Review of "Are Angels OK?"
Writers going bravely where science has already been - and vice versa
Bill Manhire and Paul Callaghan (eds.). Are Angels OK?: The Parallel Universes of New Zealand Writers and Scientists, Victoria University Press 2007.

This brave and playful book is a collection of stories and poems with a scientific theme. This is not science fiction, however, and nor is it science education. It is a collaboration between scientists and writers -- as well as doing research and attending science lectures, each writer was teamed up with a group of (very good) working scientists. As science, the collection is not at all distinguished, and it was never meant to be. As a commentary on science, on its methods and spirit and motivations, it is interesting but not ground-breaking. As literature, it has some fine moments and some awkward ones, where the science jars. But as an experiment in a new genre it is marvelous. It is best read as an attempt to answer the question: in what ways science contribute to literature? The answer may be: not many ways. But this collection a courageous attempt to find as many ways as possible, with varied and charming results.

Writers tackling scientists -- in the nicest possible way

The challenge for these authors is not to put science in a poem or short story. It is to have lots of science in a short story, and to make it an active participant in the writing, an element that adds literary value to the work. The items in this collection show different degrees of interaction between their science bits and their non-science bits. And they have different ratios of science to non-science. Some take an idea from science, interpret it loosely in human terms, and make a story out of it. Others have real equations and real worm-holes. The authors also find different modes of interaction between science and non-science in the collection -- the science performs different roles in different pieces. Science serves as a setting, a source of metaphors, material for history lessons, and a target for explanation or description. The second of these is probably the most common, and it shows the lop-sidedness of the collection: by and large, science is used by writers to further the usual aims of literature, not the other way round.

Lop-sided does not mean biased or narrow-minded or ignorant. The book comes with a rich set of authors' notes, and these show the respect the authors have for science, their awe and admiration for scientists, and the amount of thought and background reading that went into their writing. Witi Ihimaera read Simon Singh's Big Bang; Elizabeth Knox swallowed Richard Gott's Time Travel in Einstein's Universe; Lloyd Jones got his teeth into Eratosthenes and Godel. Many of these writers had a prior interest in some aspect of science. Margaret Mahy wrote The Catalogue of the Universe; Elizabeth Knox has written on time travel in her Dreamhunter Duet; Witi Ihimaera wrote an opera called Galileo. So it pleasant, but not surprising, to see the writers looking on the scientists with a mixture of deference and camaraderie. Vincent O'Sullivan wonders what poets, those "feathery dancers" and "rhythmic stompers", could know about science. But to him, both writers and scientists "turn to our separate mirrors for what/ whatever the ending, starts the same." Margaret Mahy writes that she is intimidated by the thought of reading a book on mathematics; but she sees the work of novelists and physicists as part of the "flow of human conjecture." The title of the collection does well to capture its mood: tentative but friendly.

Sketchy science, fine art: Lloyd Jones and "Elsewhen"
Image: Lloyd Jones, time writer

The lop-sidedness of the collection does not mean the work is of poor literary quality, or that science has nothing to do with it. Lloyd Jones' short story is a case in point. It is no more a work of science than it is a short story, but it is nevertheless a joy to read. It also owes something to Jones' exposure to science. He takes his cue from Godel and a lecture on time cones -- those diagrams, like sharp-edged hourglasses, that physicists use to describe where an object can and can not move through space-time. The story gets its title from the lecturer's whimsical reference to "Elsewhen", the points in space-time where an object cannot go (because it would have to travel faster than the speed of light to get there).

Jones takes Elsewhen to be a kind of limbo or side-line, a place (or time) that is away from the main action, a diversion from the events that usually hold our attention; all the better if the diversion changes dramatically the course of the official event. Jones' treatment of the idea is as important as the idea itself. He does not draw any diagrams of Elsewhen, but sets out to "find this place in the everyday transactions of life." Traffic jams; moments of death, when "time stops, then kicks on"; the intermission of a film; the life-histories of inanimate objects, like letter-boxes; the man who glances up at the window, while going to table-tennis, and sees his future wife: these are all sightings of Elsewhen.

