‘Bee’ Reviewed: I Thee Wed

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Nyx, doing a more typical heroine pose for a romance novel cover, looking up toward her tall, dark, handsome man (a.k.a. scratching post)

I have a confession – I used to be an avid reader of romance. About five years ago, I worked as a reviewer for three blogs and also had my own personal blog where I held contests and centralized all my reviews. Unfortunately, college quickly forced me to re prioritize (homework? sleep? eating? pick two, and forget about the rest of life!). I was delighted when I heard about Celeste Bradley’s most recent regency romance novel, I Thee Wed, which came out in May of 2016 and features not one but two scientists! This was a book with relevance to this blog, if only in how we portray science in mass market paperback.

Orion Worthington is an aspiring scientist in 19th century England with lofty ambitions, working for Sir Geoffrey Blayne as a lab assistant. Hoping to put his family name behind him and advance into the upper echelons of science-society, the last thing he needs is his own personal scandal with Blayne’s niece, Italian scientist Francesca Penrose. Francesca and Orion both agree that their mutual desire is impacting their research goals and something must be done to remove the distraction that temptation provides. But will one night of passion be enough experimentation to last a lifetime? (As any good scientist knows, all experiments must be repeated many times over. So right from the get-go, I’m going to say… no).

This book has all the classic elements of a well written historical romance: there is a great cast of warm, eclectic supporting characters and a completely contrived plot that gets resolved miraculously at the end (literally. the answer here is ‘magic’) which could have been resolved with a simple conversation earlier on. There’s hot, passionate kisses and daydreaming and sex and no one can keep their hands off one another. The dialogue is humorous and both Francesca and Orion are compelling characters. If you’re into romance novels of the historical variety, I would recommend this book – on an A+ to F/Did Not Finish scale, this book would come in at a solid B-. Above average, if only slightly.

But what is compelling and unique about this book is its relationship with science, particularly in that it seems to reflect an incorrect, but socially popular, view of science. The book’s major scientific discovery comes as a singular epiphany and one night of work by Orion, alone in a lab; that discovery is then presented to the scientific community about 16-24 hours later at a conference. In reality, science can involve epiphanies (though they generally need extensive tweaking) – but even in the 1800s, experiments had to be rigorously repeated. Science is slow; having the epiphany does not guarantee you’ll have figured it out the first time around or that your experiment will run without issue (actually, when does that ever happen?). And after getting your experiment to run, repetition and independent verification are required before bringing forth the results to the community (though today that process is more rigorous than in the 1800s, I’m sure).

Additionally, Orion is never seen doing research for his experiments in that he looks at no other literature. Science often requires us to stop and consult the work of others; it is not the work of a mad genius, alone in his lab, but of a collective mind, thriving. To someone not involved in science, I wonder if Bradley’s interpretation of scientists as lone geniuses with perfect epiphanies and perfect results after one night of work would seem odd (the way it did to me) or if this is, truly, the way modern society still understands the process and people of science.

Overall, the book remains light on discussions of scientific theory, touching briefly and vaguely on Lamarck and evolutionary theory, even as the process of science frames the overall plot. Charles ‘Charlie’ Darwin makes an appearance, which I found really humorous. I would even go so far as to say Bradley was daring in portraying a child-like Darwin, this serious scientific figure whose theory changed the course of biology, as a mildly asthmatic, whining troublemaker. This exchange in the epilogue particularly amused me:

“You’re older than Charlie,” he reminded her. “You should have kept him out of the deepest water.”

Attie was clearly offended. “I’m helping him. He needs to get more fit if he is to survive.”

Overdone? Perhaps. But just the kind of light-hearted, dramatic humor to end this kind of book.

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‘Bee’ Reviewed: Lab Girl

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Nyx: I didn’t get up with you at 4 a.m. to read or write or take pictures. Now pet me.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren was published earlier this year in April, to the immense delight of the world.

I cannot take credit for ‘discovering’ this book; my undergraduate research adviser, a truly phenomenal scientific mentor, gave me a copy with a very heartfelt inscription for graduation. It was a touching gift in the thoughtfulness – this professor had attended my senior reading for my Creative Writing major and listened patiently to my series of poems on Sugar Maple trees. After attending, she knew this book was perfect.

