DIY MFA Part 5: Handling Rejection

The dreaded rejection, the abhorrent failure. I’ve been doing it a lot lately, which means that it’s a good thing we’re up to the ‘Fail Better’ section of the DIY MFA curriculum. The whole acronym Pereira has for FAILing better is really helpful, but today I’m just going to focus on the ‘F’.

Photo by Karyn Christner entitled ‘f’ (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic), link through photo

Failing has always been hard for me; at the risk of sounding appallingly obnoxious, I’ve been good enough at enough things in life that I was able to avoid failing for a long, long while and still be very busy. I skirted things that were important to me – auditions for musicals or a capella, sending out my writing to journals, etc – because I could just as easily do things where I was less likely to fail (writing for the school newspaper, running a sorority, stage managing). I even avoided taking poetry workshop for two years because didn’t want to face the facts that I was probably a terrible poet… so I took nonfiction three times instead (I had never even tried nonfiction before and thus didn’t have to care if I was terrible).

This issue (avoiding failure by choosing not to try for things that mattered to me) came to my attention right as my senior year of college began. I’d promised myself before coming to college that I would audition for an a capella group – every year, I had backed out last minute. Now, this cool September weekend, was the last chance to audition. With almost no practice or warm up time (coming straight from a hands-on outdoor volunteering gig) and with a ‘devil-may-care’ attitude, I went in and botched the audition. I told myself it didn’t matter, because I hadn’t really tried anyway and I was a senior so they never would’ve wanted me and I hadn’t had time to prepare (*ahem* four years) and…

I soon realized that I was a failure at failing and it needed to end if I was going to really live my life. So this summer I’ve really been pushing myself to fail, mostly with my writing, by sending out work whenever possible just to get used to the feeling of failure. Failure when you think a poem is beautiful. When you think your work is a perfect fit for the magazine. When you know your book has true potential (but you’re actually just not ready). Picking up that shattered heart and moving forward can’t be something I’m afraid of doing, or I’ll never achieve my real dreams.

It turns out I’m in the midst of the ‘F’ section of Pereira’s ‘FAIL better’ – Face your Fears. I am very, very afraid of my work never being good enough to be publishable. This is a reality I wouldn’t have to face if I didn’t ever try to submit my work. But that is just failing to take action, to take hold of reality and to progress. So I’ve faced (am still facing, will face for years) my fear instead.

I take a bit of solace in Pereira’s honest and encouraging story because unlike the ‘author bios’ at the back of so many books*, she instead tells us her journey was hard and several years long but that if you persist, against all odds, you may succeed. Succeed in crafting something beautiful and meaningful, even if only to a handful of readers and yourself. Succeed, but in your own sweet time and likely after learning to fail better again and again.

*(reading: So and So was Miss Universe, published her first bestseller at twelve, went on to start a Forbes 500 company at 29 and now is a sushi chef, writing five books a year that are translated into thirty languages while managing seven sets of quintuplets and earning four PhDs, what are you doing with your life, you worthless POS?)

So far, I’ve had a micro-chapbook and a novel manuscript rejected from publishers and at least eight magazines reject my poetry (and the list is growing and growing). I cling to the rejections that have lines like “we hope you’ll continue sending us work” as though it means something other than a form letter; maybe I was so close and they just need something a bit different. Anything to see me through letting it go to feeling determined to try again.

I’ve come up with an idea to try and manage this hurt called the ‘Try Again’ list, where I put all the information of the places that have rejected me – the editor, the name of the press, the work that was sent back. The goal of this list is to try all these places again; at least one more time. To go back for more hurt. And if work is ever accepted on the second or third or fourth try, I will change the color of the name of the magazine in the list. I will show myself that the failure was just one step on a journey to success and that, because I persisted in the face of objective failure, I succeeded.

Do you have any tips for dealing with rejection or even celebrating it? Share them with me in the comments below!

Continue Reading

Grad School Orientation

Yes, my shirt does have a Queen Bee on it.

