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10 Reasons Why Young Scientists Should Read (non-scientific) Literature

This is a guest post by a student in our program Amy Wray (@amykwray) who comes to us from UC Berkeley where she did her senior thesis on the theme of disease ecology in James Joyce’s work. -JAD

 

10 Reasons Why Young Scientists Should Read Literature

 

            There are many reasons why everyone should read literature, but I believe that young scientists in particular can benefit greatly from engaging with literary texts. As an undergraduate I studied both Biology and English, and sometimes people ask me why I chose a seemingly unusual combination. Usually my answer is that I just kept taking classes in the things that I liked, but this response breezes over the true complexities of the matter. There is much more to the story because to me the two things aren’t so different after all, and I think that there are a lot of skills that can be gained from studying both the sciences and the humanities (STEManities if you will). Thus, I have come up with this list of ten reasons why young scientists should read literature, and have attempted to match each reason with a corresponding genre. I also gathered several suggested texts, many of which were recommended to me by other literature-inclined science people as well as science-inclined literature people. In choosing these examples, I’ve tried to select works that are neither entirely obvious nor entirely obscure. And so, the countdown begins:

 

10. To become better reader

            Scientists are expected to maintain a thorough understanding of the literature in their specific field. For a young scientist this means not only catching up with previous publications, but also staying abreast of new and ongoing research. Consequently, there’s a lot of reading to be done. Reading literature, especially texts that are dense with information, allows the scientist to practice reading efficiently. These skills translate well to the task of reading scientific publications, where the ability to quickly discern pertinent details from many pages of text will allow the reader to save valuable time.

genre: historical nonfiction

examples:  Summer for the Gods– Edward J. Larson, Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares – Nancy Langston, Six-Legged Soldiers – Jeffrey A. Lockwood

 

9. To become a better writer

            Science writing – whether for a peer reviewed journal, a grant, or a blog post like this – isn’t easy. These formats require the writer to be clear and succinct. Using few words often proves more difficult than using many, which is why the short story is frequently cited as the most difficult form of prose. By learning from the masters of this form, the scientist is able to pick up on other writer’s styles and refine his or her own distinct voice. Young scientists can develop their writing skills by learning how to follow the rules (and knowing when to break them).

genre: short story

examples:  “Bullet in the Brain” – Tobias Wolff, “Where are You Going, Where Have You Been?” – Joyce Carol Oates, “To Build a Fire” – Jack London

 

8. To become a better analytical thinker

            While reading for pleasure can be relaxing, close reading may actually provide a kind of “cognitive training”. Thinking analytically about literature might not be so different from thinking analytically about science. Performing a close reading involves paying careful attention to literary form. By analyzing how certain language patterns (and deviations from those patterns) contribute to the meaning of a text, the reader participates in a rigorous mental exercise that follows a protocol akin to the scientific method. Practicing this kind of analysis can help a young scientist cultivate the kind of critical thinking skills that are imperative for research.

genre: critical essay

examples: “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” – Walter Benjamin, “The Rejection of Closure” – Lyn Hejinian, “A Cyborg Manifesto” – Donna Haraway

 

7. To gain empathy and interpersonal skills

            The act of reading a literary text allows the reader to step into another point of view. Theory of Mind, or, the skill of understanding the mental state of other people, may be enhanced by reading literary fiction. This increase in capacity for empathic response can be beneficial for young scientists who wish to communicate effectively with the general public. In particular, speculative fiction – a genre that includes science fiction – provides scientists with a unique way to think about how different people relate to worlds where science and technology permeate everyday life.

genre: speculative fiction

examples: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Phillip K. Dick, Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro, Parable of the Sower – Octavia E. Butler

 

6. To communicate effectively

            The humanities and the sciences were not always so separate, and the benefits of a liberal arts education include the ability to analyze and interpret information by incorporating concepts from many fields. As fields become increasingly specialized with more and more information to learn, a debate arises over the true value of having a breadth versus a depth of knowledge. As a young scientist moves forward in his or her career, it can be expected that his or her research topic will become more specific, and therefore more narrow, in progression towards the goal of becoming an expert on that topic. As a result, there will be fewer and fewer people who can effectively articulate that topic, and the scientist will be pressed to communicate effectively with more general audiences. By seeking to gain a broad set of communication skills from early on in their careers, young scientists will be better equipped to convey information about their research in the future.

