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Fictionalizing science writing and “The Distance of the Moon”

Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, a collection of short stories of a science-inspired nature, is one of my favorite pieces of literature. Calvino was a fantastically imaginative writer, and his Cosmicomics highlight his ability like no other. The stories in Cosmicomics exemplify what Miroslav Holub implied when he commented that play allows the artist to “avoid the aridities of rationalism”—Calvino’s imaginings are anything but dry. Each takes its origin from some brief, abstract concept drawn from the hard sciences. In the case of the collection’s first story, “The Distance of the Moon,” Calvino opens with the following excerpt:

At one time, according to Sir George H. Darwin, the Moon was very close to the Earth. Then the tides gradually pushed her far away: the tides that the Moon herself causes in the Earth’s waters, where the Earth slowly loses energy.

From this deduction, Calvino injects the statement with life, character, a host of emotions and interactions. He plays with the feminization of the moon, why, from a storyteller’s point of view, She might have been pushed away from the Earth and what effort Earth’s inhabitants might have made to re-reach Her. The tale begins, in effect, to describe Calvino’s greater reinterpreting of how the universe was created, how forms so numerous came into being:

How well I know! — old Qfwfq cried,– the rest of you can’t remember, but I can. We had her on top of us all the time, that enormous Moon: when she was full — nights as bright as day, but with a butter-colored light — it looked as if she were going to crush us; when she was new, she rolled around the sky like a black umbrella blown by the wind; and when she was waxing, she came forward with her horns so low she seemed about to stick into the peak of a promontory and get caught there. But the whole business of the Moon’s phases worked in a different way then: because the distances from the Sun were different, and the orbits, and the angle of something or other, I forget what; as for eclipses, with Earth and Moon stuck together the way they were, why, we had eclipses every minute: naturally, those two big monsters managed to put each other in the shade constantly, first one, then the other.

To me, Calvino performed something through these stories—12 in the original collection—that the sphere of science writing, as a general whole, has seemed to have neglected or perhaps even forgotten. Cosmicomics was published in 1965—when the author was 43 years old—and in the decades since, few writers have produced the same form of fictionalized “toying” with scientific fact, making of empirical research something new, what Michel de Certeau conceptualized as reappropriation. In his pivotal The Practice of Everyday Life, de Certeau wrote of the public’s interpretation of information and texts—scientifically based or not—as acts of consumption, and as such, likened to everyday resistance against a top-down dynamic between information producers and consumers. The consumer of information, the theorist wrote, “takes neither the position of the author nor an author’s position. He invents in texts something different from what they intended.” In this case, the information drawn from science, to de Certeau, did not have to be the final frontier—instead, one could formulate fact into new configurations.

Discussing Cosmicomics, Jeanette Winterson described Calvino as an adamant believer that art is a force that can unite various and seemingly disconnected parts of the self and the social body. Science, as one element of this greater unit, should be only the starting point in bringing together strands of thought and creativity. Winterson wrote, “For him [Calvino], literature as a force going forward, postwar, would be a literature that could encompass everything—science, history, politics, fantasy—but would be in thrall to none of these.”

What has become of this encompassing since Calvino’s time? Science writing today is undoubtedly creative, clear, communicative, to name a few characteristics of the craft. Yet foremost as an educative endeavor—to foster scientific literacy, to raise societal awareness, to bridge scientific practice and everyday life—current science writing is, and in some ways, as practiced, must be, thrall to the worldview and positivism of science and its methodology. Any effort to produce scientifically inspired fiction is given the label of “sci-fi,” when in fact is was Calvino who redefined the term to mean something entirely different. Most recently, Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptilean imagining of the musings of an 18th-century Turkish female tortoise in Selborne, England—stands out as an example that fulfills this niche of literature. Of the book and its author, The Washington Post Book World writes, Klinkenborg “rescues us from dailynessfrom, as Timothy would say, our terrible speedand makes our world again large and wondrous.”