This past week was Drexel’s graduate student orientation and boy was it a whirlwind; I’m still tired – though with a crazy weekend, and Week 1 jumpstarting, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.

Grad school kicked off with your typical orientation fare – talks by big wigs at the college, distribution of lots of pamphlets about resources, and an overwhelming amount of nervous students scarfing down free food and trying to be social. We’re gems, every one of us.

The Grad College waxed poetic about interdisciplinary studies (my ears perked up – really?), we were told how difficult our studies here would be – and then we went to lab safety training to learn how not to set the lab on fire. Then it was our specific colleges turn to scare us with our workload – seminars, teaching, grading, taking classes, research and rotations all leading up to the “Quals” which, if you fail, get you an MS with no thesis and a swift kick out the door. Wednesday was the scariest day, without a doubt.

After Wednesday is TA training – ten hours of people telling you to do things but not showing you how (i.e. ‘Be Prepared’, ‘Don’t let the students run you over’ – what?). The resources, however, were critically helpful – knowing where to turn if you need to deal with a student’s disability fairly, or a case of academic misconduct, was top notch information to receive. I left practice TA sessions with the nickname ‘Professor Barrett’ though unfortunately without the tenure or salary to match.

And now it’s Week 1. I’ve completed twelve bioraft safety videos/quizzes, filled out countless administrivia, attended a lecture on the development of fly brains, gone to workshops to learn to use Drexel software, done several hours of research, reminded my TA-training professor to upload the assignment for the course so I could (idk) do it, taught three classes, finished three readings, and begun a presentation due next week for my Readings class (where I present every other class period). Tomorrow is the BEES seminar and Friday I have lab, office hours, and the BGSA mixer – somewhere, in all of this, we do our homework and do research in lab??

I suppose I’m writing this update to let you know I feel overwhelmed, though I know that’s okay and I think most graduate students feel overwhelmed too. I feel overwhelmed by the work and expectations – the desire to be the best student, researcher, and TA I can be, all at once, and knowing that getting a 4.0 might no longer be achievable and that pushing each student individually will be so much harder when there are 75+ of them. Grad school is a different ball game – a different animal altogether. The nice thing about a personal blog with no real professional ties is that you can afford to be honest with yourself.

In other news, I’ve had several more poems accepted for publication – “Ashenhalted II” in Firefly magazine, “Strawberry Compositions” in UnLost, “Honeybee dance evolution from Apis florea to Apis mellifera” and “Body Volume” in Slag Review, and, just today, “Brilliant Moonbeam” and “Crassostrea virginica” in all the sins. So at least that’s a little confidence booster.

Continue Reading

More on Communicating Science to Skeptics

Photo by George Wesley and Bonita Dannells entitled ‘Maple seeds – the samara’ (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic), link through photo
Photo by DanaK~WaterPenny entitled ‘Science, it works.’ (Attribution 2.0 Generic), link through photo

In June I made a post about ‘mis-trusting science’ in response to an article/commencement speech published in The New Yorker by Atul Gawande; Gawande is a pretty big name in science-writing, having both been published in and been an editor for The Best American Science Writing series (and his work was even picked to be in THE BEST of the best, too!). Given that he’s a pretty preeminent science-communicator, you’d think that he’d have the dirt on how to communicate science… but his speech has been torn apart by other communicators for a wide variety of reasons.

In my post I argued that Gawande was thinking too small, discussing how to change the mindset of a single individual when really it was a radical shift in how we all share information that needs to occur (i.e. checking we have the facts, etc, before making that FB post). Until our culture could learn to respect facts over sensationalism, community consensus over our personal ego, we were wasting our time trying to change one person’s outlook on science; your facts could never persuade in the face of a constant barrage of sensationalist coverage and rampant individualism (read: narcissism).

