I’m No Scientist – a poem by Kate Rauner

 

Neil deGrasse Tyson, scientist

Neil deGrasse Tyson, scientist

“I’m no scientist.”
To say that’s just a pose,
A way to say that I insist
On things I wish were so.
I shove my fingers in my ears
And hum to drown the noise
Of the grim reality
Of truth that brings no joy.
Knowledge that upsets my friends
Will only cause me pain,
Will only get me tossed aside,
Abandoned once again.
Science always moving
Closer to the facts.
Demanding to me that I change
Is just too much to ask.

Claiming “I’m no scientists” is a sadly understandable way to duck an issue in politics (though I’ve got to wonder why that’s okay), but it’s no way to understand problems, or solve them. Surely we can do better. Give yourself a break – you didn’t create most of the opinions you reiterate. “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do?” An apocryphal quote, most appropriate to the topic.

 

Terrible Illness, Terrible Treatment

19th century illustration of mental illnesses

19th century illustration of mental illnesses

Treating mental illness is difficult and we don’t always know what to do. On a personal note, I have ties to four people who committed suicide while under doctors’ care. That’s hard to accept in the world of modern medicine. Even people with good access and good insurance may continue to suffer, which I suspect increases public skepticism. Why pay for treatment programs if they don’t work?

I’ve read Anatomy of an Epidemic, by Robert Whitaker, which says the powerful psychoactive drugs used for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression may work in the short-term but, paradoxically, make long-term mental health worse. Now there is a study, discussed here, suggesting that drugs widely prescribed for insomnia and anxiety increase a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s. The article addresses some of the questions we should ask when reading about a medical study: cause versus correlation, relative versus absolute risk, and the effects of dose levels. The risk seems significant in a colloquial as well as a statistical way.

Interestingly, another article I read the same day says that talk-therapies are equally effective as drugs for social anxiety and should be tried first.

Whitaker found evidence that the outcome for patients with mental illnesses has been getting worse over time in the United States and most other wealthy countries despite the medicines available. But he also found a success: Finland had high rates of schizophrenia in the 1970s but today has good long-term outcomes. They use a combination of therapies, non-drug treatments and judicious drug prescriptions.

My post has wandered over a range of conditions and worries. There’s a lot for anyone to consider and science has no foolproof answers. The links above are all popular sources, not scientific journals, and consulting medical experts is a must. Treatments offer risks and benefits, but there are no magic drugs.

Ferns – Haiku by Kate Rauner

Ferns flow down the slope

Lacey waves break on my knees

In the wood’s deep shade.

FernBedInForest

This is my last haiku inspired by this year’s visit to the forests of the Northeast. You may also enjoy my other haikus from these forests: Leaves #1, Leaves #2 and Leaves #3.

 

Story of Americas You Don’t Know, Pre-European

Happy Columbus Day – or maybe Sad Columbus Day. It’s ironic in America that a holiday started to help combat anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant (especially anti-WOPs) feelings is becoming viewed as an unseemly celebration of a brutal conquest. It’s confusing when the meaning of something from my childhood changes. For those of you who know more about the “conquest” interpretation, please consider that those who view Columbus Day as a positive holiday may not be bigots – they may just be showing their age.  All of us can enjoy this article from 2002:

“Before it became the New World, the Western Hemisphere was vastly more populous and sophisticated than has been thought—an altogether more salubrious place to live at the time than, say, Europe. New evidence of both the extent of the population and its agricultural advancement leads to a remarkable conjecture: the Amazon rain forest may be largely a human artifact.”

Sphere, a Hit Science Fiction Novel

SphereIn my attempt to understand writing advice, I’m reading popular science fiction novels with an eye to learning. I recently read Sphere by Michael Crichton. The book has a 4 1/2 star average on Amazon with 831 reviews, 83% of them giving 4 or 5 stars. That’s beyond popular – it’s phenomenal. The criticism I noticed most was from readers who disliked the ending. There was a one-star review that said “a book that kept me up until 3 a.m.” but the reviewer didn’t like the ending. As a new author, I think I’d be thrilled with that review.

As a reader, I enjoyed the book and happily read to the end. Like some reviewers on Amazon, I noticed a similarity to the classic scifi movie Forbidden Planet, but the setting is different enough that it didn’t bother me. Crichton is known for basing his stories on science, and Sphere includes a neat view of life in a deep (really deep) sea habitat. Since the story is fiction, the author is entitled to departures from reality even in the (presumably) real portions of the story. For example, after a description of how sounds go squeaky in a helium-dominated atmosphere, each character hangs a “talker” around their neck. I wonder if there is such a thing, or if it’s simply convenient that they speak in normal tones for the rest of the story. (I often wonder how much nonsense is inside my head because of something I read in fiction that sounded real enough to believe.)

