Telling tales about science

by Rebecca Priestley / 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.

Send questions to science@listener.co.nz
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

Why it's time for a female Doctor Who
77083 2017-07-27 09:12:33Z Social issues

Why it's time for a female Doctor Who

by The Listener

Gender equality is lamentably slow-dawning in many endeavours, but TV and film help normalise desirable social trends. However it does cuts both ways.

Read more
Five great places in Auckland for gluten-free eats
77081 2017-07-27 09:09:05Z Auckland Eats

Five great places in Auckland for gluten-free eats…

by Paperboy

Auckland has a whole swag of places where you can eat well gluten-free - here are five of the best.

Read more
Te Papa’s tribute a real Dagg
71078 2017-07-27 00:00:00Z Profiles

Te Papa’s tribute a real Dagg

by Russell Baillie

The late John Clarke left some big boots to fill. Now you can go see them at Te Papa.

Read more
Manawatu Gorge: Simon Bridges hints at big bucks alternative
76903 2017-07-27 00:00:00Z Economy

Manawatu Gorge: Simon Bridges hints at big bucks a…

by Pattrick Smellie

Years of avoiding the question of an alternative road appear to be over.

Read more
How to overcome comfort eating
76877 2017-07-27 00:00:00Z Nutrition

How to overcome comfort eating

by Jennifer Bowden

Cutting back on chocolate and other indulgences calls for breaking a vicious cycle of comfort eating. Here’s how.

Read more
Baby Driver's Ansel Elgort on the making of this must-see film
77071 2017-07-26 17:42:03Z Movies

Baby Driver's Ansel Elgort on the making of this m…

by India Hendrikse

Actor Ansel Elgort talks to Paperboy about starring in the hit film Baby Driver, doing stunts, and his contribution to the incredible soundtrack.

Read more
How to stop wasting food: These Aucklanders show us how
77051 2017-07-26 16:04:01Z Social issues

How to stop wasting food: These Aucklanders show u…

by Leisha Jones

Meet some of the Auckland champs turning food destined for the bin into three-course dinners and inventive dishes.

Read more
Jesse Mulligan is giving Mike Hosking a run for his money
77043 2017-07-26 15:40:00Z Profiles

Jesse Mulligan is giving Mike Hosking a run for hi…

by Julie Hill

The Project host talks about government underfunding of DoC, being told to cheer up by Maggie Barry, and wanting to crush Hosking.

Read more