genre: science nonfiction

examples: The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher – Lewis Thomas, Silent Spring – Rachel Carson, Drawn from Paradise – David Attenborough & Errol Fuller

 

5. To understand context

            In A Dance with Dragons, one of George R.R. Martin’s characters states, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies…The man who never reads lives only one” (452). By reading a complex text, like an epic, the reader becomes immersed in the complex world of the story. These texts also function as important works of art that may express elements of truth about the cultures from which they arise. You may be familiar with David Foster Wallace’s fish story, where an older fish asks two younger fish, “How’s the water?”. They respond by looking at each other, perplexed, and one younger fish says to the other, “What the hell is water?”. Like these fish, it can be difficult to ascertain the context of the world that we live in because we are completely immersed in it. By reading texts that call ontology into question, a young scientist gains a better understanding of the context in which their particular field of study exists.

genre: the epic

examples: The Aeneid – Virgil, Inferno – Dante, Moby Dick – Herman Melville

 

4. To learn how to take criticism

            Nobody sits down and writes a perfect essay/poem/novel from scratch, which is why style guides are extremely useful. Writing is a process, and with that process comes the need for editing and feedback. Learning how to give and take constructive criticism, and to value other people’s input, may be difficult for a young scientist. Taking criticism can feel tough, especially if you’ve worked long and hard to develop something only to have it torn apart. However, learning to be objective about your own work and to not take things personally comes with the territory. This skill is certainly one that I grapple with, but I am continually learning the value of good feedback (shoutout to K.O. and E.E. for edits on this blog post!).

genre: style guide

examples: The Elements of Style – William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White*, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information – Edward Tufte, Eats, Shoots & Leaves – Lynne Truss

 

3. To engage your creativity

The “aha!” moment where inspiration strikes often happens when least expected. In the shower, while running, or right before falling asleep – being relaxed and distracted by something can cause a dopamine boost that may spark creative ideas. Lyric poetry, characterized by a regular meter, musical quality, and personal sentiment, provides a perfect mental habitat for creative thinking. Poetry also demonstrates the versatility of language as something useful not only for analytical purposes, but for the construction of images, sounds, and sentiments.

genre: lyric poetry

examples: Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair – Pablo Neruda, The Collected Poems – W.B. Yeats, Les Fleurs du Mal – Charles Baudelaire

 

2. To understand your story as a scientist

            Understanding how your own work fits in with the scientific community is important, and not just for the “broader impacts” section of a grant application. As young scientists enter a field and refine the focus of their research, it becomes necessary to think about short-term and long-term career goals. For example, in many fields it may be important to understand how research capabilities can change, improve, or become obsolete with improved technology. Additionally, thinking long-term helps young scientists think about the kind of impact they hope to leave on the scientific community, and how their story may be told to other young scientists in the future. Reading the biographies of other scientists can offer valuable advice and life lessons, while giving insight into the kinds of personal skills that contribute to successful science careers.

genre: autobiography

examples: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin – Benjamin Franklin, In the Shadow of Man – Jane Goodall, Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science – James Watson 

 

1. Because you want to

Certified amazing person Neil deGrasse Tyson made us all cry last year when he told a little girl, “The best thing about being a scientist is you never have to grow up”. The opportunity to pursue curiosity-based inquiry is one of the best things about science, and I would imagine that many people choose their field of study based on the things that fascinate them. Whatever the question that sparks your curiosity, whether related to science or not, there are many works of literature that are worth investigating. Also, many books/essays/poems/etc. are easily accessible through public libraries or online, and are becoming increasingly easier to access for free or at low cost. Pursuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge is just as good of a reason as any.

* the same E.B. White who wrote Charlotte’s Web – JAD

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