Each time I would try to convince one particular acquaintance to give evolution or vaccines a serious look (“I was never vaccinated, and I’m fine!”), I would get back “I don’t care enough about these issues to look into them more. But maybe someday I’ll sit down and start to sort through the evidence. Until then, though, I don’t need to know more about these things.” This response has always frustrated me because there’s nothing to debate here, other than the merits of laziness, and also implies that this individual is a better decision maker on vaccinations/evolution than people who have obtained their PhDs and published papers on the matter. We both know this individual is not going to spend the time on evolution to become a real, scientific, expert – he’s not going to put in the time of a PhD candidate or a researcher. He’s going to learn enough to justify one opinion or the other and move on, if he looks into it at all, never taking the words of real experts into account but just satisfying his personal ego.

The internet has created an echo-chamber for ignorance, allowing people to justify their lack of knowledge by pointing to the sensationalist ‘controversy’ surrounding an issue instead of realizing that scientists have reached a pretty definite consensus on certain issues. Amazingly, my own experience working in biology – the fact that I have sorted through more of the evidence and read real, peer-reviewed scientific papers – matters not at all to this individual; to Gawande’s point that we all feel like we’re the only expert on every subject in the world, I heartily agree.

Photo by The Kingsway School entitled ‘open evening (17 of 57)’ (Attribution 2.0 Generic), link through photo

Another critic, Richard Grant, has come up against Gawande’s article saying “People don’t like being told what to do… I don’t think people who object to vaccines or GMOs are at heart anti-science. Some are, for sure, and these are the dangerous ones. But most people simply want to know that someone is listening, that someone is taking their worries seriously; that someone cares for them.” He argues that scientists aren’t successful because they bring facts, graphs, and figures to the debate which feels arrogant and cold. Science-communicators must take the time to listen to our anti-science audience, Grant asserts, if we are to change both the minds and hearts of our anti-science compatriots.

Grant says that charlatans have already recognized the need for belonging and listening, creating these self-affirming anti-science communities that can be difficult to penetrate, and writes, “Tellingly, Gawande refers to the ‘scientific community’; and he’s absolutely right, there. Most science communication isn’t about persuading people; it’s self-affirmation for those already on the inside.” This is something I can, on the whole, agree with (in ever more concentric circles of exclusivity as scientists generally write for others in their discipline) – but I also question the value of Grant’s strategy of appealing to the hearts/emotions of the anti-science crowd.

My acquaintance is not afraid of vaccines and he isn’t troubled or upset by them (though I know some are, and I think those fears are listened to by the medical community); he just feels he shouldn’t have to bother spending the time to learn about something he isn’t interested in, something he never needed and thus can’t see the importance of, something that he won’t trust the medical community on because he is the only expert and he hasn’t checked it out for himself yet. Being anti-science isn’t always about emotion; it’s generally about arrogance. It’s the assumption that you must be able to figure out this puzzle better than a whole community of other people working hard at their jobs; the assertion that you would need to ‘sort through the evidence’ on vaccines implies you would make a better decision than those whose job and lives are to research, test, and create them.

I struggle to believe that every pediatrician is scoffing mightily at every anti-vaxxer mother and presenting her with graphs and tables, but rather that anti-vaxxer mothers don’t trust the pediatricians more than their gut even when the pediatrician understands that they are worried about the health of their child. What’s more, we can’t waste our very precious time and money trying to validate the feelings of each anti-science person in the world just so they might be more susceptible to facts. People who are anti-fact just are – consider this exchange between a news anchor and Newt Gingrich about crime in America, where FBI statistics show that crime is (on the whole) decreasing:

“CAMEROTA: But what you’re saying is, but hold on Mr. Speaker because you’re saying liberals use these numbers, they use this sort of magic math. These are the FBI statistics. They’re not a liberal organization. They’re a crime-fighting organization.

GINGRICH: No, but what I said is equally true. People feel more threatened.

CAMEROTA: Feel it, yes. They feel it, but the facts don’t support it.

GINGRICH: As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel and I’ll let you go with the theoriticians.”

