According to my family, I am a frustrated biologist. I was the weird mom at the bus stop who, when the Brood X cicadas inundated central Maryland in 2004, couldn’t help examining the “visitors” instead of avoiding them. So why choose literature instead of a career as an entomologist? It turns out, those fascinated with the natural world – no matter whether that fascination is in the realm of physics, biology, neuroscience, or astronomy – are often natural writers, and vice versa. Science and literature are, after all, both
rooted in the practice of observation. When the LPR staff decided to invite a guest to edit our Winter 2014 Science issue, we didn’t need to look far. Baltimore poet and novelist Lalita Noronha balances literary credentials with exemplary training in the sciences. Lucky for us, Lalita is as excited about the intersections between science and literature as we are.
Here is guest editor Lalita Noronha, to tell us more about her hopes for LPR’s Science issue.
The poet is to the human condition as the telescope and the microscope are to the scientist.
To this day, I remember the elation on my botany professor’s face when he peered into the microscope at my double stained section of a dicot stem and burst out saying– look, here is where art lies. No painter can paint something so beautiful. No words can describe it. I was fifteen, a freshman in college. What did I know of science or art? I’ve forgotten my professor’s name and his exact words, but never that moment we shared.
Science has always been an integral part of my life, not only because I love it, but because it was my financial gateway to America. Without scholarships and grants, the little V-shaped Indian peninsula on which I was born was as far from America as the furthest planet. At home, however, science and literature were, as Thomas Huxley says, two sides of the same coin. My father was a botany professor; my mother was a geography and social studies teacher. As educators, they simply insisted that my siblings and I “learn” − at first, anything, and later, preferably something that would earn us a living. Asked to choose between science and arts, I chose to major in botany. No surprise there. Since then, I have worked with viruses, bacteria, cells, tissues, and animals in academic research institutions and in the biopharmaceutical industry, and with young women as a high school science teacher. It was only then, when my summers were free, that I began writing. And it felt natural.
Unfortunately, science seems to be more at odds with poetry than with other literary genres. Sometimes, poems invoke science-based images as metaphors that are incorrect, simplified descriptions of the science itself. Counterclaims that science robs the wonder of the natural world and of life itself, with its cold, formal, scientific methodology are equally rampant. In fact, poetry and science have always had a symbiotic relationship. Consider Erasmus Darwin’s long two-part poem The Botanic Garden (1789) which together total some 3260 lines structured in rhyming couplets with footnotes addressing, among other scientific issues, the beginning of his theory of evolution that his grandson, Charles Darwin, would later amplify. In more recent times, consider the long science/poetry careers of William Carlos William, and closer to home, Michael Salcman (neuroscientist, art critic, and LPR Contributing Editor), poet Myra Sklarew (a research scientist, who I will interview for this issue), molecular biologist Katherine Larson, whose book Radial Symmetry recently won the Yale Series of Younger Poets, and many other gifted scientist/poets who explore our organic world in new and different ways.
Ultimately, scientific research and creative writing both seek to understand the mysteries of life (and death) on our own planet and beyond, and certainly in our imagination. To me, it is an endless journey.
I am excited and honored to be the guest editor of the Science Issue of Little Patuxent Review. I very much look forward to reading your stories, poems, and nonfiction over the coming months. Here is a “science” poem of mine published in Persimmon Tree, 2012.
A Poet’s Calculations
By Lalita Noronha
Paired in vials of cobalt blue media,
they mate, metamorphose in ten days,
specks of eggs hatch squirming larvae,
rice-grain pupae, adult fruit flies.
My students chart sex ratios and the inheritance of traits,
black, round-bodied males, spiny oblong females,
sepia eyes, vestigial wings.
They record data, analyze, calculate gene frequencies.
It’s all done in a month.
My calculations: Should I live to be, say eighty,
a respectable age in these times,
that month of teaching, a thousandth of my life-span,
flew by before I stopped to count butterflies,
or wrote the last line of this poem.
Lalita Noronha is a research scientist, author, poet, teacher, and fiction editor for The Baltimore Review. Recipient of a Fulbright travel grant, she earned her Ph.D. in Microbiology from St. Louis University School of Medicine. Her short story collection Where Monsoons Cry received the Maryland Literary Arts Award. Others credits include awards from the National League of American Pen Women, the Maryland Writers Association (fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry) and a Maryland Individual Artist Award. A Pushcart prize nominee in poetry, she is also a contributor to WYPR’s The Signal. More about Lalita can be found at http://www.lalitanoronha.com and http://lalitanoronha.wordpress.com/.