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Review - Are Angels OK? - the parallel universes of New Zealand writers and scientists - Bill Manhire & Paul Callaghan (Eds.)



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This brave and playful book is a collection of stories and poems with a scientific theme. It contains some science fiction, some popular science, and some lab lit, but strictly speaking it is not any of these.  The writers are bright stars of New Zealand literature who have been copiously praised for work that has nothing to do with science.  And their scientist collaborators are equally luminous members of the NZ science community.  The outcome, like the contributors, is mixed but brilliant.  As a commentary on science, on its methods and spirit and motivations, the book is interesting but not ground-breaking. As literature, it has some fine moments and some awkward ones, where the science jars. But as an experiment in a new genre it is marvellous. It is as an attempt to answer the question: in what ways can science contribute to literature? The answer may be: not many ways. But this collection is a courageous attempt to find as many ways as possible, with varied and charming results.  The results also tell us something about the strengths and limits of literary tools.

So how does science contribute to literature in the collection?  The answer is as varied as the book’s genres, which range from poems to cartoons to short stories. Some of these pieces take an idea from science, interpret it loosely in human terms, and make a story out of it. In others, wormholes, proteins and equations are living characters in the story. For these authors science also serves as a setting, a source of metaphors, as material for history lessons, and as an entity to be explained or described. The second of these (science as a source of metaphors) is probably the most common in these stories, and it shows the lop-sidedness of the collection: by and large, the authors mine science for gems that can illuminate a literary work, and not the other way around.  And how do the authors feel towards their handmaiden scientists? The title of the book does well to capture the mood of the collaboration: tentative, but friendly and respectful.

Lloyd Jones' short story, Elsewhen, is a good example of the book’s main accomplishment: a work that combines science and literature while dodging the usual science-story genres.  Jones takes his cue from a lecture on time cones -- those diagrams, like sharp-edged hourglasses, that physicists use to describe where an object can and cannot move through space-time. The story gets its title from a lecturer's whimsical reference to "Elsewhen", the points in space-time where an object cannot go (because it would have to travel faster than the speed of light to get there).  Jones interprets Elsewhen as a kind of limbo or side-line, a diversion from the events that usually hold our attention. But he quickly veers away from physics in an attempt to "find this place in the everyday transactions of life." Traffic jams; moments of death, when "time stops, then kicks on"; the intermission of a film; the life-histories of inanimate objects, like letter-boxes; the man who glances up at the window, while going to play table-tennis, and sees his future wife: these are all snapshots of Elsewhen, and the challenge to the reader is to make a film out of this flow of still images. Jones' fine metaphor for a jumble of images, and for human memory, is the tip-face, "where the bits of life circulate," discarded but full of significance.

What does all this have to do with space-time and world-lines? Not much, you might say, except in a loose metaphorical way. The story would convey the same theme, with the same lyricism, if Jones cut out his references to Demeritus, Gödel and a physics lecture.  Moreover, Jones' notion of Elsewhen as a special kind of moment, where things stand still and accidents happen, may be based on a misunderstanding of physics. Physically, Elsewhen consists in all points in space-time that cannot be reached from a given point in space-time. So what counts as Elsewhen is relative to the given point. By choosing the right reference points, you can make anywhere an Elsewhen -- Elsewhen is not a special location, but every location.

Nevertheless, "Elsewhen" shows that, whatever else they have in common, writers and scientists are interested in some common topics, like time. What else do writers and scientists share, according to this collection?  The use of the imagination, the use of "compact forms of language" (as Glen Colquhoun puts it), the "hunt for metaphors" (another Colquhoun phrase), and an interest in paradox, are some answers given by the editors and contributors. And Callaghan says that physics and novel-writing both require "constrained creativity": innovation guided by pre-existing standards.

Going by the stories and poems themselves, science is also a fruitful source of metaphors for writers. Lloyd Jones plays loose with his analogy to light-cones. Margaret Mahy does for space what Jones does for time, linking the thoughts of a dying man, his decrepitude and longing for freedom and a "way out", to a downward scale of physical objects -- from the skin to blood cells to atoms to quarks. Catherine Chidgey's story about a precocious weight-lifter is less explicit about its physics analogies, but just as reliant on them. "Pressure, load, weight, force, how much a person can bear," Chidgey writes in her end-note. "Thinking about the meanings of these terms told me about my main character's nature and relationships as well as his special physical talent."

But there are dangers in fishing for connections between science and writing, and some of them come to the surface in this book. One danger is to cast the net too widely, and draw in too much. Margaret Mahy writes that science and literature "are not closed-off compounds, but in their various ways are part of the human flow of conjecture." But it is hard to think of any mental activity that is *not* part of the "human flow of conjecture".  Another danger is to focus on aspects of science (or writing) that are present in, but not distinctive of or essential to, the disciplines in question. Manhire writes about the "resonant power of words" in both science and literature. Paul Callaghan's response to this is a gentle rebuke, noting that words and their poetry are not the "nub" of science. "Scattering amplitudes" and "temporal sunrise" may be loaded with rhythm, significance, and other forms of literary cash. But the scientist trades in a different currency.

In some places the authors overestimate the compatibility of science and literature, with awkward results. Literature encourages a distinctive style of thought, as does science. In Are Angels OK?, friction between the two styles tells us something about the value as well as the shortcomings of the literary style. Consider first a shortcoming: the kinds of associations that writers make are not always helpful in framing rigorous arguments. Ignoring this can lead authors to use literary tools to do a non-literary job.  And a case in point is an essay by playwright and comedian Jo Randerson, called "Everything We Know."