Calvino’s Cosmicomics is about making our would wondrous, even those elements of that world we typically relegate to laboratories, observatories, and remote field sites instead of being seen as inspirational sources of creativity. Of Cosmicomics, Salman Rushdie wrote that “Perhaps only Calvino could have created a work that combines scientific erudition, wild fantasy and a humane wit that prevents the edifices of these stories from toppling into whimsy.” I would hope, for one, that Rushdie was incorrect in making such a suggestion, that Calvino’s work was only the beginning of a movement in literature, in particular the short story form. The products of Cosmicomics continually inspire my own thoughts on writing and literature, serve as the best kind of example of something to strive for in words. And they do so for others as well, in varied formats and mediums. Take for example, and enjoy, the following short filmby an Israeli visual communications student, dubbed “shulamitsitself a reimagining and reappropriation of Calvino’s “The Distance of the Moon.”

Kalevi Kull on biosemiotics

Biosemiotics can be defined as the science of signs in living systems. A principal and distinctive characteristic of semiotic biology lays in the understanding that in living, entities do not interact like mechanical bodies, but rather as messages, the pieces of text. This means that the whole determinism is of another type […] The phenomena of recognition, memory, categorization, mimicry, learning, communication are thus among those of interest for biosemiotic research, together with the analysis of the application of the tools and notions of semiotics (text, translation, interpretation, semiosis, types of sign, meaning) in the biological realm.

Kull K. (1999). Biosemiotics in the twentieth century: a view from biology. Semiotica 127(1/4), 385–414.

The umwelt of a paramecium

On days when it rains and I am stuck inside at a desk, I often find my thoughts return to a single thematic idea: how does a single-celled organism perceive the world? Having recently read Devin Johnston’s Creaturely and Other Essays, I was struck by the author’s same general thought with regard to the higher vertebrates—in this case, the starling: “As science discovers the spectral sensitivities of birds, their sensory world proves alien to ours, their consciousness recessed from us.” Unlike that of humans, the eye of the starling does not filter out the ultraviolet spectrum of light. The organism sees the world with a fourth dimension attached—its world is, in essence, unknowable to us.

Season: organic/plant motifs and structures of microorganisms. Print by Yellena James (www.yellena.com)

As a sensory experience of one’s environment, this seeing is subjective, what the German biologist Jakob von Uexküll called each organism’s umwelt—what in German literally means “environment,” but which is typically taken as “subjective universe.” The term stands against a typical assumption of modern ecology that all organisms in an ecosystem share the same environment. Instead, von Uexküll argued that the subjective perception of organisms drives ecological interactions—parasitism, mutualism, etc. The entomologist/molecular biologist Alexei A. Sharov, who himself moved from ecology into the emerging field of biosemiotics, contextualizes the theory best with an example from plant ecology:

Uexküll thought that organisms may have different umwelts even if they live in the same place. A stem of a blooming flower is perceived differently by an ant, cicada-larva, cow, and human. Umwelt is not an ecological niche because niches are assumed to be objective units of an ecosystem which can be quantified using external measuring devices. On the contrary, umwelt is subjective and is not accessible for direct measurement for the same reason that we have no direct access to perceptions of other people.

Pistil. Photograph by author.

von Uexküll argued we cannot know the precise, quantified experience of the ant, cicada, or cow, just as Johnston struggles against studies of animal behavior that claim to have understood the way a starling sees. Each organism’s umwelt exists in a reciprocal exchange between phenomenological experience and the biophysical world—one of von Uexküll’s main ideas from the umwelt theory is that each component of this subjective universe has functional meaning to the agent. The stem of a blooming flower may be food, shelter, landmark, etc, depending on the species and context of the interaction. Each organism actively participates in the production of umwelt through these repeated interactions. In Sharov’s words,  the organism “simultaneously observes the world and changes it; the phenomenon which Uexküll called a functional circle.” Because these interactions are tied up with functional use and subjective experience, von Uexküll’s approach to animal behavior could not separate subjective (experience) from objective (biophysical matter), as modern-day approaches to the subject commonly insist—mind makes the world meaningful, a staple of cultural anthropology. In the related field of the philosophy of science, Sharov allies von Uexküll with pragmatism, the school of thought that argues how objects cannot be separated from interpreters.

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Alternative narratives to the discovery of Lyme disease

Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease, was first isolated in 1982 by Willy Burgdorfer, Ph.D., a zoologist and microbiologist at NIAID’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) in Hamilton, MT. The following is a brief history of this groundbreaking discovery.

