Q & A
1. When did you begin writing Luminous Fish? Was there a particular experience or event that served as impetus for the book?
No, it was cobbled together, starting from the true 1950’s experience with J. Robert Oppenheimer through now (though it always took a back burner to serious science and family commitments), probably due to my physiological need to write.
2. You’ve been working in biology for more than thirty years now; what changes have you seen for women in the sciences since you received your PhD in 1963? What changes are you still waiting for?
Not many changes in this country, I suspect the children are more poorly taken care of than ever. The best insight into this is a book, A Hand Up: Women in Science, sponsored by AWIS (Association for Women in Science), edited by Deborah Ford. Changes must be in the community, in the care of infants, babies and toddlers by parents and others. Our children are not private property. As my hip-hop poet grandson, Tonio Sagan, puts it in one of his delightful, naughty rhymes: “I will not order my kid from a catalogue”. Only changes for children can lead to appropriate scientific opportunity for women.
3. Since you first developed Serial Endosymbiotic Theory (SET, named by Prof. F.J.R. “Max” Taylor at UBC Vancouver) in the 1960s, it has moved from unorthodoxy to orthodoxy; similarly, some biological models you work with now (Gaia theory, for instance) are at the edges of what the scientific community currently recognizes as fact. Is the controversy surrounding your work ever difficult or disheartening for you?
Since I consider my close colleagues on scientific issues (e.g., Michael Chapman, A. K. Dewdney, Michael Dolan, Ricardo Guerrero, John Hall, Stephan Harding, J. W. Hastings, Bryce Kendrick, J. E. Lovelock, Margaret McFall-Ngai, Renate Radek, Jan Sapp, D. C. Smith, Dennis Searcy, Sorrin Sonea, E.O. Wilson, et al.) correct (and their detractors as merely ignorant), I see no controversy at all. We never disagree among ourselves, although we often modify our views because of new evidence. The concept that the “scientific community” considers anything as fact is a convenient fiction for TV, textbooks, standardized examinations, magazine publishers, pharmaceutical and medical supply companies and others who mold public opinion for their own purposes. I’m only disheartened by the paucity of funding for our work, and by the continuous pressures on me for “advanced begging.”
4. Does being a woman in a male-dominated profession affect how your peers perceive your ideas?
Ask them! I very much enjoy the male/female ratio in science.
How often do the biases of participants in science affect how work, especially theoretical work, is received?
All the time. No science, or any other sort of writing is without bias. No meaningful distinction or description of anything can be made without an historical, including a natural-historical context. This implies that writing unavoidably displays bias, prejudice, nationalism, profound ignorance, incompleteness and other manifestations of slanted truths. Especially theoretical work.
5. As I was reading Luminous Fish, I was amused to see a love letter from one scientist to another that included graph describing the perceived intensity of their love. Do scientists express–or experience–love differently from people in other professions? What are the challenges for scientists in balancing a supremely rational professional life with an often-irrational personal life?
I was told in the late ‘70’s by a superb editor Janet R. Williams (who modulated the writing of later-famous scientists for years at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project era) that I simply could not include any graph in fiction writing. Why not? Because it is not done, she claimed. Although she taught me how to write I won that round because (1) Chelsea Green didn’t remove the graph and (2) the allure for me in fiction writing is its stark contrast with scientific writing. That I am permitted to say what I wish in the ways I judge best delights me. Scientists love to render quantitative those aspects of experience most others assume are qualitative. I, too, am amused by this line graph.
6. Sciencewriters Books, very much your brainchild, has a mission to improve popular understanding of all the sciences. What are the challenges in writing science for a general readership, as opposed to writing science for scientists?
One needs to collaborate with superb writers who are familiar with the limited level of specialized knowledge most readers enjoy and therefore capably correct the prose. I have been lucky in both my choice of children and to finally have found both magnificent publishers, Chelsea Green, and a great agent, Georges Borchardt.
7. What is the attitude among scientists about books on science for the general public?
Most serious scientists worry that it is a waste of time, and they are unable anyway to write for those with little or no background. They tend to leave books on science for the general public to John Brockman’s clients who may be excellent spokesmen for science, but usually they are not scientists. The scientists with whom I work generally must be coaxed to seek fame and fortune. They tend not to look kindly on those who take short cuts to inform public media because the media, intrinsically limited, imposes restrictions that force scientists to distort their truths so grossly that their descriptions and admonitions cease to have meaning. Science itself, for any given scientist, moves extremely slowly, methodically and with difficulty. There are no breakthroughs.
8. How do your peers see that part of your work?
They usually don’t to know about it because they are busy doing science; they tend not to read for pleasure “out-of their field”. Nearly none of my peers or colleagues know our greatest contribution beyond our original research science itself is in the three education units: (1) What Happens to Trash and Garbage? An Introduction to the Carbon Cycle (2) Living Sands: Teaching Time and Space with Fossil Protists (Foraminifera) and (3) Peas and Particles: Estimating Large Numbers to Understand Natural Selection, and our great number (more than 300) of short videos of live organisms. I doubt that even you wonderful bibliophiles at Chelsea Green Publishing Co. are familiar with our educational work, mostly unpublished, meant for learners at all levels.
9. You’ve become known in recent years for your activism beyond the confines of science; some have suggested that you’re using endosymbiotic theory as a political idea. What do you think is the proper role of a scientist in the political sphere? Are scientists held, by the nature of their profession or the opinion of their peers, to a different standard of citizenship than other professions?
I don’t know. Held to higher standards by whom? I am ignorant of politics and find political activity boring and full of the “madness of crowds”, mass delusion. To me it is all “he said, she said.” Natural history, its investigation and description by scientific modes of learning, is the only professional reality for me. Science and nature study generate the only news. As one of my well-fed and clothed friends quipped, “People act for three reasons: to earn money, to earn academic credit or to enjoy genital friction.”
10. Who do you look to for inspiration in your career?
Curious, honest students. All those who truly inspired me throughout my privilege to investigate and write are dead: some I never met (e.g., L.R. Cleveland, Ludwik Fleck, Harold Kirby Jr, Edouard Chatton, Konstantin Sergeivich Mereschkovsky, Ivan Wallin, E. B. Wilson). Others I dearly miss: Elso S. Barghoorn, Hans Ris, Claude Monty, G. E. Hutchinson and Heinz A. Lowenstam. None were “public personae,” they all were far too humble, far too aware of our great gulf of ignorance.