I have a friend in another laboratory in the Biology department at school I’ve been talking with quite a bit lately. I’d like our conversations to be beneficial for her work or at least informed on my part, but she is researching a class of molecules called chalcones that may act against nematodes, and I don’t know anything about molecular biology. I had to take classes related to it, of course, but I was always drawn toward larger organisms like fish, and so I chose to specialize in a different part of biology.
It’s interesting to me that there are so many different aspects of biology that it’s possible for two biologists to barely be able to communicate with each other. I can usually find interest in any aspect of biology by remembering that the really interesting thing about biology is what organisms have in common, like the genetic code. I arrived at this point of view, however, because I had access to a well-established format for generating interest in aquatic life, visiting the aquarium. There are no aquariums for nematodes, however, so I’m not sure how we can stimulate general interest in their biology.
I think good writers are part of the answer, because a good writer can make almost any topic interesting. For instance, I recently read an enormous book on whaling and whale science, The Sounding of the Whale by D. Graham Burnett, a topic I am not supremely interested in, because of the extraordinary writing. I am not certain a writer can inspire the deep curiosity and the sense of identity of a professional biologist, but that doesn’t matter for stimulating popular interest in science.
Although writers can stimulate interest in science, they have their own agenda for their work. Part of a writer’s agenda, I believe, is to entertain, creating intense interest through the skilled use of language. A writer also entertains themselves, in that they can follow their interests in whatever direction they like. For instance, Carl Zimmer, one of the very best science writers, has compiled a book of science tattoos. I have zero interest in science tattoos and I don’t particularly care about the movement to popularize nerd/geek culture, but I have been interested for several years in how science and culture intersect, a topic I continue to explore on this blog. My conclusion is that there is a public side of science, which is usually presented as a set of facts that illustrate something about the world, and the face of science that only a few people see, the one that is glimpsed only through a deeply committed experience. I was joking with my friend that she could get a life-sized nematode tattoo on her shoulder, which would be about a tenth of an inch and basically just look like a freckle, but in fact we don’t need tattoos to mark our deeply ingrained values.