bookshelf, or occupy space on your favorite ereader. 

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Joy of Science Writing


When I started writing publically last year, it was with pressure that had built up over, say, 30 years or so. I simply didn't send my best work out to be read by anyone other than my fellow investigators, some academic journal editors, and grant foundations. And that work, although I'd like to think of it as somewhat creative, wasn't peppered with stories that give me (and readers) joy.

Joy. I have a dear friend whose name means the most pure joy you can think of. Many things can bring about joy. Certainly, a husband and five kids can bring joy (along with a few other emotions). So can friends and colleagues. Creating something out of nothing is a joyous process, and when recognized by writers and editors with oodles of experience....well...you feel light and shaky and just a little bit vindicated, yet humbled because the other recognized writers are giants.

On December 5, 2011 I received a letter saying that my story Tinea Speaks Up--a Fairy Tale was chosen to be in The Best Science Writing Online 2012. Here is a review of the anthology by Library Journal. As others have clarified, the stories selected for this anthology are not THE best, but some of the best stories that were picked from a nominated pool. The book is well under way and should be out in September.

I must have read that letter over 30 times until I believed it. Then I blinked. What? Me?

Well, you know what? You and all your support helped give me confidence to write it in the first place. Thank you for reading. Thank you Bora for encouraging me to send in the story. Many of the writers in this anthology are also fantastic sources of information and encouragement for writers. Please look them up and read, read, read. Be inspired.

So that you have more to read, I am preparing more posts, but slowly. Many other things, including writing and submitting some short stories elsewhere, preparing an infectious diseases presentation, working on projects for my day job, and of course, my family are at the front of the queue for now. But I am currently reading and building up that pressure again; stay tuned. More joy (hopefully) to come.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Short on Science?

We’ve all been short of something in our lives. Patience. Of-a-load. Money. Time. Words. Breath. Sleep. Food. Are you finding yourself, or people around you, short on science? For the holidays, I received a 2-volume infectious disease text, an anthology of science writing, and a literary journal. Other members of the family received science and history magazines and a subscription to the Washington Post. How could I possibly need more to read? It’s an insatiable quest. My perceived science short-comings are alleviated through the science blogosphere, reading books and magazines I find in my explorations at the local library, the active online science writing community, and PubMed. All these people and things, combined, give a short-scienced individual a box to stand on—as a lift.


Read Science on the Blogosphere 
Support your favorite science blogs with your readership, comments, and donations. Many science writers return the favor by sharing a great story they've read with their readers and donating to other writers they admire.  


Many aggregators for online science writing are available: ScienceSeeker.orgScienceblogging.org, Researchblogging.org, and Open Laboratory 2013, to name only a few of the good ones out there. Many good science blogs have blog lists of what they read; they are worth looking at. You could also check out some amazing, award-winning writers at PLOS Blogs, Guardian Science Blogs, Discover Blogs, Wired Science Blogs, and Scientific American Blogs. This is not an all-inclusive list, but a start.

In addition, support science programs you hear on the radio (like NPR or BBC) or podcasts or TV. Support your local school’s science and literacy programs. The Febrile Muse will donate 20% of its reader support to local programs, starting today.


Read great Literature with Science









To me, there is nothing better than reading literature that either has science or infectious diseases within the work. A new love for me is Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis (1926 Pulitzer Prize winner).

In the 1998 Signet Classic edition of Arrowsmith, E. L. Doctorow writes  in the afterword about the success of this novel.

“It did not hurt that the groundsong or lore of the novel consisted of accurate science reportage. Arrowsmith brought to the reading public of the 1920’s the news of science.”

I love the truth seeking Martin Arrowsmith, the depth of the characters (especially the apparently shallow ones), the love of science that oozes throughout the novel, and the language. I don’t want the story to go to its bitter end. Paul De Kruif (of The Microbe Hunters) was Lewis’s scientific advisor for the novel, and much of the science was inspired by the work of Felix d’Herelle and his peers (Koch, Pasteur and others).

The love of good science comes through when Martin’s idol, Professor Max Gottleib, says of careful note-taking during experiments, 
“…And the most important part of experimentation  is not doing the experiment but making notes, ve-ry [sic] accurate quantitative notes—in ink. I am told that a great many clever people feel they can keep notes in their heads. I have often observed with pleasure that such persons do not have heads in which to keep their notes. This iss [sic] very good, because thus the world never sees their results and science is not encumbered with them…” 
I guess the internet has changed this somewhat, but for the good, in most cases. Science may be more accessible now than it used to be.

Along with descriptions of laboratory work, Lewis describes epidemiology. When townsfolk falsely accuse some squatters six miles up the river for spreading typhoid, Martin's map-work led to a different yet correct conclusion. 
“Martin mapped every recent case of typhoid within five miles of Delft. He looked into milk routes and grocery deliveries. He discovered that most of the cases had appeared after the visits of an itinerant seamstress, a spinster virtuous and almost painfully hygienic. She had had typhoid four years before.”  
Another piece of literature that has made an impression  is The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Somehow she finds a way to weave malaria, a notably strong infectious disease, into a missionary family’s weakening structure.   The overall impact of this novel remains with me years after reading; the missionary father wanders still—ranting and raving.

Further reading on Felix d’Herelle can be found in the amusing collection of scientist stories, It Doesn’t Take a Rocket Scientist: Great Amateurs of Science, by John Malone. This book also contains a chapter on Gregor Johann Mendel: The Father of Genetics. It highlights the pea experiments rather well—perhaps a good reference for either you or your high schooler as you embark on genetics in biology.

Read Nonfiction
Nonfictional works on my to-read list, continuing my love of malarial disease, are The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years by Sonia Shah and The Miraculous Fever-tree: Malaria and the Quest for a Cure that Changed the World by Fiammetta Rocco. They draw me to them partly because of the covers (should I admit this?), but also  for the history of malaria and the exploration for cures. The first book starts out with the author  differentiating herself from her Indian cousins…on the basis of mosquito bites (she has them, her cousins don’t). The second book combines the roles of Pope Urban VIII, an apothecary, and Jesuit missionaries working with locals in Peru with the process of finding and bringing quinine to Europe. 

Read About and Look at the Art/Science Connection
Art and science are connected, and two books that illustrate this well are Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts by Diana Donald and Jane Munro and Ernst Haeckel: Art Forms in Nature published by Prestel-Verlag. I recommend that you scour them and plop them down on your youngsters’ laps, carefully (they are big). Better yet, look at them together. They are a feast for beauty-needing science readers of all ages.

No doubt, Darwin inspired multitudes of artists...and Haeckel was a scientist that displayed his science as art, by artistic principles, not scientific principles. This was rather radical for a scientist of this era. His work is a phenomenal example of art nouveau.

With eyes wide open, your readership of science bloggers, magazines, fiction and nonfiction books and artbooks…and I emphasize artbooks…science will be even more beautiful than you had imagined. A needed visual lift if you are short on science.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...