Photo by BRICK 101 entitled ‘Minifig comparison’ (Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic ), link through photo

I feel Grant’s article is, in some ways, valid; the scientific community can get very tribal at times and we do write for each other – but that’s because we’re also the only ones even interested in listening (because Grant, the anti-science crowd doesn’t want to listen to us, either). My acquaintance does not seek out science writing, I (and other science-minded people) do. And trying to reach him by listening to his ego, the underlying issue with many (though not all) people in the anti-science community, will not force him to look up some science-communication and become educated. When it is one individual’s life and health on the line, it matters less to me if they’re ignorant, but anti-vaxxers put all our children at risk and climate change deniers put the future of our species at risk as we are continuously rejecting global solutions to stop this ticking time bomb.

Grant’s article doesn’t actually provide a solution; listening to the ‘feelings’ of most anti-scientists will not move the conversation forward unless science-writers, too, want to start appealing to their ego over the facts. And, in my opinion, that’s a slippery slope down the lane to becoming a science-charlatan because the ego will do whatever is convenient/profitable, not what is right or true. After all, just look at our political landscape where, as Gingrich so delightfully put it, we listen to feelings over facts. Has listening to people’s feelings caused people to see the truth that America is less violent today than before? No, it just strokes their ego and forces them deeper down the anti-truth rabbit hole. I’m going with Gawande that the only real way to win against anti-scientists is to stick to the facts.

Continue Reading

‘Bee’ Reviewed: The Life of Galileo

The Life of Galileo 1
It left Nyx with a lot to think about…

This week on ‘Bee’ Reviewed we have a fictional but historical science play – The Life of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht*. Similar to Michael Frayn’s famous Copenhagen, Brecht seeks to imagine the historical life of a scientist – though he extrapolates beyond one isolated moment and portrays a fictional accounting of most of Galileo’s life. The book follows his early years with an apprentice, his controversy with the church and subsequent house arrest for supporting the heliocentric theory of the universe, and finally his last act of defiance, the dissemination of his collected scientific work.

The play has received both praise and criticism for it’s treatment of Galileo; Galileo is a ‘struggling’ underdog – defined, in large part, by his self-interest and not any sense of ‘heroism’ through defying the church. He has several ugly vices that serve to paint him as an un-heroic, occasionally unsympathetic, character – certainly an unscrupulous one. And yet he is still very much the underdog, pushing for truth and science as much as his self-interest will allow, against the overpowering institution of the church. Despite his less-than-stellar qualities, we’re still rooting for him to win.

People come down on both sides of the argument regarding this characterization – some love the humanizing effect that the vices have on Galileo, showing scientists are still ordinary men with fears and bad habits, others felt it did him a disservice by not painting him as a historical hero, bravely fighting for truth against extreme adversity. This debate is exacerbated by the many liberties Brecht took when portraying Galileo’s personal life, going so far as to change the real details of his relationship with his daughter (among other fabrications). While the science and struggle with the church are generally seen as historically sound if still fictionalized accounts, the portrayal of Galileo’s personal life in the play is questionable at best.

This play is a fast and entertaining read; it’s filled with humor as much as tragedy and hard decisions, and I loved immersing myself in Galileo’s struggle, a man who (unscrupulous or not!) changed the face of science. The dogma v. science debate is very obvious in the play and hangs a heavy cloud over the work – to be expected, given that this debate was the heart of Galileo’s everyday life. The dialogue is well-written; the monologues are moving. Despite (obviously) knowing the end of the play, I found the interactions between Galileo and members of the church to be surprisingly suspenseful. If you’re a fan of science plays, or the history of science, I would recommend reading this play; while it may not be the most accurate portrayal of Galileo the person, it does a good job showing off his science, dealing with the human nature of scientists, and portraying the important dogma v. discovery debate. One of my favorite lines:

“THE LITTLE MONK: But won’t the truth, if it is the truth, prevail – with or without us?

“GALILEO: No. No no. As much of the truth will prevail that we make prevail.”

*Please note that Brecht produced many versions of this play – the one I read was The National Theater Version, Translated by Howard Brenton, first published by Eyre Methuen Ltd in 1980.