So begins the description of the medical discovery of Lyme disease from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). An agency of the National Institutes of Health, NIAID conducts and supports basic and applied medical research on infectious and allergic diseases to increase scientific knowledge and advance methods of treatment and prevention. Set in the disciplines of microbiology and immunology, in recent years this work has focused on asthma, bioterrorism, and emerging infectious diseases. Lyme disease—in belonging to the latter category—has been a principal interest to the agency, the focus on which has been on understanding the mechanisms of the bacterial organism’s pathogenesis, its modes of transmission, and antibiotic therapy.

B. burgdorferi spirochete. Image courtesy of NUCEL International Integrative Medical Center

According to this state narrative, Lyme disease—a bacterial infection transmitted by Ixodes scapularis, the black-legged tick—was discovered in 1975 when a team of researchers led by Dr. Allen Steere investigated why unusually large numbers of children were being diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis in Lyme, Connecticut. In an early epidemiological report, Steere’s group examined the health status of 51 residents with the illness, characterized by ongoing swelling and pain in large joints. Published in 1977, the study argued the causative agent of the disease to be an unrecognized pathogen, possibly transmitted by an arthropod vector. The researchers found the disease to be highly complex, variable, and confusing, with some members of the cohort suffering from a short weeklong bout of illness while others experienced symptoms for months. When initial research found that 25% of residents with the illness developed an expanding red rash known in the medical literature as erythema migrans and that the majority of the towns’ cases were found in children living alongside wooded areas in the summer months, the team suggested the new disease could be related to the life cycle of ticks, particularly those of the Ixodes genus. With the assistance and expertise of Willy Burgdorfer, a medical entomologist specializing in tick-borne bacterial transmission, the researchers pinpointed the black-legged tick as the previously mentioned vector. Then, in 1982, Burgdorfer successfully isolated Borrelia burgdorferi from patients with the illness, proving that the spirochete bacterium caused what came to be known in medical and lay circles as Lyme disease.

Adult female I. scapularis

This account of medical detection is not confined to only the NIAID and other government research agencies—it circulates as the most common narrative in the biological and medical literature (Reik Jr 1991; Christen 1994; Reid 1998; Steere 2001; Knisley & Johnson 2004; Meyerhoff 2009; Sterle & Stanek 2009). As part of an institutional narrative of biological science’s importance, the account not only mentions the actions of and exchanges between epidemiologists, physicians, entomologists, and bacteriologists, but also frames these actors as the sole and vital components of the discovery, recording the event within a certain framework of what is and is not important. What’s at stake in recording the past within a particular perspective is not a rejection of scientific materiality, but rather an illustration of how what is ignored in our records echoes what continues to remain absent in contemporary discussion. Anthropologist Ilana Feldman follows this notion with the comment,  “There is no doubt that memories of the past say a great deal about people’s attitude in and towards the present.” Particular to the institutional memories created through state documents, Julie Taylor also notes the tensions implicit in certain modes of narrating the past. She writes that such documents inherently contain a politics of information, of including some parts of the past and excluding others: Continue reading

“Immanuel Kant”

Immanuel Kant

The philosophy of white blood cells:
this is self,
this is nonself.
The starry sky of nonself,
perfectly mirrored
deep inside.
Immanuel Kant,
perfectly mirrored
deep inside.

And he knows nothing about it,
he is only afraid of drafts.
And he knows nothing about it,
though this is the critique
of pure reason.

Deep inside.

Miroslav Holub

1 of 8

Kurt Vonnegut had eight base rules for writing fiction. His number eight comes close to being my favorite, but seven steals out instead: “write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

I don’t/haven’t read Vonnegut often, and was initially drawn to his fiction simply by virtue of the author’s (rejected) pursuit of an MA in anthropology after completing a BS in biochemistry, and thus felt some form of affinity. Vonnugut magnetized towards anthropology, which he called “a science that was mostly poetry, that involved almost no math at all.” And it must have been some contribution of anthropological thinking that allowed Vonnegut to state his modus operandi on the workings of being a writer:

“Many people need desperately to receive this message: I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.”

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