Muons and Blue-Footed Boobies

by | Apr 16, 2021 | Weekly Prompt

One of my preoccupations, lately, is the muon. This subatomic particle, which is like an electron but a lot heavier, was discovered in the 1930s, but it’s been in the news lately because recent experiments indicate that the muon doesn’t obey the known laws of physics. The particle responds to some energy that science doesn’t not yet know. 

I don’t pretend to understand even a tiny particle of this news, but I am fascinated by the paradox of discovering, through science, the limits of that very science. As a writer, I don’t require a crystalline understanding for the news to offer much imaginative possibility. The heaviness of the particle, alone, gives me a lot to meditate on. 

As a reader, too, I love the use of scientific facts. It gives the subject matter of an essay, or the context of a story, or the theme of a poem, something to bump up against–an anchor, a metaphor. Take “The Blue Booby” by James Tate. Some of what Tate says about this bird (the blue-footed booby) in the poem is true, like the female being attracted to the male with the brightest blue foot. Other parts (“[it] fears nothing” seem embellished, to say the least. As for the claim that they collect blue objects? That’s a whole different bird. The Satin Bowerbird, to be precise. 

But it doesn’t matter. The point of a poem isn’t to teach the reader all about a bird. In nonfiction, of course, that wouldn’t quite cut it. The facts need to be right, but they can be scant, as they are in “The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard. Even though the title seems pulled right from a subheading in a science textbook, Beard doesn’t say a whole lot about plasma, as some research-y personal essays might about the respective science topic. Beard writes of her scientist employer, 

Currently he is obsessed with the dust in the plasma of Saturn’s rings. Plasma is the fourth state of matter. You’ve got your solid, your liquid, your gas, and then your plasma. In outer space there’s the plasmasphere and the plasmapause. I avoid the math when I can and put a layperson’s spin on these things.

“Plasma is blood,” I told him.

“Exactly,” he agreed, removing the comics page and handing it to me.

But if you read the whole essay, which you should, I bet you’ll agree that it’s the right title, especially by the time you get to the shattering end, when both Saturn and plasma make another, more dramatic appearance. 

Another possibility is, of course, to use the scientific topic as a metaphor. Martin Luther King, Jr., uses metaphors from medicine throughout “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which is a fitting essay to read or reread this week as the Chauvin trial concludes and as we process the news of Daunte Wright and Adam Toledo’s senseless deaths at the hands of a police officer.

The most potent of King’s medical metaphors is this one, in which he invokes a contemporary news story of a tranquilizer prescribed to pregnant women that was found to cause horrible birth defects:

For years now I have heard the word “wait.” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This “wait” has almost always meant “never.” It has been a tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration.

King could’ve just said the word “wait” was a Band-Aid–a temporary solution that wouldn’t last long term–but that metaphor lacks the topical salience of thalidomide and doesn’t capture the full meaning, which is that the treatment itself will lead to something much worse. Besides that, the Band-Aid metaphor is tired. And as George Orwell reminds us in “Politics and the English Language,” “By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.” 

Nobody could accuse King of being vague. 

Prompt

Choose a scientific topic that you find intriguing. Could be an outrageous–or relatable–quirk of animal behavior. The sophistication of prairie dog language, say. A new blue whale sub-species with a distinct song. Or you could choose something awe-inspiring in astronomy (stellar nurseries, anyone?) or physics (the muon!). Or the human body (after my second Pfizer shot, I’m particularly fascinated by this lymph node stuff). Or the fossil record or tornado patterns or or or or. 

Read a few articles. Follow your fascination. Permit mystification and fuzziness around your understanding. Find some cool keywords (“imperfect clones” from the lymph node article!). 

Then write from the science you’ve encountered. You might, like Tate, center a whole poem or micro-essay on what you learned, and let meaning resonate from the uncanniness of the facts (even if some facts are imagined, as in Tate’s poem). 

In Beard’s essay, the choice of plasma works on two levels: one, because Beard’s employer studies plasma, and he is a key character in the essay, and two, because of the events that transpire, which you’ll have to read the essay to find out. So you might choose a scientific topic that’s directly or symbolically related to your subject matter. This could work in nonfiction or poetry, but it could also work as a motif in fiction, or as a way to enhance the setting. Please don’t steal this idea, but when I taught at a university in Bangladesh, a biologist colleague told me that marine biologists conducting research together often fall in love because their fieldwork–out on a boat together late at night–is so romantic. Ever since, I’ve wanted to write a short story with that premise. It seems especially fun to figure out what they might be researching and gather some facts. Sea turtles, phosphorescence, red sky at night. 

A third option is to use the scientific facts or findings as a metaphor, as King does. This could be a guiding metaphor for a whole piece or the imaginative spur to get you started. This is an almost foolproof way to be sure your metaphors are fresh and arresting. 

And then nobody can accuse you of being vague. Thanks, science!