Thursday, August 18, 2011

Children of Scientists

I'm off for a day trip to the coral reefs off Key Largo.  Part of it is business:  I'm going with a class field trip to write up an observation.  Part of it is pleasure:  I want to see these places, and return to them, while they're still here.  The oceans are both heating and acidifying, which will kill the coral reefs, probably within the next few decades.

I'll swim and observe and pretend I'm a scientist.  Maybe I'm glad I'm not an oceanographer or a marine biologist; I'd hate seeing the destruction of habitat.

I have scientists, and the children of scientists, on the brain lately.  Dave Bonta has interviewed both of his parents, naturalists of the best sorts, who have lived on a plot of land, improving it and observing it and taking care of it, for 40 years (interview with Dave's dad here, Dave's mom here).   Those interviews make me yearn for a plot of land of my own, for a place to sink deep roots.  Dave's mom has also had a writing career, and her interview has interesting background on how she moved into writing.  Both interviews also give intriguing insight into a successful marriage.

Jeannine Hall Gailey has been thinking about scientist's daughters, both in this post and in her poems.  She says, "Tracy K. Smith’s story about writing Life on Mars had a few familiar aspects: she was born a year before me, her father was a scientist (an optical engineer who worked on the Hubble telescope instead of a robotics engineer) and she takes aspects of mythology and science and applies them to autobiography in some interesting ways. It made me think about women poets whose fathers were scientists, including: Rachel Dacus, whose 'rocket kids' blog was named after her adventures as the daughter of an actual rocket scientist; Margaret Atwood, who was the daughter of a biologist; Louise Gluck, whose father invented the X-acto knife you might have worked with in science lab or art classes. And Tracy K. Smith. And me. Are there more? Is there something about being a scientist’s daughter that drives us into poetry?"

As I read her post, pieces of my own life clicked.  I'm a scientist's daughter!  I think of a scientist as someone who goes diving into the deep or who spends life observing a land mass.  But my dad is a computer scientist, back from the day when if you wanted a program for a computer, you had to write it yourself.  I remember seeing punch cards at his office and thinking about the computer that spoke in this strange language of holes.  My dad brought used paper, with holes on the edges and perforated seams from the days of dot matrix printers, home for us.  I created countless pictures on the back of this green and yellow paper, which could be as sprawling or compact as I wanted.

My dad helped me with the science fair project that won us honorable mention--or was it 3rd place?--in the 8th grade science fair. My exhibit talked about vacuum tubes and transistors and the microchip.  My dad loaned me a microchip, way back in 1979, which we mounted to a board with a magnifying glass so that people could see how the computer communicated information.  Little did I realize how much that microchip would transform my life and all our lives.

When I'm swimming around the Atlantic today, I'll ponder Jeannine's question:  is there something about being the child of a scientist that drives us to poetry?

If you want to see some of Jeannine's responses to this question, a great starting place is the Escape Into Life posting that pairs some of her poems with some fabulous art.  Kathleen Kirk, the poetry editor, has a magical ability to find the perfect art to go with the perfect poem--I don't know how she does it, but I'm always in awe of her talent.  Is she the daughter of a scientist?  Could that explain her ability to join disparate elements into a cohesive whole?  Or is that simply the way her artist's brain works?

Whatever the answer, I'm grateful for the work of Dave Bonta, Jeannine Hall Gailey, and Kathleen Kirk.  They inspire me to more careful observation and to making more interesting connections.


Kathleen said...

Your blog entry on this, and Jeannine's, are both fascinating! Thank you, too. I am the daughter of a drama professor and an English teacher...but I LOVE science! And I am married to a visual artist. And, evidently, I drew before I mom has a "letter" I wrote to my grandma, in pictures, dictating the words to her.

Jeannine said...

Found one more to add to my poet daughter bundle: Sylvia Plath. Father was a biology professor. How did I miss that one?