Read any good books lately? I have.
CP Snow famously argued, in the 1950s, that science and the arts/humanities were “two cultures”, with a gulf between them that was far too seldom bridged. While there’s been pushback against Snow’s portrayal,* it’s surely true that there’s more separation between the two than there ought to be (just as an example, I’ve commented here on the relative dearth of scientists as characters in novels). After all, if points of contact between science and the arts were commonplace, people (including me) wouldn’t be so fascinated with them when they do occur. To pluck a few examples from my own sphere: I bring a local textile artist, Janice Wright Cheney, into my Entomology course to talk about her insect-inspired art; I’ve written here about Caribou Run, a volume of poetry about (well, sort of) the Porcupine caribou herd; and I was thrilled to be part of an exhibit-and-conversation with the illustrator of my book Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider.
And three years ago, I reviewed Madhur Anand’s book of poetry, A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes. Madhur Anand is, in addition to being a poet, a professor of ecology and environmental science whose research includes effects of global climate change on forests. In her poetry, science and art are interwoven in a way that really works for me. So I was excited to see, last summer, that she had a new book: This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart (Penguin Random House, 2020). I’ve now had a chance to read it, and it’s absolutely wonderful.
This Red Line is a memoir of sorts. It’s split into two halves**. Roughly, the first half is the story of a couple immigrating from Punjab to Canada at the time of Partition (the sundering of India and Pakistan in 1947, upon their independence from British rule); the second is the story of their daughter’s life as a scientist and poet. But that sentence didn’t do its complexity justice. It’s a remarkable book: lyrical, equal parts familiar and surprising. It’s really a novel-length poem, or maybe a poem-structured novel, except with the twist of being (as a memoir, one presumes, at least) mostly true.
What struck me most about This Red Line, and what I think makes it of interest to readers of Scientist Sees Squirrel, is the way it knits together perspectives from science and art. It takes only a few pages for Anand to make it clear that in This Red Line, those two perspectives will be speaking to each other and working together. Here, for instance, is the opening of the second chapter:
In 1947 a line is drawn across the state of Punjab. The man who draws it imagines an organic, undulating curve, like a river. What cannot be seen is how it changes course every year. If a river cuts the left bank, it deposits silt on the right. And vice versa. Everything in nature at first seems straightforward, but closer inspection reveals something sinuous and, ultimately, crooked.
That’s just a start. The book is rich in references to, and metaphors drawn from, earth science, ecology, mathematics, physics, and more. For example, there’s an extended metaphor – running through the whole book – built around symmetry breaking in physics, and another (or another face of the same one) around symmetry and asymmetry in biology:
I learned the word zygomorphic only when I started teaching undergrad… A fancy word for bilateral symmetry in flowers…Asymmetry is rare, I tell the students, thinking of my father, of their marriage.
Sometimes these glimpses of science have clear meaning; other times they’re more elliptical, juxtapositions whose significance seems just out of reach:
In 1975 scientists discovered the adaptive significance of scatterhoarding in chipmunks, and Mother became an Avon lady.
None of this should be surprising. We all use our own experience to think and to communicate about our world, and Anand as a writer is using her experience as a scientist.*** It’s just that it’s interesting, and, actually, exciting, to see science providing metaphors as telling as can weather and landscape and candles.
Perhaps I’m giving a misleading impression. This Red Line isn’t about science, and it isn’t written only for scientists. It’s just that my own interests have me respond to science metaphors, so that aspect of the book is naturally what I notice and want to talk about. That fits into the book, too, in a way. The partition of British India that gives the book its beginning is just one of many partitions Anand explores: partitions between her parents’ generation and her own, between Punjabi and Canadian experiences, between her mother’s perspective and her father’s. Here’s another place the symmetry breaking metaphor comes into play: when small fluctuations push a system across a critical point to break symmetry, where the system ends up can depend on details (sometimes random ones) of those small fluctuations. As I neared the book’s end, I found myself thinking that the book’s second half (Anand’s generation, in Canada, a life in science) was less rich, less novel, than the first. But I realized that for that particular partition, my own perspective had broken the symmetry. For other readers, without my familiarity with academia and ecology, the symmetry could well break in the opposite way – and that’s one important message of This Red Line.
If any of this intrigues you, you should read This Red Line. If it doesn’t, you should probably blame my inexperience at writing book reviews, and read This Red Line anyway. It’s a superb book.
UPDATE: This Red Line won the 2021 Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction – the most prestigious prize there is for writing in Canada. If you didn’t read it based on my recommendation, maybe this will convince you.
© Stephen Heard December 1, 2020
Want to read this book? You can find it from the publisher here; from that arguably-evil-but-so-so-convenient online bookseller here (or in Canada, here); or of course at your local independent bookstore.
Disclosure: I was sent a copy of This Red Line by the publisher. This happens from time to time and there’s no quid pro quo.
*^Notably from Stephen Jay Gould, who never met an idea he couldn’t push back against. I’ll admit I haven’t read Gould’s The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox (his 40-years-on response to Snow), but I’m guessing it’s very erudite in a way that flirts with the line between fascination and get-to-the-point-buddy annoyance. (Yes, I know, I can flirt with that line too.) And in the unlikely event that you don’t know Snow’s original essay, it’s here.
**^Quite literally: the two halves are printed back-to-back but upside down, such that you flip the book over to read one or the other. There are a few interesting book-design choices in This Red Line. Before I wrote my own books, I had no idea that book design was even a profession, or a skill; but now I find it extremely interesting.