This issue, titled “Science Fair,” does something remarkable. That’s not news for Tin House, which is known for being remarkable in regard to its high literary quality and appealing, light-filled design. But this issue is uniquely wonderful because it shows in a variety of ways how literature, which you love, and words, which transport you, are all intertwined with the materiality of science—and that’s not all science fiction (though there are some wonderful examples of that). It makes science mysteriously accessible to those of us who revel in metaphor and myth. It makes metaphor and myth accessible to science-eaters by showing them how one came out of the other, how both are in us, both make us what we are.
Andrea Barrett’s “Particles” is about an early 20th-century shipwreck in which two rival scientists—researchers of evolution theory—must learn to survive together. It’s a long, absorbing work of mainstream fiction, the kind you’re sad about when you turn the last page because the characters’ conflicts (both external and internal) are as current as they are historically accurate (aren’t we still arguing what evolution means, what its implications are, what attributes are “natural” and which modifiable by man?), the settings (both shipboard and landlocked) adroitly constructed and crystal clear. Also, the story heightens your awareness that even the best of us don’t get what we deserve, can’t always give what we hope to give. That’s what the best fiction does: it enlarges our sense of our humanity.
Which is Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s point in “The Hard Problem of Consciousness and the Solitude of the Poet” (42). She begins with an anecdote describing the explosion of joy when she realizes she is conscious, despite the despair that enwraps her as she bends over dry philosophy textbooks in a broken-down subway:
my mind was peremptorily invaded by a thought that knocked all other thoughts out of it, including the heartachey ones. The words it used to express this thought—they seemed to be shouting themselves in it—were Consciousness is huge! . . . suddenly my faith in hard and dry reductive materialism was shattered, never to be reassembled.
The essay takes us through a mazy intellectual journey that includes Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, and others before and after them grappling with the titular “hard problem” of consciousness. But Goldstein keeps coming back to humanness: “What if nature has properties that are just as remote from our direct experience as the exotic properties of theoretical physics . . . but we can’t get at them through science because they’re not susceptible to mathematical translations?”:
But there do, in fact, exist experts who have developed another language for expressing and exploring properties of matter that remain out of the grasp of science. The language they have developed is the language of fiction . . . of poetry. . . . In the grip of the poet’s language, every word as considered and necessary as the symbols in a mathematical equation, something transpires, the poet’s deep solitude mixing with my own, so that I am experiencing something undetermined and astonishing, and I am left gasping: Matter can do this? This?
“Science Fair” keeps asking this crucial question, and answering it with whimsy, rumination, speculation, Truth. Amy Leach’s “The Wild What” explains the universe of stars and chemistry in a lyric essay landing on asterisms and asterisks, horselife and hickorylife and ducklife, despotism longing for “sensitive territory.” Her language takes us deep into the configuring of constellations and the necessity for gentleness if such figurations are to last.
Similarly, the language of Megan Levad’s ironic prose poems “Nanobots” and “Why We Live in the Dark Ages,” interrogates the way we educate our youth about science; they make me wonder what in the world we need to do to re-ground ourselves in the rigorous wonder that science and the humanities, together, require.
That question is addressed in an interview with the makers of Radiolab. Jad Abumrad, the tone-master of the show, says, “It’s sort of about mystery . . . a wrestling match between that impulse [to sit in your dorm room and smoke pot] and what the scientists are doing.” He and his partner Robert Krulwich tell Tin House editor Tony Perez that the key to the success of their collaboration is that they “start by mystifying something,” then proceed to “demystify it,” then “remystify it in a new way.” The essential task, they seem to be saying, is to show that “matter can do this—this!” in the midst of that “something warm that glows a little.” Matter matters—that’s the premise of “Science Fair”—but it’s the immaterial that makes it matter.
These works are the tip of the iceberg, a keyhole glimpse into the fiction, poetry, essays and reviews that comprise this issue’s exhibition of science, of life. Tin House has another winner here. This issue is, in a nonscientific word, magic.