Continue Reading

Biopoetics: Sunleaves

Photo by Kristine Paulus entitled ‘Acer saccharum (sugar maple)’ (Attribution 2.0 Generic), link through photo

First published in Gandy Dancer, 4.2, Spring 2016. As a new feature, you can now hear me read aloud the poem here and I’ve updated the past Biopoetics posts with their readings.

This poem is a lot more abstract and less concrete-science than other past poems, but it deals with the season of ‘fall’ for trees. When I first began working on this poetry series and thinking about trees more deeply, I came to the conclusion that trees wouldn’t obey our seasons. So I created what I thought were important ‘seasons’ for trees: Sunleaves, Deepnight, Sapriver, Budbreak, and Windborne. Sunleaves occurs when the leaves turn red and fall off the trees.

As the days get shorter, less chlorophyll production occurs allowing other colorful chemicals like carotenoids (orange) and anthocyanin (red) to be ‘uncovered’. The fiery, gold color of fall leaves isn’t ‘produced’ in the fall perse, instead it’s revealed as the green of the chlorophyll fades away.

So the chloroplasts are becoming ‘ashen’, losing their green color as the days become shorter; at the same time, abscission cells (often with modified, weaker cell walls) are being formed where the leaf meets the branch of the tree; this means that, eventually, one hard gust of wind will knock the leaf off the branch. These withering, brittle leaves are thirsty, dying because of a lack of water and nutrient exchange with the tree itself (while leaves can produce their own energy through photosynthesis, they need water from the roots of the tree to survive).

Some parts of the leaf will be actively broken down as the leaf slowly dies, its grasp on the tree being weakened by the abscission cells, until the tree is finally rid of all the leaves and even the red and golden colors are gone, decomposing into the brown leaf litter that covers the forest floor.


Continue Reading

Science v. Poetry in History

Photo by Axlwaii entitled ‘Poetry in Python’ (Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic), link through photo

Recently I wrote a post about Ada Lovelace, a new idol of mine because she:

  1. Was the first computer programmer
  2. Was a sassy woman who hung out with Charles Darwin
  3. Coined the term ‘Poetical Science’

Ada Lovelace’s poetical science was a revolutionary way of thinking – and it may still be too revolutionary for most modern intellectuals. Dr. Betty Toole is a Lovelace scholar and, in reading her paper ‘ADA LOVELACE’S POETICAL SCIENCE‘, I came across some fascinating information about the contentious history of poetry and science that I thought I would share with you.

Beginning in Greece:

According to Toole, the first evidence of a conflict surrounding poetry and science begins with Plato’s Republic where poetry is banned from the utopia because it “gives no truth of its own, stirs up the emotions, and thereby blinds mankind to the real truth.” Plato views poetry as the anti-thesis of truth (which is an objective fact found through scientific inquiry) not as a different way of uncovering or viewing the truth.

Aristotle, however, did not agree with his teacher; he saw poetry and particularly metaphor as having significant societal value, saying in his Rhetoric that “ordinary words convey only what we know already; it is from metaphor that we can best get hold of something fresh.” Given that Aristotle wrote Poetics, an entire book dedicated to literary theory and craft, it’s safe to say that he finds poetry to be worthy discipline.

Through the Industrial Revolution:

While philosophy saw the rise of subjectivism in the writings of Descartes (cogito ergo sum, anyone?), objectivity wasn’t officially solidified until the early nineteenth century with the Industrial Revolution.

With objectivity being loosely defined on Wikipedia as “the state or quality of being true even outside of a subject’s individual biases, interpretations, feelings, and imaginings”, it actually harkens back to some of Plato’s original philosophy on the state of truth. By contrast, subjectivism is defined as “the philosophical tenet that “our own mental activity is the only unquestionable fact of our experience””.

According to Toole, “The allies of objectivism were scientific truth, digital skills and reason. These empirical skills were in contrast to subjectivism, which came to be associated with analog skills, emotions, imagination, intuitive insight and “higher truth.” With the development of technology and its dehumanizing influence… the Romantic poets left reason, science and technology to the empiricists.”

