Telling tales about science

by The Listener / 11 April, 2013
A rollicking read, poetry and a celebration of Antarctic research: science writing is alive and well.
A book of poetry is on this year’s shortlist for the Royal Society of New Zealand Science Book Prize. The inclusion of Graft, a beautiful little book by Wellington poet Helen Heath, marks the first time a work of poetry or fiction has been shortlisted for the biennial prize.

Graft, say judges Professor Michael Corballis, Professor Shaun Hendy and Alison Ballance, “blurs boundaries and masterfully reminds us that science is not a separate and remote entity but is part of the vital continuum of life [encompassing] many aspects from the social to the physical”.

Heath, who describes herself as “both a poet and the daughter of two (not especially mad) scientists”, was a guest speaker at the New Zealand Association of Scientists annual conference in Wellington on April 3, the day after the shortlist was announced.

In a presentation on science and poetic beauty, Heath spoke to the assembled scientists, managers, policy-makers and communicators about storytelling, the ability of poetry to condense information, the importance of narrative and metaphor and her experience of growing up with “a foot in both worlds”. Heath, who is doing a PhD on poetry and science at Victoria University of Wellington’s International Institute of Modern Letters (disclosure: I’m one of her PhD supervisors), also shared four poems from Graft, including one about Isaac Newton:

When Isaac closes his eyes
he is hanging, arms outstretched
only faith keeps him
from falling – a magic trick.
In his left hand is the Book of Revelations
in the right, the Book of Nature,
written in geometry.

Poetry and science have a lot to offer each other, says Heath. “Science, more explicitly neurology and psychology, can help us understand why narrative and metaphor are so important to the way we understand the world, and conversely, narrative and metaphor can help us communicate the message of science more effectively.”

Heath is interested in the way narratives can “plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains”, which is more than a poetic notion. In 2010, a team of Princeton scientists published the results of a study in which they recorded synchronised brain activity between the scanned brains of a storyteller and a group of volunteers listening to her story.

The other two shortlisted books are lavishly illustrated hardbacks. The judges describe Veronika Meduna’s Science on Ice, a glorious celebration of Antarctic science, as “a comprehensively readable account of the wide range of science that takes place in the Antarctic”.

In her review of Meduna’s book, (Listener, November 3, 2012), Sarah Wilcox described Science on Ice as transporting the reader “beyond ice, snow and glaciers into some of the conundrums of the continent – strange rivers that flow for only a couple of months each summer, fossilised leaf remains, sand-sculpted rocks and the vivid beauty of rock-hugging mosses and lichens”.

The judges describe Quinn Berentson’s rollicking tale Moa: The Life and Death of New Zealand’s Legendary Bird as “a scholarly and entertaining insight into the history and natural history of an extraordinary yet enigmatic extinct bird”.

This action-packed, fact-filled melding of science and history, reviewed in this column earlier this year (January 19), is a magnificent first book for Dunedin-based Berentson.

Each of these titles was in the Listener’s top 100 books of 2012. What else unites them? The authors, a poet, a broadcaster and a documentary film-maker, are all talented storytellers, skilled in the use of metaphor and narrative to bring stories about science to a broad and diverse audience.

The winning book will be announced by Ben Goldacre at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival on May 18.

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