Did Crichton follow typical writing advice?

The advice: Characters should have demographic, family, and psychological histories.
Crichton gave his protagonist some perfunctory family background that, for me, could have been skipped entirely. The protag’s technical background as an academic psychologist is important to the story and Crichton offers an entire chapter on this. I found that chapter interesting, but the story would have been the same if Crichton wrote one paragraph saying ‘he’s a big-shot psychologist.’ It was a “data dump” but it didn’t discourage me from continuing to read.
Why did it work? Crichton interspersed the data dump with some comic elements (political big-shots asking silly questions about aliens). He presented the dump early, so it did not interrupt the action. He limited his data dumps: other main characters were given technical backgrounds that supported what they did in the story, but only the protag at the data dump level.

The advice: Show, don’t tell.
Crichton “told” often. Some was in context – the leader gives a briefing to new arrivals. Some was blatant telling in the narrator voice: “Many theorists argued… Men already had trouble communicating… Yet men and dolphins might appear virtually identical… But the field of knowledge we were most likely to share…” That is the beginning of each of a string of paragraphs. The “telling” ends by coming back to why “the team mathematician was going to play a crucial role.” Crichton often simply tells something, then proceeds to use the information in the story. But some of his telling is not critical to the story.
Why did it work? It was easy to swallow. For me, the science in the “telling” sounded real and interesting. Otherwise, the “told” information was slipped in easily and used immediately.
The advice: Avoid “saidisms”. He said, she said, is best unless you can drop the “said” altogether because it’s obvious who spoke.
This is advice Crichton follows. And, rather than inserting the dreaded adverb, Crichton couples dialog with action:

  • “‘Oh my God,’ she said. She pushed her thick dark hair away from her face.” (As an added bonus, this character’s physical description becomes a plot point late in the book);
  • “Norman went on in a rush. ‘And when does Jerry…'”

The advice: details of the setting must matter to the story and be there for a reason. The character’s perception of the setting matters more than objective description.
Crichton follows this advice. The setting is strange and unfamiliar, inherently dangerous – a deep sea habitat with helium-dominant atmosphere. Crichton is known for the science and technology behind his settings. His descriptions gave me a good picture of what it would be like in such a place and I can follow how it falls apart during the story. The main character often gives his personal perception of the setting.

What did I learn? Crichton puts in words that are necessary to the story or the setting. Description creates reality for the reader, and Crichton creates a believable world. Where showing would cost a lot of words, he tells the reader something simply – then uses the information (though I might quibble on some of the backstory).

While no single book makes everyone happy, Sphere is a smash hit. I’ll try to learn from it. If you’ve read Sphere, why do you think it worked? Or not?

By the way, Sphere’s copyright is 1987. Do you think I’m making a mistake looking at an older book for guidance? Has the measure of fiction writing changed enough in thirty years to make its appeal irrelevant?

Leaves #3 – a Haiku by Kate Rauner

Sifting down through trees

Their journey names the season

Leaves that fall like rain.

leaves three by me

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m visiting the area where I grew up – southeastern New York State. Autumn is well underway here and the leaves are changing color. My first two haiku on leaves are here and here.

Space Weather and Solophobia

space_weather_dialsHave you noticed reports from time to time (for example, here) warning of “huge expulsions of magnetic field and plasma” from the sun, perhaps accompanied by dire predictions that satellites will be destroyed, the electrical grid disrupted, or doomsday is upon us? I hope you have also noticed we are still alive. Predictions of the apocalypse are common and many people take them seriously. Some scenarios are crazy, and it’s not just the sun that frightens people – remember the Nibiru or Planet X 2012 Doomsday scare? But “fear of the sun” probably deserves its own “phobia” term – maybe solophobia.

If you are interested in solar activity, you’ll find many scientists share your interest. I found a nice site to monitor the sun’s activity: http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/SWN/index.html

Scroll down to the gages showing the sun’s magnetic field, solar wind speed, and dynamic pressure. Without studying these terms, you can watch the gauge move from green to yellow to red. Relax when everything is green, and take comfort from the occasional excursion into the red: we’re still here. Click around the site and learn more about space weather.

I don’t mean to disparage reasonable preparation. From earthquakes to hurricanes, there are disasters that can leave you off the grid and beyond help for days. I live in southwest New Mexico on a ridge surrounded by dry forest. Wildfires are common and any fire around me is likely to run straight up the slopes to my house. I keep my home firewise and have a “bug out” list pinned to my bulletin board – a prioritized list of things to do or toss in the car if I need to evacuate. Everyone should be ready to take care of themselves in an emergency.

When you make your own emergency plans, consider two risks. The danger from whatever event you prepare for, and the opportunities you’ll lose by living in a bunker.