Please visit our new site!


Unexpected treasure

Science in Literature (Ed. J. Terpening)

Eva Amsen 29 March 2009

Textbook fashion: Detail from the cover

When this book came out, Jurassic Park was a box office hit, Pluto was still a planet, and the human genome project was a scary thing of the future

A few years ago, a brightly lit second hand and overstock bookstore opened in my Toronto neighbourhood, in a building that had previously been boarded up as long as anyone could remember. The store quickly became notorious for luring in unsuspecting passers-by. One evening, I was running some errands when I suddenly found myself in the science section of the bookstore. I didn't need any books, so I tried to leave, but just at that moment I spotted a small orange spine: Science in Literature. Unable to resist, I pulled the book out. Exploring fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, said the subtitle on the front cover. Was this...a lab lit text book?

I flipped it open. The previous owner had written her name and grade in the inside cover: "Leah, 13A" [1]. On the next page, the foreword by the book's editor, Jon Terpening, said exactly what I was thinking: "To the student. The title of this book may evoke one of two reactions in you: Make you feel that you have come upon an unexpected treasure [or] cause you to shake your head in disbelief and wonder what ever could have possessed your teacher to bring such a book into the classroom." The bookstore had won again, and I left the building with my new purchase.

This Canadian high school textbook (Harcourt Brace & Company, Canada) is divided into four units: "Images of Science", "Science around us", "Science in Society", and "Science Above and Beyond Us". The first unit contains photos and paintings related to science, and the other three sections are collections of poems, essays, cartoons, or fragments of books – both fiction and non-fiction.

The material is incredibly diverse in tone and style, including, for example, "Calvin and Hobbes" and "The Far Side" cartoons, a lengthy defence of science fiction by SF author Ben Bova, the lyrics of Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble", fragments from Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, an essay about the joy of composting kitchen waste by Canadian writer Sarah Sheard, Walt Whitman's poem "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer", and a fragment of Lewis Wolpert's The Unnatural Nature of Science.

I was curious how this book had been used in the classroom. Some of the "end of unit activities" were meant to encourage thinking about the role of science or the image of scientists: One assignments asks students to compare off-hand mentions of Frankenstein in two of the included essays with Shelley's original story. But other questions were more general writing activities or text analyses, and not very interesting ones at that: "Does 'The Boy In the Bubble' work without music?"

I tried to find people who might have used the book in school, and contacted a few friends who graduated from Canadian high schools in the years after the book was printed (1994). Nobody had heard of it. One person replied: "All of our English texts (and the curriculum) were 10-20 years old. We wouldn't have had a book that new." And that might be one reason why it didn't catch on: the book is now fifteen years old, and parts of it are incredibly outdated. When this book came out, Jurassic Park was a box office hit, Pluto was still a planet, and the human genome project was a scary thing of the future. The scientific Zeitgeist of the mid-Nineties is apparent in most of the book, but what is not in the book is an even more striking sign of the times. It's a work from before Dolly, iPhones, Facebook, SARS, Avian Flu, and anthrax threats. An entire sub-section is devoted to genetic engineering, but focused on the technologies of 1994. Our current collective obsession with infectious diseases, networks, and mobile technology is entirely absent. One of the included science fiction stories, "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer" by Lesley Choyce, is set in a future in which students send their holograms to class instead of going themselves. Now that students can follow class lectures online, this seems unrealistic, even for a fictional future.

What did withstand the test of time was the unit "Science Around Us": a wonderful collection of short stories and essays about doing science – either by scientists or by curious lay people. It has a Primo Levi story, "Self-Control", about a bus driver so fascinated with physiology that he brings a medical textbook everywhere he goes. There's an essay from Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, who systematically studied the behaviour of her friend's dog, taking notes as she follows him on walks. This section also has contributions by scientists and science writers: a fragment from Dian Fossey's Gorilla's in the Mist, and a piece about walking by science writer Jay Ingram. But the highlight of the book is the essay "Down to Earth", in which biologist and writer William Jordan describes alfalfa fieldwork he did as a student. He worked together with farmers who showed immense interest in Jordan's project, and encouraged him to look at his research in a new way. The four page description of Jordan's initial surprise at the farmers' perceptiveness and intellect, and the renewed appreciation of biology he got from them, contains all the take-home messages of the entire Science in Literature textbook: science really is everywhere, anyone can cultivate an interest in science, and the practice of scientific research can make for interesting stories.

Science in Literature is a great collection, but as a high school textbook it doesn't quite work. The contemporary topics are too easily outdated, and the general message about our relationship with science could be conveyed with just a few of the selected pieces. That being said, this would have been my favourite textbook if I had had it in high school, and it's certainly my favourite second-hand find of the past year. An unexpected treasure indeed.

[1] Until 2003, Ontario high schools had a "Grade 13" – one year longer than most high school programs

Other articles by Eva Amsen