Both objectivity and subjectivism appear to be diametrically opposed despite utilizing similar fundamental principles in a quest to find truth – doubt, questioning, and repeatedly testing a theory to see where the truth lies. With the defining and popularization of these theories, the gap between poetry and science only grew.

Photo by Steve Johnson entitled ‘magnetic fridge poetry’ (Attribution 2.0 Generic), link through photo

To Modern Times:

C. P. Snow famously argued in his 1950s ‘Two Cultures‘ essay that there was a cultural divide separating the sciences and the arts, the two greatest areas of human intellectual achievement. According to an excellent article run in 2009 in the Scientific American, “Snow argued that practitioners in both areas should build bridges, to further the progress of human knowledge and to benefit society. Alas, Snow’s vision has gone unrealized. Instead literary agent John Brockman has posited a “third culture,” of scientists who communicate directly with the public about their work in media such as books without the intervening assistance of literary types. At the same time, many of those in the humanities, arts and politics remain content living within the walls of scientific illiteracy.”

This is not entirely true – as groups such as Neuwrite try to pair literary types with scientists to communicate more effectively with the public – but on the whole, Brockman is likely correct and it’s hurting us all. Despite science and art having a contentious history, modern intellectual problems are too complex to solve with one area alone; to find the truth will require the kind of searching Ada Lovelace employed – one that mixes the arts and sciences. Until then, media misrepresentation and public misinformation will run rampant and both art and science, the foundations of human health and progress, will suffer.

Continue Reading

‘Bee’ Reviewed: Wicked Bugs

In a rare moment of good behavior, Nyx let me take a gorgeous photo of her... in one try.
In a rare moment of good behavior, Nyx let me take a gorgeous photo of her… in one try. #blessed

This week on ‘bee’ reviewed is a really fun book  – an easy read for most anyone to get into, today we’re looking at Wicked Bugs by Amy Stewart. I love Stewart’s work (she also wrote Wicked Plants and was selected to be this years editor of The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016), I’m admittedly fascinated by bugs, and Stewart signed my copy when my mom bought it from her (thanks mom!), so I may be a tad biased but seriously, I promise this book is for everyone.

The book begins with a cheerful warning: We are outnumbered! and indeed, we are with a ratio of approximately one human to every two hundred million insects on this planet. Stewart then launches into a book filled with fascinating insects – from the painful bullet ant to the disease-carrying rat flea (that brought the Black Death to Europe) to the terrifying Asian giant hornet. Interspersed among these humorous, informative, and brief tales about various ‘bad’ bugs are beautiful black and white drawings and humorous collections of stories (for example: ‘She’s just not that into you’ which details the terrible dating experiences of insects like fireflies, banana slugs, and praying mantids). The book is filled with saccharine and morbid humor as Stewart conquers subjects like Zombies, Bookworms, and Bugs of War with finesse and even charm.

I missed the 'beware' memo and now I'm an entomologist...
I missed the ‘beware’ memo and now I’m an entomologist…

This book is such a fun book, to me, because it can be read in short bursts, all containing humor and all so brief that you don’t get bogged down in detail. It’s like a serious of short comedic sketches by Adam Ruins Everything – self-contained, very informative and all about bugs. Stewart does a masterful job organizing the collections and her voice is aware, full of awe, and sometimes a bit of horror. It’s a conversation about how awesome and inspiring and terrifying nature can be. Stewart uses language that everyone can understand – the book is not written for a serious entomologist but for the everyday explorer, someone who wants to know a little bit more about the possibilities of outside from the safety of… you know, inside. Stewart’s writing is fluid and easy to read; her sentences are not poetic or lyrical, working instead to be straightforward and appeal to every reader. Stewart is a masterful writer but she wants the bugs to get the spotlight – in this book she writes clearly while letting the writing itself fade into the background behind the message.

If you’re grossed out by even the most innocuous carpenter ant and have nightmares about honey bees (awwww) then this book is not for you – you will not feel better about going out in the world after reading it. But for those with a fairly self-contained imagination, a sense of natural curiosity, or a general understanding of geography (i.e. not all these bugs live near you), give this book a shot. I think you’ll bee glad you did.

