Stuart Clark Makes Kepler and Galileo Live Through Fiction

Doctor Stuart Clark, Image courtesy of Simon Wallace,

Image courtesy of Simon Wallace,

The way Stuart Clark describes the fascinating lives of Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei, he could almost be talking about the plot of a novel.

Oh, wait – he is. Clark recently gave a talk at the Isobel Bader Theatre in Toronto, promoting his new novel, The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth, the first in a trilogy about the lives of perception-changing scientists. Clark didn’t do a reading, but just described the facts behind the events in the book. And despite a dose of jet lag (he’d just flown in from London, England), he kept the audience riveted. Did you know it was Kepler’s interest in astrology that led him to the discovery of his three laws of planetary motion? Did you know Tycho Brahe kept a pet elk in his castle, free to roam the entire place and eat from the table??

Clark, a well-known astronomy journalist with a PhD in astrophysics, has planned his trilogy not merely to try interest people in science and those who practise it. He wants to illustrate just how dramatically society’s entire view of what the universe is and how it works was changed by a few pivotal scientists. So in his next novel, The Sensorium of God, he’ll feature Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley, and The Day Without Yesterday will complete the trilogy with the lives of Albert Einstein, Edwin Hubble, and George Lemaitre.

Clark frames the explorations of Kepler and Galileo as part of the quest for the Theory of Everything. Any lay person who follows popular science through books, articles, or documentaries will recognize that phrase. Scientists today are still trying to find that one, all-encompassing theory that will explain everything from the behaviour of the most fundamental particles of which the universe is made, all the way up to the behaviour of gigantic galaxies and stars.

But when Kepler and Galileo began, their society believed they already had the Theory of Everything: astrology. Kepler was trying, in fact, to establish principles for the movement of heavenly bodies so astrologers would have better data with which to work. And many other scientists who studied the stars were working to an extremely religious agenda, trying to find a way to sync their imperfect calendars with the actual seasons, so the dates of religious events and rituals would occur at the right time of year. As Clark told his audience, when Galileo was forced to read a prescribed recantation, he refused to read the part where he confessed to being a bad Catholic. He simply was not, and the church ultimately agreed.

Picture of front cover of The Sky's Dark LabyrinthClark described both the times and surroundings these two scientists lived in, as well as the development of their thought. He moved from events to theory, and back again, with delightful ease. And all his explanations were easy to understand, no matter what he described. It’s not hard to see why he moved away from the world of academic research into that of astronomy writing. He brings alive the subjects he describes, so almost anyone can understand them. He currently writes for the European space Agency as the senior editor for space science, was formerly the editor of Astronomy Now, and regularly writes articles for such publications as The Times, New Scientist, and BBC Sky at Night.

Clark is in Toronto (with a few days in Montreal) for two reasons. First, he did this talk and a colloquium as part of the outreach of the newly-established Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. The institute does experimental research, but also conducts outreach into the community, to educate and share the passion of astronomy. It’s a testament to Dr. Clark’s qualifications and his skill in handling his subject that a work of fiction would be considered an opportunity for scientific outreach.

He’s also here for the International Festival of Authors, to promote The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth simply as a work of fiction. Whatever discussions he might engage in, or whatever readings he might do, his audience is due for a treat. His novel straddles science and and fiction the way he himself straddles science and journalism. And on either side of that divide, his writing makes the subject intriguing and understandable.

Chemistry Lecture a Compound of Several Strands in Science World

Families of blood cells

Families of blood cells

Doctor Robert Morris may have illustrated more about the scientific world than he intended, in last Wednesday’s lecture, “Chemists Have Solutions.”

There’s a divide amongst scientists who want to get the public to recognize the value of what they do. (Read this book review of Don’t be SUCH a Scientist for a more detailed discussion.) Some like to use a lot of pizazz when they talk to a general audience. Others prefer to lay out all the detailed scientific information and “let the facts speak for themselves.” The criticism of the “pizazz” approach is that it often means using flashy graphics and doing a lot of pep talking at the expense of some scientific detail. On the other hand, a dry recitation of every pertinent fact tends to put an audience to sleep, and their appreciation for the value of the work is not enhanced.

As he presented his lecture at the Toronto Reference Library, Morris was clearly aware that you have to do something to grab your audience’s attention, so they’re keen to hear what you’ll say next. He started by mixing three liquids in a lab flask, promising an interesting result after it “cooked” for a while. And he made liberal use of slides, and interspersed the occasional trivia question, making a point of letting a child in the front row give one of the answers.

Yet for all that, Morris is still clearly of the “lay out all the facts” school. Most of the first half hour was about the Chemistry Department at the University of Toronto. We heard how many faculty there were, how many grad students they teach, how many awards they had won, where they were ranked compared to other university Chemistry departments…we heard it all. And then, since it’s the International Year of Chemistry, we also heard about and saw slides from events held several months ago. Yes, it’s really too bad the Toronto press didn’t properly publicize or cover those events, but they really weren’t that interesting — in the present — to an audience  for whom attendance was now impossible.

