Monday, May 18, 2009

Artistic License

After seven years without having people around, Hubble has lost its accommodation to people. It’s gone wild again.

David Leckrone, Hubble Telescope senior project scientist as quoted in “Once Again, Hubble Surprises Astronauts,” by Joel Achenbach, The Washington Post, May 17, 2009

When scientists indulge in artistic license in their written prose or spoken word, the images and comparisons are often, to me, startling and fresh. This certainly emerges when scientists address an audience beyond the scientific community.

I don’t really have in mind those comparisons that are the stock-in-trade of scientists writing popular science. Compare the alien and complex to the familiar in order to explain the former. That isn’t artistic license. These comparisons are necessary if the writer or speaker wants me to grasp, even marginally, the mechanics of a complex concept without my having the requisite deep understanding of, say, higher level mathematics or quantum physics. For example, Physicist Brian Greene, in The Elegant Universe, a popular work on string theory (1999), writes:

To see this [that the universe may have more than three spatial dimensions], it’s easiest to shift our sights temporarily from the whole universe and think about a more familiar object, such as a long, thin garden hose. (p. 186)

To be honest, he gave it a nice try, but, many pages in, even equipped with the image of the garden hose, I still didn’t get it.

No, what I really have in mind is the use of artistic license, the use of tropes, to capture emotions and essence. This language may seek to animate the inanimate, give tangible life to a concept. Darwin did this in On The Origin of Species, giving natural selection a vibrant presence.

It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life. (p. 133, Penguin Books paperback edition, reprinted 1981)

The image this language conjures in my mind is that of an enveloping entity, even a brooding one, weighing and choosing. This is powerful language, breathing life into this concept.

To bring it home to fossils, the paleontologist Richard Fortey in his popular treatise on trilobites (Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution, 2000) describes when, as a boy, he finds his first specimen:

This was my first discovery of the animals that would change my life. The long thin eyes of the trilobite regarded me and I returned the gaze. . . . there was a shiver of recognition across 500 million years. (p. 21)

That resonates with me. That childhood marveling follows into adulthood, as does the feeling that the fossil is alive.

For professional paleontologist and amateur, the sudden rush from discovery and recognition can imbue the discovered fossil with an organic beauty, a living essence that grows and flourishes. If not actually living, it is a portal to strange and distant life. This feeling from discovery inspires one to write and speak, at times, with artistic license.

This post was prompted by my father, now well into his eighth decade, for whom blogging is foreign, though he’s well adjusted to other actually useful aspects of this technological age, such as e-mailing.

The other day, after I rambled a bit about this blog, he asked if it had a name or title. “Fossils and Other Living Things,” I answered. He thought about it for a moment, a puzzled look came across his face, and he commented, “But, fossils aren’t alive.”

Though I tried to explain my feelings behind this title, I failed. This figure of speech simply didn’t connect with him. Artistic license offers no guarantee of crossing the divide separating writer from reader.

And I know there’s poetry in his soul. This is the man who was eager that I read, in my early adulthood, a book he loves, Spring in Washington by Louis J. Halle (1947). Halle was a diplomat, political scientist, and naturalist writer. This book is a beautiful treatise on the meanings of the seasons, not just Spring, in Washington, D.C. The following excerpt captures some of its poetry.

Now – the date being October 21, 1945 – I hold in the hollow of my hand the body of a little bird killed last night in its migration by flying against a railing atop the roof. I saw it lying in the sunlight on the tarred roof this morning, when I went up there, a creature hardly larger than a mouse, with flaming gold breast streaked with black, and gold elsewhere or russet blending into brown and black. It has a slender, pointed black bill. Its fragile, polished black feet simply hang from it, the toes grasping nothing. You would be surprised, holding it in your hand, how soft and thick is its coat of feathers. The plumage is most of the bird, for the body is simply a small hard core at the center which you feel with your fingers pinching through the downy mass. Surely this is some creature of art, created in a hothouse by a magician and raised on nectar fed it at the end of a hair! . . . The magic that produced this complete creature, this little world in itself, really does surpass all understanding. (p. 63-64)

And, yes, I still feel as if fossils are alive.

Source of image of Hubble Telescope: NASA at

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