Hah. See what I did there?

Continue Reading

DIY MFA Part 4: Goal Oriented

Just keep writing, just keep writing…

I thought it was time for another DIY MFA post where I talk about the book’s content (there’s been so much science + writing going on in my life recently that I’ve struggled to find time to fit in regular posts!) and I thought I’d share what I love most about this book – it starts off strong with organization and goals! If you’re a writer who likes structure, this book is so for you.

Chapters 2 + 3 are all about how to organize your writing goals (you know, the kind of thing that’s necessary to really make progress on your work). Now, DIY MFA recognizes three writing goal categories: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, and Build your Community and asks you to balance those goals in whatever way works for your writing life at the time. The DIY MFA starter kit (sign up at the bottom of the patge) also comes with some really great goal-planning worksheets to go along with the book. After using them for two months, I can safely say that I recommend them.

Like a lot of things in the DIY MFA book, the idea of organization and setting goals isn’t revolutionary and yet, somehow, the way they change your view on writing is. Reading this book I had one ah-ha moment after another. Of course I shouldn’t be writing ‘when the whim strikes me’ or ‘whatever I feel like at the moment’; of course I need a plan!

Of course, the most difficult of the plan for me is sticking to it. I’ve downloaded the ‘goal sheets’ and filled them out. I’ve decided my little steps to my big goals – and then I get wildly off track. I seem to have some mischief in me that suggests I write about anything other than what I have as my goal (a really high-level kind of procrastination where you still get things done, just not the right things). Trying to work on a book? Here’s a great line for a poem. And so on.

Perhaps this is why Pereira suggests we revisit our goals every few weeks; because our circumstances and our interests change. I wonder if this revisiting is helpful or hurtful for someone like me – it gives me an easy out to switch projects but, at the same time it means I’m moving forward on many different things, piece by piece.

Do any of you suffer from goal-switching syndrome? Do you have any tips/tricks for getting yourself to focus? Share them with me here, in the comments!

Continue Reading

The Poetical Science of Ada Lovelace

I’m currently researching British poets from 1700-1816 for a Regency period book I’m toying with; in my research I came across Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace, the daughter of the famous poet Lord Byron, who is the world’s first computer programmer. Beyond being fascinated by this woman in science narrative, I was also intrigued by what Lovelace described as ‘poetical science’. Pushed into math and science (and away from her father’s ‘insane poetry’) from a young age by her mother, Lovelace nevertheless aimed to bring poetry and science together to create something that pushed the boundaries of what either discipline could achieve alone.

Ada, Countess of Lovelace, (1815-1852) Artist: Margaret Sarah Carpenter (c) UK Government Art Collection
Ada, Countess of Lovelace, (1815-1852) Artist: Margaret Sarah Carpenter
(c) UK Government Art Collection

Dr. Betty Toole, who published a book on Ada Lovelace, wrote here that “In her [Ada’s] thirties she wrote her mother, if you can’t give me poetry, can’t you give me “poetical science?” Her understanding of mathematics was laced with imagination, and described in metaphors.” Perhaps it was Lovelace’s willingness to blend science, imagination, and poetry that led to her amazing foresight about the capabilities of the first ‘calculating engine’ – she predicted it could eventually be used to create music, graphics and more. Her ability to see the possibility of art through the math and science was unheard of at a time when people didn’t even see the most basic scientific uses of the calculating engine (a machine that would set the stage for the modern computer).

In an essay by Dr. Toole, one of the only scholars who seems to spend much time on Lovelace, Toole writes, “It is not a trivial trait for either a poet or a scientist to get to the heart of the matter simply, succinctly and successfully. These may be just the skills we need today”. It’s hard not to agree with Toole – poets and scientists are forever circling similar writing obstacles: how can I be concise, and accurate? How can I best pass along my intention, my information, to my readers?

