A few weeks back I presented at a symposium at UQ hosted by the Translational Research in Creative Practice group, which explores how creative practice can translate complex research in the humanities into the public realm. It borrows this idea from the medical sciences, which translates knowledge created in the lab to everyday environments – the phrase used to describe this is ‘bench-to beside’, which I like. I signed up to present on writing an ecobiography, because I’m interested in how writers can use their craft to convey science, and I think it's imperative to transmit knowledge from the academy to the public.
Last year I presented at the inaugural Quantum Words Science Writing festival hosted by the NSW Writers’ Centre, where I met plenty of wonderful writers, including poet Carol Jenkins who wrote the marvellous Fishing in the Devonian, and Indigenous writer Tony Birch, who is doing interesting and important work on colonialism and climate change, looking at how the resilience of Indigenous communities surviving colonialism might educate people on how to negotiate the increasing instability which climate change brings. I also caught up with my pal Cat Sparks, a spec fic writer who has just published Lotus Blue and who makes every occasion entertaining, even when she’s talking about the coming environmental Armageddon (which really is on its way, although Cat maintains we’ll be killed by robots first).
At this festival, Nobel Prize winner Peter Doherty gave a marvelous keynote. He expressed his ideas clearly and had a very good sense of humour, which was a balm for everyone’s depression about the US election and the implications of this for our climate. He mentioned how one of the difficulties about communicating science is that science is about quantifying uncertainty and is therefore conservative in its analysis, whereas journalism, which relies on headlines on to sell its news (at least in these days of clickbaiting), is more interested in dramatisation (these are not his exact words, but the gist of them - I had to consult ecologist-philospher-b/f for clarification).
Another part of the difficulty in communicating science is confirmation bias: the more emotionally charged an issue is, the more people will interpret information (especially ambiguous information) in favour of their beliefs.
So, what to do?
Jamie Freestone, a literature PhD student at UQ, talks about the need for making science fun, and points to the success of the World Science Festival in Brisbane. He also mentions films such as Interstellar, and I would also add that docos such as David Attenborough’s Earth II can raise awareness, although Attenborough was criticised for creating an ‘escapist wildlife fantasy’ in which‘worldwide mass extinction is simply not happening’.
I’m a bit disappointed that Freestone didn’t mention literature, however, especially as this is his field of focus.
And mine too. While entertainment has its place, I also believe in seduction, in pulling the reader into a text through imagery, language, plot and character. And this is what I’m trying to do in my ecobiography, as I explained in my presentation. The impetus for writing the book is to raise awareness of the South West Australian Floristic Region (SWAFR) which is one of 25 biodiversity hotspots around the world (and the only one in Australia), by rendering the lives of the plants Georgiana Molloy collected. I’m following them from the south-west at the time she collected them in the 1830s, to England, where they were distributed by James Mangles, a plant middleman, and then back to the south-west to see how they’re faring now. This forms the book’s plot. The characters are Georgiana and the Noongars with whom she interacted, the botanist Mangles to whom she sent his specimens, and his acquaintances, among whom he distributed Georgiana's’s specimens.
The plants, too, are characters, with different colours and textures, and ways of trapping and acquiring food, and responding to air and light. Through rendering them, I’m trying to explain that they are as just as important as humans. In a traditional biography, a human is the focus of the work, but in an eco-biography, the non-human is of equal significance. My premise is that, if we want to have a life, we need to write the lives that support us. And language is of the utmost importance in this respect - through it, I show readers the beauty and vitality of plants.
I’m nearly halfway through the project, and soon I’m heading to England to do research on Mangles and his botanical buddies, which will require much trawling through archives. Hopefully I’ll have time to post as I go, but if not, I’ll be updating my Instagram and Facebook author pages fairly often, in case you want to see what I uncover of 19th century science!