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Davis, California

Friday, May 24, 2024

Column: Not a “science person?”

Every kindergartener knows that humans have two kinds of stomachs.

There’s the dinnertime stomach – easily filled by Brussels sprouts and slimy eggplant. And there’s the dessert stomach, which always has room for pie.

First-hand research tells me this is true.

I’ve noticed that people also think there are two types of brains: science brains and art brains.

Science brains are analytical, art brains are playful. Science brains want data, art brains want inspiration. A science brain is Spock, an art brain is John Lennon.

College students often divide themselves into the science camp or the artistic humanities camp. Folks from the humanities camp describe themselves as “not math people” and the science camp thinks poetry is nonsense.

Well, I think the idea of science people and art people is nonsense. Every week, when I write this column, I mash together my science world with the world of creative writing. I’ve found that constructing a clever sentence is as aggravating as designing a working experiment.

It’s all trial and error. Paint brushes or Petri dishes – the creative process is the same.

Yiyun Li is an associate professor of English at UC Davis. Her books have won many honors, including the California Book Award. Writing is Li’s craft.

So I was surprised when I learned she used to be a scientist.

“I got a bachelor of science in biology, and I was going into a doctorate program in immunology,” Li told me.

Li grew up in China as a mathematics prodigy. At school, she was expected to go into the sciences.

“It wasn’t by choice,” Li said. “I was very good at science, but I wasn’t very dedicated.”

While in Iowa for the doctorate program, Li took a few creative writing classes. She fell in love with language and story telling.

Writing became her passion. Li continued in the doctorate program for a couple years until she decided to quit with a master’s. The decision has paid off. Last year, after publishing three books, Li won the MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius Award.”

Li’s transition from science to writing shows that there’s no such thing as a science brain or an art brain. A brilliant person is a brilliant person.

“I think what drives people is curiosity,” Li said, describing how the creative process is similar between fields.

Li is not the first scientist to cross into the arts. Russian-born author Vladimir Nabokov spent much of his life as an entomologist. He theorized on patterns of butterfly migration, and his huge butterfly collection is now in the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

Science writer Jonah Lehrer recently wrote an article about Nabokov called “The Advantage Of Dual-Identities (A Case Study of Nabokov).” Lehrer argues that Nabokov’s obsessive attention to scientific details made Nabokov a better writer.

“Nabokov believed that his background in [butterflies] helped develop his deep passion for detail and precision,” Lehrer writes. “The same obsessive interest that helped [Nabokov] catalogue insect species also allowed him to write ecstatically vivid prose, for what Nabokov said about literature is also true of science: ‘One should notice and fondle details.'”

Questions, details, experimentation, failure, re-dos and criticism. This is the scientific method.

I’m currently in Li’s creative writing course. Li encourages us to write draft after draft, slowly making improvements.

She wants us to experiment.

I worked in a lab for nearly three years, and I saw how often researchers have to start over. A specimen dies, samples get contaminated. The methodology for a project improves with time.

“You have to try a lot of things to make it work,” Li said.

Li was talking about writing when she said that, but I think it applies to every part of life – even the writing of newspaper columns.

MADELINE McCURRY-SCHMIDT also loves that “Community” actor Ken Jeong was a doctor before he became a comedian. I hope I never see my doctor in his underwear. Any artists/scientists out there should e-mail Madeline at science@theaggie.org.


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