Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Interview with Bryce Ellicott, Part 1

Recently I featured a poem written by scientist and writer Bryce Ellicott, whose work was included in the anthology Life in Me Like Grass on Fire. Bryce kindly agreed to answer a few questions, and in Part 1 I've included Bryce's comments on the relationship between science and art.


Amy: You have a Ph.D. in Planetary Science and have spent many years studying lunar crater formation. How does your formal education and work affect your writing? How do you feel about the relationship between science and art?

Bryce: Art and science have some aspects that are the same and some that are very different. "Doing" science and "appreciating" art require some of the same skills--observation, consideration, analysis, etc. They have to be approached with an open mind, limiting any preconceptions, in order to let as much of what there is come in unfettered by any of our filters.

Science is a process. The goal of that process is to be able to explain the workings of the cosmos as clearly and completely as possible. Let's take gravity. In studying gravity you might conduct experiments where you watch items fall, and time how fast they speed up. You learn that the acceleration of gravity on the earth's surface is about 9.8 m/s2. This is powerful. Knowing this is part of how we have learned to launch rockets to other worlds.

But science can't tell you how gravity feels. It can't tell you what it means to experience gravity as a human being. It can tell you how much bone loss you experience without it, but not what that might feel like, the truth of the phenomenon as a part of the human condition. That's what art does.

Here's an unpublished poem with a lot of science, humor, and just a peak at the idea of what it would mean to change the rules ... always an unsettling idea for a scientist.

Laboratory Philosophy

We have to clean
under the mass spectrometer
with liquid nitrogen.
The instrument
has been bolted to the floor
for years,
and besides, the magnet is
much too heavy to move
and would need to be retuned
if you did.
So whenever we get bored,
which is often,
we fill up tall dewars
with LN2
and sheet the boiling liquid
out beneath the equipment.
Then we run to the other side
to watch each bubbling,
dancing bead roll out
dust bunnies in front of it.
I say
“It’ll never work in zero G.”
You reply
“No gravity, no dust bunnies.”

Bryce Ellicott

I really did this - this is totally autobiographical, and shows you what scientists do for fun, and what their humor is like. I was trying to express here that idea of what we take for granted. Gravity. My comment was flip, and so was his.  And funny. But it made me think. Something as mundane as a dust bunny  requires gravity. Dust filters down through the air and lands on floors, it is then moved by air currents across the surface and into areas where it can collect. There is no 'down' in space. Dust would remain suspended, and would be circulated easily by the ventilation system, through the air and to vents, there
caught in the filter. Items might remain untouched for years, and no dust would ever build up on their surfaces. A minor but strangely unsettling twist. Dust means age. What if that simple and predictable marker were gone?

I could provide a number of other examples, since science has really sparked my interest in the strange and beautiful of the universe (or perhaps it was the other way around). Science and art inform one another, and work together. The only tension comes from people who want to use the process of science
to prove the unprovable - which by definition cannot be done. That is the realm of art and spirituality. Science can tell you how to build a clock. It can't help you if you set it wrong and miss a hot date. That's where poetry comes in.


For more on poetry, science, and writing sci-fi, check out Bryce's excellent blog One Writer's Mind


Danny Castillones Sillada said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Danny Castillones Sillada said...

I can relate with Bryce. Although, I am not a scientist, my educational background in philosophy and theology taught me how to be theoretical and logical in reasoning, purely cognitive, which is often bland and boring? But when you contextualize and put emotion on what you are writing either science or philosophy, for me, that is art - creative thinking or writing, like his poem “Laboratory Philosophy,” I can feel the humor and the humanity of the scientist.

Bryce’s example of “gravity” between empirical, in the parlance of science, and phenomenological as “part of human condition” is a vivid analogy between art and science. Art goes beyond what science can’t reach in the human ‘sensation.’

Thanks, Amy, for this wonderful piece :)

Amy said...

Thanks for your great commentary, Danny. I agree with you regarding Bryce's gravity analogy, though I couldn't have stated it as well as you did: empirical vs. phenomenological.

As a poet (and a human being) I've always been fascinated with physics, especially how it frames the experience of time and space. It's as if there's a language in physics that helps me go deeper into the poetic language I strive for. Science and art truly complement each other.