By Yasmin Tayag
This past Saturday at Mellow Pages Library in Bushwick, SciArt Center hosted its first-ever “Reading Science” event, which invited writers from the New York area to read their science-inspired creative fiction and nonfiction. Writers Ben Ehrlich, Leora Fox, Michele Lent Hirsch and Miles Klee read from their recent works, touching on subjects ranging from the discovery of the neuron to the nature of time.
Ben Ehrlich, a writer, read from his work in progress, The Brain that Discovered Itself, which is largely inspired by his work in translating the nonscientific writings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the Nobel laureate often credited as the father of modern neuroscience. Ehrlich’s work read like a pastiche of discrete scenes - some descriptive, some historical, some philosophical - all of which were subtly connected by the thread of neuroscience. Commenting on his choice of format, Ehrlich said it was an attempt to mimic the layout of the brain, with its millions of independent neurons separated by infinitesimally tiny spaces.
Neuroscience PhD candidate Leora Fox read a series of her science-inspired poems, which included the playful Pop Quiz - Neurodegenerative Disease, a “cross between a poem and a neuroscience exam,” and ASMR, a meditation on the disease known as autonomous sensory meridian response, which manifests itself as a tingling at the base of the skull. Her work, heavily informed by her experiences in the lab and in the world of academic science, often lets the science talk for itself; in her procedural poem Principles of Instrumentation and Design, she creates a collage of scientific jargon, which, read aloud, was unexpectedly rhythmic and soothing. “Really complicated science makes really lovely sounds,” she explained.
Science journalist Michele Lent Hirsch’s poetry was thoughtful, clever, and concise. Her poems included Discriminating Taste, inspired by her discovery that caterpillar larvae bear an uncanny resemblance to bird droppings, and Who Says Doctors Listen, which contemplates whether surgeons actually keep their promises - like to play certain music during surgery - once their patients' anesthetics have kicked in. Having written poetry for many years, she says it came as a surprise to realize that she kept returning to scientific themes. Exploring this idea further, she suggested that science presents a way to explain things that are difficult, especially for those who are not religious.
The final reader was Miles Klee, a reporter and writer for The Daily Dot and author of the novel Ivyland and the upcoming collection of stories True False. Klee read from The Truth About Time, a meditation on the different ways we have chosen to measure and represent time and how those choices have shaped the way we live. Bringing up the most ancient of ways to measure time - the tally stick - he points out that we “also call those gouges nicks; as in British slang for 'to steal'; as in 'Old Nick', an epithet for the devil; as in the phrase 'in the nick of time', an idiom that lives on in good health, there being no better way to convey the air of violent synchronicity that comes with arriving almost too late.”
When we think of the relationship between science and literature, we often stop at science fiction, overlooking the great body of science-inspired writing that exists beyond that realm. The writers involved in "Reading Science" pushed far past the usual boundaries - a reminder of just how far creativity can take us.
SciArt Center is a New York-based organization dedicated to bringing together artists and scientists for a common cause. Learn more about the Center and their membership program here.