I would argue, however, that Lab Girl is not just perfect for young women headed to graduate school, studying ecology and with a peculiar love for writing about trees. Lab Girl is perfect for everyone. From the first page, Jahren introduces her readers to the most fundamental aspects of science, welcoming them into the book with an almost maternal nurturing. While this beginning may feel a little slow for some scientists, these pages set the tone for Jahren’s writing throughout – patient, thoughtful, inclusive, and aware.

I could tell you about the stunning imagery that makes you pause and close your eyes to better savor her words, the evocative chapters on plants that would touch the heart of the most apathetic person, the masterful writing and good humor, the balance between life’s happiness and its darkest points, the organization and pacing that create pages smooth and suspenseful – pages that turn themselves. I could tell you about the unusual awareness that permeates the novel as Jahren deals deftly with her past thoughts (recalled with impeccable detail), with present thoughts full of the uncertainty of an unknowable future, with even your thoughts and predictions. She is unflinchingly honest and this honesty is incredibly thought-provoking.

But all of these things are simply what make Jahren, to me, an amazingly capable writer. This is nothing truly special; there are hundreds of incredible, awe-inspiring writers like Jahren. What sets her apart is the way she engages her readers in the science, how she draws such perfect parallels between the science and lives of plants and her life/our world. Jahren is utilizing a new category of metaphor, one that she shows us has been grossly under appreciated in the past: the metaphor of real science. Jahren chooses not to underestimate her readers’ intelligence and gives us science intertwined with life so intimately that we cannot unravel them and instead must revel in the beauty and passion of that deep and beautiful connection.

Overall this book is a must read for everyone, regardless of your interest in or prior level of engagement with science. I can only hope that Lab Girl continues to flourish and inspire and, perhaps, even usher in a new age of popular literature that is rich with real science, pushing our society towards the revolution in our relationship with science that we all desperately need. That’s a lot of pressure for a book, an author; but if Lab Girl teaches us anything, it’s that Hope Jahren sure can do it.

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‘Bee’ Reviewed: An Experiment with an Air Pump

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Nyx, looking up tearfully at the heavens after finishing the play…

An Experiment with an Air Pump is a play written in 2000 by British playwright Shelagh Stephenson, inspired by the painting ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, a 1768 oil-on-canvas by Joseph Wright of Derby (picture below).

Stephenson writes what is, so far, my favorite science play. Grappling with two times frames, one in 1799 and one in 1999, she uses a singular house to draw incredible parallels between the morals, actions, and goals of the two groups of people that lived there. Stephenson manages to craft incredible concise, impactful dialogue as she works with twice the time and cast of characters as a typical show.

Stephenson follows the cast of characters making up Wright’s painting in the 1799 scenes, with young lovers, writers, scientists, and family members all playing a role. In the 1999 scene, we follow scientist Ellen and her husband Tom, owners of the home, as they work on selling off the property and discover a dead body hidden under the stairs (presumably one of the 1799 characters).

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An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, Public Domain

This murder-mystery sort of appeal gives the play a lot of suspense, and the clever dialogue between Phil, the 1999 handyman, Ellen, Tom (a humanities professor), and Kate (a scientist with shaky moral principles) all combine with the slower, more direct 1799 dialogue to paint one complete, no-loose-ends picture by the end of the play. Even better, Stephenson chooses to focus on stem-cell research and gene therapy, both looming as big ethical discussions in the very near future.

Every time I pick up this play, I feel like I’ve discovered something new Stephenson has done to make me question everything I know – about the links between science and art, the morality of the scientist, the dangers and benefits of scientific progress, and the nature of humanity, with our history creating our present. If I could recommend a play to get you hooked on the science-drama fusion, my friends and followers this would be it.

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How Nyx actually feels about the book – a much different review.

The dialogue is excellent, the plot is fast-paced and intriguing, but it’s the way Stephenson weaves parallels between the two environments to teach us about scientific ethics that really turns the play from good to unforgettable. Stephenson writes the suicide note for science, leaving a dire warning about what happens when we continue to pursue science with no ethical considerations. The play is masterful, managing to bleed you emotionally and mentally dry each time you read it and yet leave within you the desire to come back for more. And perhaps it is this exact feeling of wonder, curiosity – rapture – that Stephenson inspires in her writing that is the very essence of her warning about science.

 

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‘Bee’ Reviewed: The Physicists

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Nyx, looking confusedly up to the future of physics with a saucy turn to her front, left paw…

I first reviewed this play for National Book Review Month, an awesome brainchild of SUNY Geneseo, and have expanded upon that review here. The edition of The Physicists that I read was translated by James Kirkup.

Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Physicists is a delightful and sometimes silly play filled with intrigue, science, and murder, all leading up to an incredible plot twist that will leave your heart hammering and head swimming from the page-turning, gut-wrenching dialogue. Durrenmatt, a Swiss author, was heavily influence by the events of WWII when writing the play in 1961 and, in the play’s more serious moments towards the end, the gravity of the events of WWII stand in the background of the play’s dialogue.

The play takes place in an insane asylum and follows three patients, all nuclear physicists. New arrivals Herbert Beutler and Ernst Ernesti believe they are Newton and Einstein respectively, while long-term resident, Johann Mobius, believes he is visited by King Solomon. After another (yes, you read another) female nurse is murdered, the authorities are at their wits ends with the madhouse; the lead psychiatrist, Dr. Mathilde von Zahnd, is forced to tighten security by bringing in new, male nurses to serve as guards. As the patients begin to get restless one night, they reveal their true selves and have a conversation that could end up changing the world…

The play is fast paced and incredibly humorous. The plot twist at the end is masterfully executed with precise and cutting dialogue that leaves you thinking about the future of physics and the ethics of science. As an example of Durrenmatt’s ability to concisely sum up an entire ethical argument, he writes:

“NEWTON: Is it because I strangled the nurse that you want to arrest me, or because it was I who paved the way for the atomic bomb?”

In one line, we are confronted with the huge ethical question of the role of the scientist in the outcome of their discoveries. Is Newton as complicit in the deaths of those who died via the atomic bomb (which his discoveries helped create) as he is in the death of the nurse he just directly murdered? Towards the end of the play, Durrenmatt engages with this ethical idea and more in a way that is stunning both in brevity and wit, and in the richness of the ideas’ direct societal applications. Despite being over fifty years old, this play retains relevance in how it grapples with our changing scientific reality.

Overall, this is masterful play with well-balanced satire; The Physicists is accessible to every audience regardless of someone’s familiarity with physics.

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‘Bee’ Reviewed: Blind Huber

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Nyx is an avid reader of poetry when she allows herself a day off from her quest to capture the laser pointer.

Every week a science book, play, article, etc. will ‘bee’ reviewed (I admit, as an entomologist, that I may use a few too many insect puns). This week’s selection is appropriately themed for the first ‘Bee Reviewed’ post ever – a book of poetry entitled Blind Huber by Nick Flynn.

I originally reviewed this book as part of NaRMo – National Reviewing Month, which occurs in February and is run by my undergraduate institution.

Blind Huber is a poetic masterpiece that brings to life the distinct harmony of Huber, a blind, elderly French beekeeper from a different century, and swarms of honeybees. There is an absolute obsession written into this collection of poems, as Huber observes and speaks with the bees; through him, Flynn comments on the fierceness that underpins all of life. Flynn gives us bees that meditate on love, devotion, knowledge, individuality v. uniformity and more; bees that drink deep of the natural world and show us both the pleasure and the pain of life’s commanding beauty. Huber, while the title character, often takes a backseat to the bees in this collection and yet his story is so inextricably tied to that of the hive that even when he is not in the poem, he is present. The collection is thought-provoking and, at times, depressing as it ruminates on the distorted pallor of death as seen through the eyes of various hive-mates; this book is, in a very visceral way, also about how we see what we see. Huber was a deliberate choice for the beekeeper; while being a pioneer in hive observations, his blindness has a significant impact on his relationship with and trust of the bees and lends itself to seeing all of the collection’s various meditations through a different lens than the societal norm.

While a love of bees is certainly a positive thing to bring to this collection, a reader does not need any biological understanding of eusocial insects to enjoy the sweetness of this collection which is remarkably accurate while still remaining powerful and emotive. I enjoyed the poems “Paper Wasp” and “Worker (lost)” in particular. “Paper Wasp” was first published in the New England Review in 2002, and contains the lines:

“All this time/we’ve been building beside you…fragments of your barn, paint/chewed to pulp. Everything/passes through us, transformed.”

“Worker (lost)” was first published by Tin House and contains the following lines:

“the hive full of strangers,/none remained precisely me, none/ I would die for.”

Flynn covers reproduction, haplodiploidy, royal jelly, and more but in such a magnificent way I am sure that both entomologists and literary citizens with no ‘bug background’ to speak of could enjoy this delightful collection.

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