Sunday, October 12, 2014

Flight Behavior: Science in the Arts

Monarch butterfly at Fernald Preserve in Harrison, OH where they are part of a program that marks butterflies to help study their migration patterns and basic life history--a topic that dominated Kingsolver's 2012 book, Flight Behavior.

I just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, a fictional story about the migration of the monarch butterflies that suddenly goes awry, leaving butterflies overwintering dangerously north of their traditional spot in Mexico due to changes in the climate.  Kingsolver does what we hope a program we are developing at Miami University will do:  cross-pollination between the sciences and art to result in science-infused art that conveys some science along with being a valid piece of art.  Kingsolver has the luxury of collaborating with herself since she is trained and has worked as a scientist and she also has a talent for writing.  (Ah, collaborating with yourself—the introvert’s ideal; the NSF’s antithesis.)  The book is interesting and worth a read for sure, but it also reveals the challenges of this science-arts cross-pollination: does a scientific message get in the way of the art?

I spent last summer with a group of talented MU students from science and the arts. The group I worked with, “the pesticide group,” involved a poet working with scientists in my lab. It took us quite a while to figure out what the message was—it wasn’t just an academic exercise, because I wasn’t sure what the message should be, which I found astounding given that I had been working with pesticides for the last 20 years!  The message from the poet was expected to be “pesticides are bad,” if we boil it down. We spent a lot of time thinking about and deliberating a more nuanced message—something closer to the science, but that was worth communicating to the public.  Pesticides, certainly, can be bad, but they are also useful—whether “natural” or synthetic.  Ants in the kitchen? Do you learn to live together or pick up some ant traps at the store?  Personally, I go for the ant traps and we have certainly used more natural methods as well, but the ant traps are pretty standard around here.  And, of course, pesticide use is certainly a major part of our agricultural practices, for better or worse or somewhere in-between.  So what messages or insights do we draw from our lab’s research that can be translated into poetry?  Can the art transform the science to a new audience?  (Stay tuned for that reveal!)

I do wonder how the normal public responds to Kingsolver books.  I know a lot of my science friends love her books.  Her messages tend to be right on target for science communication, but should art have such a blatant message or should it be more nuanced and complicated?  If the message is more direct, does it end up singing to the choir or reach new audiences and open their mind?  Or is a direct message sufficient for the people who fall in the middle of an issue?  I have family members that I know wouldn’t be convinced by a novel and would find Kingsolver’s message irritating, getting her marked off their reading lists—given that they’ve rejected objective data and scientific expertise, a novel with such a direct message seems unlikely to leave much of a mark. Perhaps though for the people who have not thought about it, it makes them think about it in a new way—the way Uncle Tom’s Cabin influenced people’s opinions on slavery. Inviting people to think about something in a new way and welcoming them to a new conversation --that perhaps is a noble goal and a valuable outcome.

In any case, the monarchs are on my radar and I have a few conservation biology students next spring who will also find them on their radar too (although not specifically this book).  I would love to hear your thoughts on Kingsolver’s books:  she gets the science right, but does that hinder the artistic effort?