The work is not really a story but a series of sketches. "Snapshots" might be a better metaphor, and the challenge to the reader is to make a film out of this flow of still images. This is hard to do when the snapshots are scattered across time and space, and appear together by accident. Jones' fine metaphor for a jumble of memories is the tip-face, "where the bits of life circulate," discarded but full of significance. "You can find anything", Jones concludes, "absolutely anything at all...by simply joining the dots in a whole new way never seen before."

What does all this have to do with space-time and world-lines? Not much, I think, except in a loose metaphorical way. Moreover, Jones' notion of Elsewhen as a particular kind of moment, where things stand still and accidents happen, may be based on a misunderstanding of physics. Physically, Elsewhen consists in all points in space-time that cannot be reached from a given point in space-time. So what counts as Elsewhen is relative to the given point. By choosing the right reference points, you can make anywhere (and anywhen) an Elsewhen. The literary analogue might be that any moment, no matter how typical or uneventful it seems, can appear novel and significant if we look at it in the right way. Perhaps Jones had this idea in mind. But I'm not sure that he did, because then (for example) the intermission of a film would be no more Elsewhen than the normal flow of the film itself.

Of course, whether or not Jones got the physics right is irrelevant from a literary point of view. The story would convey the same theme, with the same lyricism, if Jones cut out his references to Demeritus, Godel and a physics lecture. Perhaps he could also have hit on the theme without going to any physics lectures himself. The connection to physics in the story seems loose enough that any passing reference to Elsewhen, scientific or otherwise, would have set of the train of thought to which we owe this charming bit of writing.

Fishing for connections

Still, "Elsewhen" shows that, whatever else they have in common, writers and scientists are interested in some common topics. Time is one of them. Jones writes in his end-note that he is grateful to his scientific collaborators for "wrenching me out of worn cracks." But the reason Elsewhen works well as a topic for Jones, I think, is not because it breaks new literary ground, but because time is a standard theme of literature. Poets and novelists have no equations for time, of course, and have no theory of space-time entanglement. But they are interested in the different ways time can pass, and how passing time affects people and ideas. Time is linked to other standard literary themes, like memory, history, and death. These are important for writers because they are important for people. And it is no surprise that Jones' short story is joined by a story about time travel by Elizabeth Knox.

But it pays to be careful in searching out the common ground between scientists and writers. There is a fair bit of this searching in Are Angels OK? Bill Manhire and Paul Callaghan do it, in the introduction and afterword respectively. And a few authors take up the topic in their concluding notes. Between them they cover a lot of ground. Here, commonly cited links between writers and scientists are the use of the imagination, the use of language, and the "hunt for metaphors" (as Colquhoun puts it). Callaghan says that physics and novel-writing both require "constrained creativity": innovation guided by pre-existing standards. Manhire writes that poets and physicists have a common interest in paradox (quantum mechanics gets a good airing here). And Glen Colquhoun thinks that both use "compact forms of language."

Whatever the deeper links might be between the disciplines, science is a fruitful source of metaphors for the writers in this collection. Lloyd Jones plays loose with his analogy to light-cones. Margaret Mahy does for space what Jones does for time, linking the thoughts of a dying man, his decrepitude and longing for freedom and a "way out", to a downward scale of physical objects -- from the skin to blood cells to atoms to quarks. Catherine Chidgey's story about a precocious weight-lifter is less explicit about its physics analogies, but just as reliant on them. "Pressure, load, weight, force, how much a person can bear," Chidgey writes in her end-note. "Thinking about the meanings of these terms told me about my main character's nature and relationships as well as his special physical talent."

