Why does the earth move?

Far more men than one usually sees at a writers festival session made it to this one, which fitted very nicely with Playing God, yesterday’s look at doctors as writers. In that session Norman Doidge and Glenn Colquhoun talked about the necessity to be very careful with metaphor; Doidge even set out on a trip to disprove the metaphor of the brain being “hard-wired”.

The scientists and science writers in today’s session had no such qualms about metaphor, in fact  they found metaphors and analogy to be very helpful in giving us ways to think about things that are too big for our brains. Hamish Campbell illustrated this very nicely when describing the oceanic crust and the continental crust as milk and cream – I always like a good food analogy.

Falling for science
Falling for science

Novelist Bernard Beckett is fascinated with the melding of story and science. How does story remain meaningful when the foundation it is based upon shifts? Darwin is the classic example but future advances in genetics and biology will play with our ideas of what humanity is.

In producing her anthology of New Zealand science writing Rebecca Priestley found good science is one thing but good writing about it is another. Many important scientific breakthroughs are described in prose that is boring, plodding or dense, but the writing that conveys the excitement of discovery is often written by scientists and almost always relies on metaphor.

Commendably anxious to get something in the actual subject of the session, Priestley read a description of an earthquake and consequent tsunami; the tsunami recogised by a sailor who had seen one before by its  “phosphorescent crest”, a phrase that proved to me that poetry and science are not so very far apart after all.

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