But poetry and science writing generally tend to employ different methods to get at these same core questions, perhaps with detrimental results by narrowing our focus and understanding to only one type of understanding. Lovelace bridged the objectivism-subjectivism gap that plagues science and poetry, respectively, in their communication attempts. Lovelace’s dedication to bringing science and poetry together didn’t hurt her ability to comprehend or communicate; rather it gave her increased understanding of the world by giving her a more complete picture of the world. Science, mixed with poetry, improves our understanding.

Lovelace is just one historical example of how the STEM-Humanities gap hurts individuals in both disciplines; her story is a compelling argument for a liberal arts education (instead of a purely technical education) for modern citizens. Science and poetry employ different ways of thinking, talking, and acting; it seems we all need to practice both disciplines if we want to have the same clarity, inventiveness, and understanding as Lady Lovelace.

What do you think about the STEM-Humn divide – does it help or hurt our students’ education? How do you think poetry and science can be blended effectively – and how does that help increase someone’s understanding of the world? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Continue Reading

‘Bee’ Reviewed: A Number by Caryl Churchill

A Number 2
Nyx ponders: “Am I a clone?”

This week on ‘Bee’ Reviewed is one of the more unique plays that I’ve come across, A Number by Caryl Churchill was first staged in 2002. The play was produced around the time of the Dolly sheep cloning experiment and clearly is impacted by the ethical, moral, legal, etc. complications that cloning poses to our society.

Salter, an aging father, meets with three of his sons (two clones, one not) throughout the course of the play; he spends some of the play lying to them lying to them (in order to try to keep his growing web of lies straight) and some of it talking honestly with them about past mistakes. Bernard 1 is his first son, one he felt he didn’t raise properly, hence he cloned him into Bernard 2 to try again. Near the end of the play, with both Bernard 1 and 2 out of the picture (boy, does this part of the play happen fast!) he goes to visit another clone he’d never met, Michael Black. The two have a frustrating conversation that leaves Salter unfulfilled but speaks to whether our nature or nurture controls our attitudes and behaviors.

The play deals with ethical concerns surrounding cloning, for example how it might alter family structure and filial connections, and also ponders the nature v. nurture debate (the issue of identity is a frequent theme). I would say it ‘lightly’ or ‘loosely’ does this, because the play uses so few words and has so few events, but nothing about this play really feels light. Churchill never tells you what to think, but the sparseness of language, action, and cast leave you hungry and force you to fill in some very deliberate gaps in thought yourself.

I’ve never felt so winded by reading a play – it’s so fast paced that you’ve nearly finished it before you realize you’ve begun and so you have to read it over to make sure you caught everything. And boy oh boy is there a lot to catch – in a play of mostly white space, Churchill spins a dense, compelling, thought-provoking narrative with hardly anything happening on stage and only two actors. The emotions of the characters, despite the brevity of the dialogue, are very real and apparent and I got a good sense of each character and their motivation by the second time through the play. The plot, which happens mostly offstage and is recounted, is very suspenseful and makes for a good, chronological framework for the otherwise floating dialogue.

A Number 1
Nyx looks for answers: “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?”

I honestly feel this play would be much better performed than read but it’s still a worthy read for anyone even remotely interested in the intersection of scientific and social ethics or those fascinated by cloning. Readers beware the speed of the play – force yourself to slow down or you’ll just end up confused and irritated instead of amazed by the play’s depth and intricacy in so few words. Churchill has a very stream-of-consciousness kind of dialogue, very unusual, and so it can be difficult to get used to reading the work – typical sentence structure, punctuation, and syntax all go out the window from page one. I’ll leave you with an excellent quote about identity from Bernard 1 (speaking of Bernard 2 to Salter) that showcases this unconventional sentence structure:

“Bernard 1: and you know what he’s like, not tidy, am I tidy you don’t know do you but you’d guess not wouldn’t you but you’d be wrong there because I’m meticulous.”

If you’re looking for something to read in an hour, but that will leave you thinking for days, I’d heartily recommend this play.

Continue Reading