Science and the Art of Storytelling

Russ Rymer is a former editor with the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science and the New York Academy of Sciences. His third book, in progress, is a history of musical tuning

On Friday, when the class of 2001 celebrated its commencement from the California Institute of Technology, the class of 2002 graduated, without ceremony, from its own small experiment in higher education. This year, for the first time in the school's 110-year history, its faculty demanded that each junior produce a feature-length article on a scientific subject, one worthy of publication in a lay magazine (say Discover or Scientific American) and comprehensible to a lay audience.

The juniors may be excused if they were less than universally delighted to discover, amid the differential equations and thermodynamics of their traditional hard-core curriculum, this starling's egg of a journalism course. They weren't being asked to write informationally, as they already often do in term and technical papers, but stylistically, forensically, rhetorically, accessibly. In the local vernacular, they were being instructed to "dumb down."

Needless to say, this left those several of us hired to edit them with some explaining to do. The requirement wasn't just burdensome; it was heretical. Scientists everywhere tend to regard science journalism as a species of grotesquery akin to a two-headed calf--a Siamese confabulation to which the only humane response is, "How do we separate one from the other without killing both?"

The aversion to popularization is sometimes attributed to a prideful sort of academic omerta , an ivy wall of silence guarding the ceremonies of an insular elect. But it has more respectable roots. For one thing, science is easy to get wrong, even by the best-intentioned layman, and especially by a public as given to instant judgment as it is impervious to scientific literacy. Beyond that, the inner processes of science rest on no principle more fundamental than dispassionate precision, a sere exactitude, an abhorrence of the overstated detail. As not in the realms of art, politics, religion or, heaven knows, journalism, its effectiveness--its very persuasiveness--resides in its renunciation of rhetoric. The I Corinthians definition of Love could fit as well the discipline: Science is not puffed up.

Nor dumbed down. So why the new requirement, and the retaining of such puff adders as myself? The official explanation to the poor juniors was that the ability to write would help them in the getting of grants and in their dealings with industry--the alternative inevitables of their future careers. No one familiar with the grace and poetry of grant applications or annual reports was persuaded by this. The larger reasons, to my mind, lie elsewhere, and may contradict the official explanation.

Caltech has a small student body of about 900 undergraduates, who are put through what may be the most arduous academic boot camp in the country. No student is accepted into this elite, or subjected to this sort of pressure, because the college has determined that he or she might become a pretty good researcher. Students are prepped for prominence, trained to lead their respective fields, and whether they end up designing drugs or computers, mapping genomes or space, they have a better shot than most of us at changing the world dramatically. On the day some of them succeed at that, they will be called upon to explain, to the changing world, their work, and if they don't, or can't, odds are good that some Ted Kaczynski will. Or worse, some science journalist like me. I tell students the real name of the "Core 1 a&b; Scientific-Writing Requirement" is "Self-Defense for Scientists."

The deeper truth, though, is that the program, however named and however helpful for the student, offers its greater benefit to the world. For half a millennium, the engine driving the evolution of our society has been science. Sure, politics and philosophy, religious insight and artistic expression have helped out in their way, but even the efficacy of those things has had its pace measured and set by hard knowledge, our burgeoning comprehension of our material universe; it's no accident that the dethroning of kings and cardinals followed the dethroning of the Earth from the center of the sky.

No one, neither he who fears Frankenstein nor the booster of Better Living Through Chemistry, doubts science's ability to transform our daily lives. But in our materialist age, we define that ability in commercial and concrete terms, ignoring the less tangible side of science's power. As it brings new knowledge to bear about our universe, science does more than provide new product; it establishes and reestablishes the metaphor of our selves and society, the prevailing paradigms by which we live. It tells us, in ways other disciplines can't, who we are, and what we mean.

Those revelations will be arriving with more force and frequency in coming decades, thanks to the subjects being discussed right now in schools around the country, and at Caltech in every venue from Kerckhoff Lab to the Red Door Cafe. The mapping of the human genome, cloning, genetic engineering and other cell research may not present the evils that critics forecast, but they will require serious philosophical adjustment of our concept of the individual, just as advances in psychiatric and other drugs beg a reconsideration of identity. Speculations about space and matter and time are rapidly reordering the cosmos itself, within which we may soon find we are not the only biosphere. Mechanical inventions, computers that self-replicate and molecular machines made of organic material, promise to puree the Linnaean order of animate and inanimate. Never has our dominion over nature been as spectacular as it is about to become, and never before will nature have reduced us to such spectacular inconsequence.

The inexorability of all this calls for intelligent interpretation. But we--the interpreters in art, politics, religion and the press--lag far behind. For most of our modern history, the liberal and plastic and social arts kept rough communion with science. The theoretical revolutions instigated by Newton, Freud, Darwin and Einstein were reflected in aesthetic and political structures, in revamped world views, with the consequent and very great good that creation was explained to its inhabitants.

But how should a world view reflect string theory? Science has become more arcane and specialized and difficult, its dialects more exotic and daunting. (This as the arts have entered a mannerist phase, wandering off into endless circumspeculations of the merely personal.) Too, research is increasingly sponsored by business, with the result that public debate of scientific advance, even within academe, has been stayed by the cold hand of the patent, the corporate ownership of knowledge. (This as innovations in media technology are destroying copyright, the ownership of creativity essential to the messengers.)

Caught in this maelstrom, science journalism is, like the universe, either expanding or contracting, depending on who you ask. Newspapers print whole sections devoted to science news. But major general-interest science magazines are a third of their number fifteen years ago and The Sciences, the award-winning bimonthly whose essays by ranking theorists are illustrated with ranking art, is going quarterly. Books proliferate, written by researchers and reporters alike, and many are very good, but their popularity has been curdling into its own ruling cadre of celebrities and impresarios, threatening the field with the same commercial constriction that stifles the rest of publishing.

What happens to a culture whose paradigm changes in a language it no longer understands? A culture whose art is uninformed by the perceptions of its great discoverers? Arthur Koestler called that schism the "duality of despair." Whether or not the Caltech faculty designed its science-writing requirement as a response to these things, the performance of the students gives hope. It turns out they had a lot of explaining to do (and, editor's delight, about subjects more fascinating than their own still-young experience). If anything, they've upped the ante. This spring a group of juniors (and other undergrads) began publishing their own magazine, CURJ (for Caltech Undergraduate Research Journal: www.curj.caltech.edu), presenting articles on such topics as tissue engineering and the biology of consciousness. Its accomplished format is emblematic of an intellectual collaboration the world could use more of: The graphics were conceived across town by students at the Art Center College of Design.

The class of '02 has extended a tentative hand to the non-scientific rest of us. Along with the standing responsibility to isolate their science from the corruptions of preconception and public prejudice, the students are learning a parallel (if seemingly contradictory) responsibility, to present the work of science to the world their work will alter. It's an elemental act of citizenship in the 21st century. It can be hoped the world will meet them in that, halfway.

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