Monthly Archives: November 2013

Remembering Doris Lessing

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This is my rather mangled copy of Doris Lessing’s “Briefing For a Descent Into Hell,” which I read during my first semester of college. It was a dramatic experience on several fronts. After devouring its pages in our campus café, I remember stuffing it—along with a leaky water bottle—into my backpack and shuffling home, only to find the book  drenched and covered in smeary ink blotches later that evening. The incident shook me up a little; I didn’t like seeing the pages of my existential journey warped, damp, and drooping. My friends graciously helped me dry it with a hair dryer, but the damage had been done. My book was a crumpled mess.

The other reason “Briefing” was a dramatic experience was because it made me angry. The story’s central character is Charles Watkins of Cambridge University, a patient at a mental hospital, whose psychological journey through space is much more appealing than the novel’s external reality. I was angry because of the way the story ended, and the way Watkins was treated, and because at the heart of things, I really just wanted Dr. Watkins’ world to be true. That kind of literary desperation—the need for personal validation and affirmation within the confines of a novel—was a kind of high for me. So there it was—I was angry, thrilled, joyous, and defiant all at the same time.

On Sunday, when I heard that Doris Lessing had died, I remembered “Briefing” as well as “Martha Quest,” the only other book of hers I’d read. And I reflected on how both of these books made me feel at this fragile time in my life. If I were to read “Briefing” now, I would probably think about it much more scientifically; I would appreciate its ideas but I probably wouldn’t get as swept up in them as I did then. And “Martha Quest”? Today, I’d probably focus a little less on the content of Martha’s character and instead concentrate more on the way Lessing constructs her words, her thoughts, and her feelings.

That said, I don’t think I’ll read these books again. Doris said it well herself:

“There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag-and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or a movement. Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty-and vise versa. Don’t read a book out of its right time for you. ”

And that’s what I remember of “Briefing” and “Martha Quest”—they got under my skin, they meshed well with my own patterns of thought. They were perfect for the 18-year-old I was, and they encouraged me to be more of the 18-year-old that I was. How does a writer pull that off so beautifully? I don’t know, but I thank her for it.

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November 20, 2013 · 4:58 am

Can We Foster Appreciation For Uncertainty?

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Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief of io9, published a fascinating column today on what she’s calling the “valley of ambiguity.” Her hypothesis, in short, is that two kinds of stories go viral: memes (simple, highly shareable units of information), and truth-telling vessels that reveal hidden facts about our world. A valley dips below these two mountains, where human implications are uncertain and where scientific discoveries are of nebulous consequence. The “valley of ambiguity”: writers want to go there, but often don’t. That’s because stories on either side of the valley encourage ownership, Newitz argues:

To share a story is in part to take ownership of it, especially because you are often able to comment on a story that you are sharing on social media. If you can share a piece of information that’s an absolute truth – whether that’s how to uninstall apps on your phone, or what the NSA is really doing – you too become a truth teller. And that feels good. Just as good as it does to be the person who has the cutest cat picture on the Internet.

It’s not that the under-hyped stories don’t get read. It’s just that we don’t measure our success by them:

I know for certain that there are plenty of stories that get read, but not shared. I have seen the statistics on io9’s back end. But when we measure a story’s success by virality, which is what we must do in the age of social media, the content of our popular culture changes. We measure success by what people aren’t afraid to share with their neighbors, rather than what people will read on their own.

Frankly, I don’t want to be part of a society that values certainty over ambiguity so vocally. If we read content that’s open to interpretation—if we enjoy content that leaves forces us to ask questions rather than get cozy with answers—I would argue that we need to be sharing it, too. We need to be telling each other about these stories, because an article that lives in the valley of ambiguity is also a channel—a passageway—to new ways of thinking and seeing. And even though sharing these stories more often probably won’t level the terrain, at least we’ll be aware of the need for new measures of “success.” Otherwise the intellectual community that Kathryn Schulz so eloquently described could become a falsehood, a poor reflection of what our communities (whether scientific, political, educational, artistic, etc.) truly value. Answers are wonderful, but we can get there only by asking questions, and by wading through the murky waters coursing downhill. Interestingly, Newitz’s column itself is open to interpretation, and didn’t offer any solutions or irrefutable truths. Even more interestingly, that’s what prompted me to continue the discussion.

Photo Credit: Flickr/davidyuweb (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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Some Thoughts on Blindness

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Last week I published my first full-length feature for NOVA Next on bat-inspired echolocation devices for the visually impaired. I’m very proud of this piece—not only because it was my science writing debut, but also because the process of writing it was so illuminating. It was as though a halo had formed around the core of the story; blindness, I realized, is so much more than a physiological condition. It’s also about perspective, privilege, perception, diversity, and delusion. With so many ideas swirling around in my head, I had more material to work with than I could actually incorporate into the piece.

And maybe that’s a good thing. My article referenced just a sliver of the research that’s being done in the fields of neurobiology, bioacoustics, and perception. For me to address some of my marginal questions would be to consign myself to many more months’ digging. Still, I was intrigued. I learned to see blindness as a realized metaphor as well as something akin to autism in one specific way: both kinds of people cannot access—to varying degrees—a certain category of human experience [Nautilus]. For autistic people, this is sometimes referred to as “mindblindness” or “context blindness”; for blind people, this is simply the inability to see with one’s eyes. Granted, scientists have documented an association between the two conditions, at least in infants and children. In a review of Linda Pring’s Autism and Blindness: Research and Reflections, Stefano Palazzi writes:

There are similarities between the neurodevelopmental regression (setback) experienced by blind and often multi-functionally impaired infants and those who are going to be retrospectively diagnosed with autism.

Rebecca Andrews and Shirley Wyver put it this way in another study:

For many of the children who are blind and who also display features of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) it is possible that their characteristics, while being representative of ASD, actually follow a different pathway to those children who have ASD and are sighted. It is proposed that these children should be viewed as having specific features rather than being a part of the collective of ASD.

Regardless, one point I make in my article is that there are all different types of people, and so any scientist or engineer building a device to help the blind community will need to acknowledge that sight and non-sight are two separate but equal ways of perceiving the world.  A powerful and worthwhile bio-inspired device would harness the beauty of those underprivileged perspectives and elevate them to a more functional and efficacious level, rather than annihilate them.

Another aspect of blindness that I found incredibly interesting was a topic that Jeff Migliozzi, the students’ English teacher at Perkins, brought up with me in conversation: sex education. He’s done webcasts on the topic before and it, too, deals with issues of expression, perception, and identity. The concept blew my mind. How do you go through puberty without some sort of visual understanding of what’s going on to your own body? How are love and physical attraction different for members of the blind community? So many questions to explore. Let me know what you think—either about this post or my article—and leave a message in the comments section!

Photo Credit: kalexanderson/Flickr (CC)

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