Exploring science through literature

How dull were your school science text books? Yeah, mine too. The only experiments I remember were dropping potassium into water, where it explodes, and dissecting a sheep’s lung. After putting a tube down it and blowing it up, of course.

I also remember that potassium is on the far left of the periodic table along with other elements that have similar properties and I know that is how the periodic table is arranged: by properties.

I also remember that lungs are like big balloons full of smaller balloons and that the massive surface area this creates means loads of oxygen can get into the blood and carbon dioxide can get out.

I remember these facts, not because I was ‘taught’ them. I remember them because I learnt them. There is a difference. From the point of view of the student, teaching is passive, learning is active. In order to really learn anything, I mean life-long learning, a person needs to be actively involved. They need to be engaged. That needs two things: relevance and entertainment. With the potassium the entertainment value is high, with the lungs the relevance is higher, but both made an impact through a combination of the two.

Many people find science indecipherable, and through this, intimidating. However, there are so many well written, entertaining texts on fascinating, relevant science that this doesn’t ever need to be the case. For example, in a recent collaboration with Glasgow Libraries, the Wellcome Trust Centre for Molecular Parasitology at Glasgow University visited established book groups with a copy of ‘Parasite Rex’ by Carl Zimmer.

Parasitology is a varied and complex field and Parasite Rex is not a text book. The author dissects the field into manageable, accessible pieces, using real life examples to take the reader around the world on an emotional journey encountering the diseases, the horrors, and the scientific challenges. These creatures have such complex lives it took scientists decades to work out their life cycles. They are so supremely well adapted to their lifestyle that they can live alongside, even inside, the most advanced defence system ever conceived: our own immune systems. Slowly all our readers found themselves nurturing a horrified fascination for these parasites which bordered on admiration.

And this power to transform thought and opinion, from grossed out to fascinated, to widen horizons, is the real treasure to be found in science writing.

Take the word ‘carcinoma’. The word itself is portentous and full of threat. Most people know it is used to describe cancer. Some people will know that it is used to describe only a certain kind of cancer.  ‘Carcinoma’ in fact describes abnormal growth on the outside and inside surfaces of the body, including skin cancer. There are many types of skin cancer and more than 90% of people diagnosed are cured by treatment. Is the word as scary now?

Creative and accessible explanations allow readers to understand the science, giving them confidence. Comprehension diffuses the fear these words can generate and creates a more rational and realistic point of view. 

In our book groups we had an overwhelmingly positive response to our visits and Carl’s book. All our readers said it was entertaining, if a bit icky. From disgusted and sceptical they became engaged with the science. They asked questions that the visiting scientists admitted they didn’t know the answers to. Yet. This confidence to quiz specialists in their subject areas was created over the course of just one book. Our readers became scientifically literate in parasitology.

They also said they wanted to explore more science through writing. As they do this their scientific literacy will build to a point where they will hold informed opinions about emotive and difficult areas of scientific and social policy, such as animal research, stem cell research and, yes, even measles vaccines.

If this is what we can gain from reading one well-written, entertaining and relevant science book, we need to be encouraging more people to explore science in this way.

Read part 1 of Mhairi's blog, Exploring writing through science, here

Mhairi Stewart

As a molecular biologist, Mhairi spends much of her time investigating the sex life of the malaria parasite, and has a passion for using literature and storytelling as a gateway to scientific understanding. She has a strong belief that art and science are both creative disciplines, and has co-created science comics and narrative non-fiction on various scientific topics. She also helps design innovative and engaging workshops for all ages, which her husband, Gary Erskine, delivers as Perfect Spiral.