Randerson's theme is "relationships", and her goal is to find a pattern in relationships in nature and apply the pattern to human affairs. Randerson takes the "sandpile phenomenon" as her natural pattern. If you drop sand into a pile and measure the size of each sandslide that occurs, you find that the frequency of sandslides of any given size is inversely proportional to the size of the sandslides: there are lots of small sandslides, a few medium-sized ones, and very few large ones. Crucially, it is hard to predict the size and timing of each sandslide. For Randerson, the sandpile phenomenon is a launching-pad for a meditation on the fundamental interrelatedness of all things. "Everything is connected in life", so connectedness is good, her reasoning goes. Therefore conflict is bad.

And it follows (somehow) that hierarchies are bad. Boundaries are bad too. After all, "when you put a wall in a body, you get a clot. Blood gathers together in a thickened lump, which would then move fatally through the body." What follows from this Paracelsean logic? According to Randerson, "my testing disproves the hypothesis."  This is not a form of testing that any scientist would recognise. Perhaps we should share Randerson's spirit of tolerance and affection for the diversity of things. But if the aim is to come up with sound political and ethical principles, we should not be convinced by Randerson's style of argument, which is rich in imagery but poor in critical reflection. In a different context, her movement from sandpiles to blood clots to human wars would strike us as the light step of an accomplished writer. In this case it looks like a wobbly polemic.

It pays to compare Randerson’s piece with “Elseswhen.”  "This lecture is like a flock of pigeons," Randerson writes, "and my goal, rather than caging them, is to liberate them and observe the patterns as they flutter out of sight." This captures Jones' piece ("Elsewhen") nicely. There, an idea from science releases a flock of images, memories, jokes, phrases, incidents, and other literary things. Randerson tries to do the same thing, but the result is unconvincing. Why? Because they have different goals: Jones to explore an area of human experience, Randerson to justify a political position. There's nothing wrong with doing either of those, but only the former can be done well with just the tools of literature. The flipside is that literary tools are good at dealing with concrete human situations: the "everyday transactions of life", in Jones' terms. Study the human voice in this collection and the special power of writers becomes clear. Even Margaret Mahy's story, with its rich descriptions of subcutaneous life, is at its best when describing human life. For all the detail in this story about lipids and unfolding proteins, the details that catch in my mind are about human gestures and instincts and mannerisms, carefully observed by the author: "The old man's slow fingers were pinching a fold in his bed cover, and rubbing it slowly backwards and forwards. His eyes opened." 

In Elizabeth Knox's short story "Unobtanium", the details of time travel in her story are interesting and valuable.  But the real talent of the story is to take human foibles and eccentricities and give them colour. For example, Mark is the gifted but wayward brother of Knox's narrator. Here, in the hospital just before his mother's death, Mark argues with a doctor. The passage neatly captures his misdirected brilliance. "Mark flinched and snatched is arm back. He began to tremble, but he kept on talking. He had dredged up the name of the new drug. His voice cranked up a notch and in it, just detectable, was a hint of a boast about his recall, about what he knew -- an eagerness completely out of keeping with the deathbed.

    The doctor said, plainly, that the drug wasn't suitable in these kinds of cases.

    Mark went on as though he hadn't heard."

It is no surprise that the authors appeal to human psychology in their descriptions of natural phenomena. Scientists, as scientists, have no interest in making nature vivid or easy to grasp to ordinary readers. But this is just what the likes of Knox and Jones are good at. Here is Lloyd Jones writing on time: "I never knew that time could bend like sheet metal. I sort of accepted that time came packaged in clocks and watches. I never realised that there was such a thing as big time and little time. Little time belongs to us. It sits on our shoulder from the time we are born and rides us all the way to the grave. Big time belongs to the cosmos. Big time is showtime -- space is a fat boy who just gets fatter."

This sort of writing is useless as science. And insofar as it lacks rigour or precision, it falls short of communicating science. True, it describes natural phenomena in terms that people can understand -- we all know what a "fat boy" is, and the metaphor of "riding to the grave" will move most of us. But the "fat boy" metaphor conveys nothing of scientific substance except the notion of perpetual expansion. All the other associations of "fat boy", rich as they may be, don't help us to understand the nature of the cosmos. In the trade-off between rigor and accessibility, Jones puts all his money on accessibility.

 Is the literary style necessarily at odds with communicating science, with its precise concepts and detailed arguments? Is it better able to communicate science than, say, Richard Dawkins' style of writing? Whatever the answers, Are Angels OK? reminds us that the literary style gives us something that science does not: a feeling for human psychology, how it plays out in real life and how it responds to words and images. To conclude, here are a few lines from one of Vincent O'Sullivan's poems in the collection:

I like the stories, although the stories
are not what it's about...
..Rutherford as a boy when his mother
tells him, through a storm, what makes
lightening strike, he answers politely,
'No, no it doesn't, mum'
But that
is like liking the wrapping wrapped around
the gift, the gift as much in the dark
as the famous cat...

 O'Sullivan is quite right that stories are not what science is about.

Focus on the stories and you miss out on the real gift of science. But nor is science the nub of a story. Focus on the science in a story and you miss out on the real gift of literature. A stern critic would say that Are Angels OK? fails because it does not give us the best of science and the best of literature in one shot. But if the collection fails in that respect it is because the natures of science and writing do not allow it, not because of any weakness in the authors. Where the collection succeeds is in exploring the various ways in science can sit side-by-side with literature. In doing so it traces out the limits of that project, and tells us something about the strength and weaknesses of the people on both sides of the lab door. The collaborative spirit wins out, even if some of the combinations look clunky. Scientists and writers may not be close neighbours, this book says, but they can make excellent friends.

Only in paperback

Review by Michael Bycroft

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Last update 05 June 2007