If you listen to NPR, you know the voice: the upbeat, inquisitive, even comical voice of science correspondent Robert Krulwich. I recently heard his story about honey bees. He explains well--as he always explains everything well--how when bees are in search of a new hive, it’s an absolute democracy.
A lone bee, aware that his greater bee friends and workers need a new home, may find a hole in an elm tree. It’s perfect. That bee will give a little dance, exuberantly touting the elm tree and giving directions to it. Other bees then fly to it, and return with a dance of a thumbs up or down. Even if the new bees don’t like it, the original bee will keep dancing enthusiastically. “Go to the perfect elm tree!” At some point, if more bees than not don’t like the elm tree, the original bee just stops giving directions. Krulwich interviews Cornell professor Thomas Seeley, who explains why—and why bees make a perfect democracy.
It occurs to me this is how people find new books. There's the dance by critics and friends of “you must read this” but the democracy of individual readers eventually chooses a book--or not.
This is why I love Krulwich--I often see my own world in a new light. Krulwich takes his audio stories and turns them into blogs, and at his site, there is a search feature. Put in a search word, and often something interesting pops up. Here are a few great ones I found:
Krulwich looks at writer Kurt Vonnegut, who, in a YouTube video, gives a lecture in story design.
He also looks at writer Virginia Woolf, who tried to capture the everyday world as it lands on a person’s mind. Krulwich leaves with the conclusion, “This is why we need art; it teaches us how to live with mystery.”
Here’s another: a story about Julius Caesar’s last breath, and you probably have one of Caesar’s molecules in you now.
I grew up in a generation where science was to be our savior. We’d put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, said John F. Kennedy—and we did. We’d go metric even sooner, said my fifth-grade teacher. Well, we never did that. Still, science came through in other ways rather quickly: hand-held solar-powered calculators, home movie theaters, and GPS in our cars that can place us where we are on earth down to the inch (why not in America down to the meter?)
The generation in my college English classes right now are mostly intimidated by science, I learned a few weeks ago. I'd assigned the book The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, and there was protest at first. I’d selected the book because it explained simple physics, quantum mechanics, and, by the end, multiple universes--the multiverse--in such an easy style, I thought it’d blow their minds. (To get Krulwich’s take on the multiverse, click here.) What I discovered, however, is that fully half my students don’t like any science classes, don’t get science, and don’t like to think about science.
“How do your cell phones work?” I asked.
“By magic?” said one.
I’m happy to say the other students weren’t as intimidated, and many of them loved the book. Their enthusiasm in discussion for The Grand Design won many of their peers over.
This made me pause, however. My new novel, Love At Absolute Zero, is about a young physicist who falls in love, and the reader gets a lot of his science along the way. If people in their twenties see that the book has science, maybe they’ll be too intimidated to consider it.
My worry evaporated when one student who’d read the first four chapters of my book said, “I didn’t even think about the science because it’s very clear—and besides, I want to know what happens to Gunnar.” My protagonist Gunnar Gunderson has just given himself the mission of finding his soul mate, and he’s using the scientific method to do so. Of course, like some great geniuses, he’s clueless to the human condition. My goal was to pull Gunnar and the reader through comic hell as Gunnar doesn’t let go of his quest. Gunnar could be the cousin of Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces.
This week’s Time magazine has a story about America’s need to bring science back in education because we now have a shortage of scientists. So perhaps, I’m doing my part as English instructor and novelist. Robert Krulwich is even more on the front lines. I’m a fan.
(Christopher Meeks's book Love At Absolute Zero is now out as an eBook and comes out in print in September. Click here to read an excerpt.)
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