I suspect what the public really wanted to hear about was new chemical breakthroughs that allowed the production of cool new gadgets or processes. Forget how many grad students are in the university department! Show us that piece of cloth made with nanotechnology, which repels dirt and water and can never get soiled!

Morris did actually show slides of a couple of those breakthroughs, later on. The most intriguing was the Lab on a Chip — a tiny computer chip that can do medical analysis of an even tinier drop of blood placed on it. When that chip becomes common, no lab tech will ever take four vials of blood from us again, for tests. And instead of waiting five hours for results, we’ll have them in twenty minutes. We also learned about a newly developed process that can send antibodies into a person with leukemia, to target the specific family of blood cells causing the disease.

And that liquid compound Morris had made at the beginning? It provided a “traffic light” type of display. It had turned to amber while it sat, but with a little shaking, it turned red. And with much more shaking, it turned green. So there were a few of the “Wow, that’s cool”!” moments. Just not enough of them.

Doctor Morris was a great guy who was clearly excited about the work he and the other faculty and grad students were doing. His department deserves its high world rank, and is making a significant contribution in many areas. But in trying to get a general audience excited about chemistry, he may not be the person to grab their attention and keep it.

Charles Darwin: a very human scientist

Charles Darwin was such a scientist that he made a “Pro” and “Con” list when deciding whether or not to get married. And he was so human that one item on the “Pro” side was that in marriage, he’d have someone to humanize him, so he wouldn’t spend all his time thinking only of theories and experiments.

These two themes – his science and his humanity – braided delicately together at the Darwin exhibit that finished its run at the Royal Ontario Museum last Monday.

The Exhibit, called “Darwin: The Evolution Revolution,” suffered controversy in every North American city where it appeared. (This was the last of the North American showings; it now heads to London, England, for the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth in 2009.) Or rather, the exhibit suffered from fear of controversy. Because all the exhibiting museums’ usual corporate sponsors and patrons (40-50 of them, in the ROM’s case) were afraid to support it, afraid the big bad North American creationists would get mad at them.

Fortunately for the ROM, two organizations believed this quaking fear was not just unseemly for rich, powerful patrons, but was insulting to the integrity and freedom of science. So both the Humanist Association of Canada and The United Church Observer magazine kicked in with large donations, followed thereafter by the Blyth Academy, and Zinc Research. What was sad was that the controversy was ultimately unnecessary. During my hours at the exhibit, my constant thought was how utterly non-threatening it was.

Through letters, artefacts, and notebooks, we were shown Darwin’s life in great detail, from childhood until his death in 1882. We learned of his interests and scholastic achievements as a young man, the relationship of the Darwin and Wedgewood families (yes, those Wedgewoods), how he would have abandoned plans to voyage on the Beagle if his father remained unconvinced he should go. How he cared for his wife Emma and their children, and what a rich, happy family life they had. How deeply and genuinely he grieved that he caused pain to Emma, a devout believer, by the conclusions of his scientific studies. We learned a great deal about Charles Darwin, the man.

Running parallel to his personal life were displays of his notebooks, specimens, charts, and letters. I walked from case to case, following the development of his scientific theory as he wrote and recorded data in those notebooks – from the germs of the idea to its final expression. What was obvious throughout was that Darwin based his theory on mountains of evidence, collected in a multitude of experiments conducted in both the plant and animal worlds.

Yet this exhibit was never confrontational. Whenever his interpretation of the evidence differed from the standard view of his time, the meta-narrative acknowledged this and presented the opposing viewpoint. You never had the impression the message was, “How stupid those people were!” Rather it was, “Those scientists held a different view, so Darwin had to justify his theory with evidence.”

In fact, if anyone was confrontational in Darwin’s time, it was one of his defenders after The Origin of Species was published – Thomas Huxley. As Huxley said, “I am sharpening my claws and beak in readiness.” And it was actually Darwin who tried to tone him down.

The only place where the exhibit’s tone grew harder was its ending statement. It mentioned that today’s objections are the same ones made 150 years ago. But it states unequivocally that “Creationism, including intelligent design, does not offer a scientific alternative to the theory of evolution. By invoking the act of a Creator or an intelligent designer as the explanation for life’s diversity, creationism invokes a cause that lies outside our powers of observation and thus outside the realm of scientific inquiry.”

And that was what the entire exhibit was about – scientific inquiry. That alone would have made me realize yet again that what I had been taught as a fundamentalist – that Darwin was virulently “anti-God” and tried to use science to rebel against him – was utterly false. Most attendees would already have known this. But what we might not fully have realized was Darwin’s warm, compassionate humanity. For me, that was a large gap that this wonderful exhibit finally filled.