But there are dangers in fishing for connections, and some of them come to the surface in this book. One danger is that you cast the net too widely, and draw in too much. Margaret Mahy writes that science and science "are not closed-off compounds, but in their various ways are part of the human flow of conjecture." But it is hard to think of any mental activity that is *not* part of the "human flow of conjecture". So Mahy's observation hardly sets physics and writers apart as a promising couple. Another danger is to focus on aspects of science (or writing) that are present in, but not distinctive of or essential to, the disciplines in question. Manhire makes something of the "resonant power of words" in science and literature. He quotes with approval the Nobel Prize-winning physicist (and poet) Roald Hoffman: "[In science] words are being made to describe things that seem indescribable in words...[so] the language of science is inherently poetic." Paul Callaghan's response to this is a gentle rebuke, noting that although the language of physics has its moments, the words and their poetry are not the "nub" of science. "Scattering amplitudes" and "temporal surprise" may be loaded with rhythm, significance, and other forms of literary cash. But the scientist trades in a different currency.

A third danger, perhaps the biggest one, is to ignore the *differences* between science and literature. Neither Manhire, Callaghan, or Mahy fall into this trap. All of these authors recognise that scientific claims are subject to reality in a way that literary statements are not (though of course literary statements may be subject to constraints of other kinds, perhaps even other kinds of empirical constraint). And they all observe that, although the physicist and the poet both use language, their languages are completely different from one-another. To use Colquhoun's phrase, not many of us know the "secret handshakes of mathematics."

Nice tool, wrong job: Jo Randerson's "Everything We Know"

In some places the authors overestimate the combatibility of science and literature, and it tells in the results. Literature encourages a distinctive style of thought, as does science. In Are Angels OK?, friction between the two tell us as much about the value of the literary style as it does about its shortcomings. Consider first a shortcoming. The kinds of associations that writers make are not always helpful in framing rigorous arguments. It may not be true in general that free association is better than rigorous argument, or vice versa. But it is true for particular tasks. It is worth contrasting Lloyd Jones' short story with an essay by play-wright and comedian Jo Randerson, called "Everything We Know." Where Jones applies the literary style to a scientific concept, Randerson applies it to an argument about the nature of science and ethics. Randerson's piece is less successful, and part of the explanation for this is that it uses literary tools to do a non-literary job.

Randerson's theme is "relationships", and the goal is to find a pattern in natural relationships and apply them to human affairs. Randerson takes the "sandpile phenomenon" as her natural pattern. Apparently, if you drop sand into a pile and measure the size of each sandslide that occurs, you find that the frequency of any possible sandslide is inversely proportional to the size of that sandslides. Lots of small ones, a few medium-sized ones, and very few large ones. Nevertheless, it is hard to predict the size and timing of each sandside. For Randerson, this is a launching-pad for a meditation on the fundamental interrelatedness of all things. "Everything is connected in life", so connectedness is good. Therefore conflict is bad. And it follows (somehow) that heirarchies are bad. Boundaries are bad too. After all, "when you put a wall in a body, you get a clot. Blood gathers together in a thickened lump, which would then move fatally through the body." What follows from this Paracelsean logic? According to Randerson, "my testing disproves the hypothesis."

No doubt we should share Randerson's spirit of tolerance and affection for the diversity of things. But if the aim is to come up with sound political and ethical principles, we should be more precise than she is ("Everything is connected in life" is, by itself, not a very meaningful claim. It has a certain aphoristic ring to it, but no more than, say, "Real connections are rare.") And we should not be convinced by Randerson's style of argument, which is rich in imagery but poor in critical reflection. In a different context, her movement from sandpiles to blood clots to human wars would strike us as the light step of an accomplished writer. In this case it looks like a wobbly polemic.

"This lecture is like a flock of pigeons," Randerson writes, "and my goal, rather than caging them, is to liberate them and observe the patterns as they flutter out of sight." This captures Jones' piece nicely. There, an idea from science releases a flock of images, memories, jokes, phrases, incidents, and other literary things. Randerson tries to do the same thing, but the result is unconvincing. Why? I think it is because they have different goals: Jones to explore an area of human experience, Randerson to justify a political position. There's nothing wrong with doing either of those, but only the first one can be done well with just the tools of literature.

