By Joe Ferguson
We created the sciences, and like all human products they bear our fingerprints. I don't mean the foibles of those in pursuit of scientific discoveries, fame, or recognition. The way we formulated those systems and concepts is based on how we use our internal wiring—our perceptual abilities—in an attempt to understand the world in which we live. As such, the sciences contain human truths.
That realization is lost on some. Traditionally the humanities have been thought of as the fields that study what it means to be human. Many of us, however, have had a moment while reading a science book or sitting in a chemistry class when we’ve encountered a scientific principle that transcended an application solely to that subject and was relevant to our personal lives.
Earlier this year a fascinating account of that experience was published in Lily Brooks-Dalton’s Motorcycles I’ve Loved—A Memoir. It tells the honest and affecting story of a young woman’s journey to independence and self-empowerment through a fascination with motorcycles and with the principles of physics. Lily took time to answer some questions in the following interview:
Joe Ferguson: "Motorcycles I’ve Loved" is anchored in the principles of physics—in fact, the names of all the chapters have roots in physics or science. Why did you decide to include the principles of physics in your very personal memoir?
Lily Brooks-Dalton: Honestly, including the element of physics came before I decided to let the writing get really personal. I was initially really interested in how I could better understand both physics and motorcycles by pairing them up, then as I started writing about my experiences an emotional thread began to present itself. Gradually, using all three elements to reflect and illuminate each other became the through line for the entire book.
JF: It would have been easy to apply the principles of physics to just motorcycles, but you also applied those principles to your life. In the chapter titled Entropy, for instance, you relate your difficulties coming of age in a boarding school. How have the principles of physics helped you make sense of your personal experiences?
LBD: The order of physics really appealed to me—the knowledge that there are very discernible rules. Emotionally, there are no such rules. Processing emotional experiences is an uncertain business, but by borrowing a scientific framework for each chapter I found that I could more easily make sense of my experiences and find some clarity in them.
JF: Has physics always been part of your way of looking at things, or is this something you found later?
LBD: I didn’t really give physics much thought until I was 22 and was fulfilling a requirement for my undergraduate degree. It was an introductory course, and I really struggled with it. I was so interested in the ideas behind the material, but the way it was presented—via math—was really challenging for me. Coming up against a challenge that was both befuddling and intriguing really caught my attention, so even after the course ended I was hooked on finding a way to teach myself what I hadn’t really been able to learn in the classroom.
JF: Are there other areas of science you are looking at now in a similar way? Will those be included in future works?
LBD: Absolutely, I love finding creative ways to incorporate science into my writing. It’s a good excuse for me to keep learning and that process always jumpstarts my creative juices. My new book, Good Morning, Midnight, which is coming out in July, is a novel that came from a deep interest in astronomy and radio engineering. I got to read so many amazing books in the name of research! There’s so much more that connects to astronomy that I want to write about, but at the moment I’m finding myself really drawn to the human body as well. Anatomy is something I know very little about, so I’m excited to dig deeper and see what kind of stories might come from that exploration.
JF: How does literature fit into the SciArt domain? What do you hope readers take from reading Motorcycles I’ve Loved?
LBD: Well, I think the science fiction genre is the most obvious way that science and literature meet, and while I love all different kinds of sci-fi, I think there are so many other ways that science and fiction can intersect. I’m always excited to find books that take on science in a new and engaging way. It is my hope that Motorcycles I’ve Loved achieves that. In terms of what readers take away from it, I try not to be too attached to that. I hope it speaks to them in some way, but beyond that it’s out of my hands.