The gift of writing

The literary style is not good at rigorous argument, but it is good at dealing with concrete human situations: the "everyday transactions of life", in Jones' terms. Study the human voice in this collection and the special power of writers becomes clear. Even Margaret Mahy's story, with its rich descriptions of subcutaneous life, is at its best when describing human life. What is interesting about the science in the story, the musings on space and place and gravity, is not the science itself but what it tells us about the old man who is musing on them. For all the detail about lipids and unfolding proteins, the detail that catches in my mind are about human gestures and instincts and mannerisms, carefully observed by the author:
"The old man's slow fingers were pinching a fold in his bed cover, and rubbing it slowly backwards and forwards. His eyes opened."

Elizabeth Knox's short story "Unobtanium" is especially notable in this respect, because she treats human relationships in some detail. The details of time travel in her story are interesting and valuable, but it the real talent of the story is to take human foibles and eccentricities and give them color. For example, Mark is the gifted but wayward brother of Knox's narrator. Here, in the hospital just before his mother's death, Mark argues with a doctor. The passage neatly captures his misdirected brilliance.
"Mark flinched and snatched is arm back. He began to tremble, but he kept on talking. He had dredged up the name of the new drug. His voice cranked up a notch and in it, just detectable, was a hint of a boast about his recall, about what he knew -- an eagerness completely out of keeping with the deathbed.
The doctor said, plainly, that the drug wasn't suitable in these kinds of cases.
Mark went on as though he hadn't heard."

The special skill of these writers is not just to describe human psychology. They also appeal to human psychology in their descriptions of natural phenomena. Scientists, as scientists, have no interest in making nature vivid or easy to grasp to ordinary readers. But this is just what the likes of Knox and Jones are good at. Here is Jones writing on time:
"I never knew that time could bend like sheet metal. I sort of accepted that time came packaged in clocks and watches. I never realised that there was such a thing as big time and little time. Little time belongs to us. It sits on our shoulder from the time we are born and rides us all the way to the grave. Big time belongs to the cosmos. Big time is showtime -- space is a fat boy who just gets fatter."

This sort of writing is useless as science. And insofar as it lacks rigour or precision, it falls short of communicating science. True, it describes natural phenomena in terms that people can understand -- we all know what a "fat boy" is, and the metaphor of "riding to the grave" will move most of us. But the "fat boy" metaphor conveys nothing of scientific substance except the notion of perpetual expansion. All the other associations of "fat boy", rich as they may be, don't help us to understand the nature of the cosmos. In the trade-off between rigor and accessibility, Jones puts all his money on accessibility.

Is the literary style *necessarily* at odds with communicating science, with its precise concepts and detailed arguments? Is it better able to communicate science than, say, Richard Dawkins' style of writing? I'm not sure of either answer. What Are Angels OK? reminds us is that, whatever the answers, the literary style gives us something that science does not: a feeling for human psychology, how it plays out in real life and how it responds to words and images.

To conclude, here are a few lines from one of Vincent O'Sullivan's poems in the collection:
I like the stories, although the stories
are not what it's about...
..Rutherford as a boy when his mother
tells him, through a storm, what makes
lightening strike, he answers politely,
'No, no it doesn't, mum'
But that
is like liking the wrapping wrapped around
the gift, the gift as much in the dark
as the famous cat...

O'Sullivan is quite right that stories are not what science is about. Focus on the stories and you miss out on the real gift of science. But nor is science the nub of a story. Focus on the science in a story and you miss out on the real gift of literature. A stern critic would say that Are Angles OK? fails because it does not give us the best of science and the best of literature in one shot. But if the collection fails in that respect it is because the natures of science and writing do not allow it, not because of any weakness in Knox or Callaghan or Randerson. Where the collection succeeds is in exploring the many ways in science can sit side-by-side with literature. In doing so it traces out the limits of that project, and tells us something about the strength and weaknesses of the people on both sides of the lab door. The collaborative spirit wins out, even if some of the combinations look clunky. Scientists and writers may not be best friends, this book says, but they can make excellent neighbours.

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