Volume 1

No. 3

Fall 1996

Talking to Hayden Carruth

Two conversations with the 1996 National Book Award poet

On November 6, poet Hayden Carruth was presented the National Book Award for Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey, his 29th collection of poems. It was the latest in a long list of honors for the 75-year-old Carruth, including fellowships from the Bollingen Foundation, the Guggenhiem Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts ,the Lenore Marshall Award, the Ruth Lily Prize, and the National Book Critic's Circle Award for his 1992 Collected Shorter Poems.
In presenting the award, the National Book Foundation praised Carruth's poetic voice as "unique in American poetry: disarmingly personal but always informed by an acute historical and political intelligence,'' adding that his work is, "linguistically demotic and direct while prosodically complex and diverse.'' The Foundation went on to cite the poet's "perfect pitch for Northeastern American speech," and his "writer-scholar's intimate knowledge of a plethora of world poetries.''
Carruth's writing "makes and keeps his readers aware of poetry's cathartic, redemptive possibilities in the midst of human tragedy,'' the citation observed.
On October 26, 1993, Hayden Carruth appeared at the Writers Institute for a seminar and reading as part of the Visiting Writers Series. The afternoon seminar was informal. "I don't have anything to say unless you prod me,'' Carruth joked as the session began, but he was generous and genial, addressing a variety of subjects, including his working habits, the importance of jazz in his poetry, and his views on what constitutes a useful education for an aspiring poet. Carruth, his voice raspy and soft, greeted questions with his customary plain-spokeness and erudition; he seemed to be hitting his stride just as the seminar was brought to a close after an hour.
While at the Institute, Carruth was also interviewed by then-associate director Tom Smith, a discussion that, among other topics, had Carruth speaking for what may be the first time about the poems that won the National Book Award. The transcript below contains excerpts from both question sessions. It begins with the afternoon seminar. Carruth has been asked to describe the writing of his book-length poetic sequence,
The Sleeping Beauty.

Carruth: Well, it took a long time -- from the very beginning to the conclusion was almost 20 years. But the first eight or nine years of that were just spent in brooding and letting things happen in my head. I knew that I wanted to write a poem based on the myth of the Sleeping Beauty, because my wife at that time was named Rosemary Dorn. She came from eastern Germany, actually, from Silesia, which is now Poland -- she was a refugee -- and the name of the Sleeping Beauty, the German name, is Dornroschen, which means, literally, little thorn rose, and she was named after the Sleeping Beauty. That's why I had this idea to write the poem.
The poem has very little to do with my wife; in fact, it doesn't really have anything to do with her. As it developed, it became a poem in which I was trying to write about the Romantic tradition in a critical way, I was trying to write about the situation of women in history and society; I was trying to write about my ideas of how to deal with the problems of life, which are very much influenced by the mid-century existential writers of Europe, Camus, Sartre and people like that. The thing took shape very slowly and over a long period of time.
The individual sections are written in a form which I invented when I was young, back in the early 50s, which I call a paragraph, and which other people often call a sonnet, although it isn't a sonnet. It has 15 lines, and the lines are of varying length, and the rhymes are not the same as the rhymes of a sonnet. When I invented it I wanted to avoid writing sonnets. I wanted a different form.
Gradually, as I worked on [the poem], it came together. There are no pieces of the poem written in the voice of the poet, except for the very last line. This is a book-length poem in 120-odd sections, each one 15 lines, and the last line is the one I wrote first, and it is My name is Hayden, and I have made this song.' That's the only place in the poem where the word I appears in reference to me. I wanted to write an impersonal poem, a poem that was broader, bigger than any individual's perceptions or attitudes.

Question: Are you proud of that work?

Carruth: I don't think pride is something that poets ought to feel, since every poem is flawed, and you always wish you had done it better. It was big, I put everything I had into it, there's no doubt about that, I was happy with many of the sections, I was unhappy with some of the sections that didn't seem to work out as well as I would have liked. The main question in my mind, and I think it's always the case when you do something big like that, is whether anybody understands it, whether anybody gets out of it what I was trying to put into it. That's something you can't ever tell (chuckles). I don't know.

There have been points in your career when you have been in and out of fashion. Do you have any explanation for why that happens, what makes a poet popular at one point and not at another?

No, I don't, really. I have certain crass and cynical explanations, everybody does. Beyond that, it's very difficult to say. Why did the poets of the central part of the American 20th century fall out of favor so quickly? Some of them are wonderful poets, people like Richard Wilbur and J. V. Cunningham, Howard Nemerov and Anthony Hecht. Then their immediate forerunners, people like Alan Tate, Louise Bogan. I don't know if anybody reads those poets very much at all anymore -- my students certainly didn't, when I was still teaching. The pendulum swings, fashion changes, and I think it's necessary. I think the Beats came in in the 1950s -- Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, Gregory Corso -- and introduced a lot of salutary things into American poetry, that needed to be in it. At the same time the Black Mountain Poets came along -- Olson and Duncan and Creeley and people like that, and some of the students they had down there, like Ed Dorn and Cid Corman -- and they popularized William Carlos Williams a lot more than he had been earlier, although he was never unpopular.
Tastes change. Fashions change. One of the things I would say about this is that today, when a change occurs, it takes harder and lasts longer than it did previously, because our educational system is so awful (chuckles from the audience). It's just absolutely awful.
My students, who were graduate students at Syracuse University, had no idea of what was written before 1900. Their colleges, their high schools, didn't give it to them. It was late by the time they got to me. So the fashion that prevails right now, and has prevailed for the past 20 or 25 years, is all they know, and when they sit down to write a poem they can't think of any other way to write it. I think that's very unfortunate. Not because there are not fine poems -- there are many fine poems -- in the contemporary mode; just because it's getting pretty dead, it's worn out, and there needs to be a change, and young people are the ones who ought to be making the change.
But they don't really know enough about the evolution of literature, or the sociology of literature, or the whole process of the way poetry functions in a society and among people. They don't know enough about that to even, I think, in many cases, see any possibility of change. And I do blame schools for that.
I know -- I'm 72 years old, and I know -- when I was the age of my students at Syracuse, there were some things that they knew that I didn't really know, but there was a hell of a lot about literature that I knew that they didn't know, and never will know. They could not read a sonnet of Shakespeare. They could not read a sonnet by e.e. cummings. They did not know how to do it. They had no insight into what makes those poems go. I think all the workshops in the United States ought to be wiped out and replaced by courses in the history of literature -- how to read. It would do young writers immensely greater good than fiddling around with line endings all the time.

When you sit down to read for pleasure, what do you read?

Once in a rare while, when I get a chance, I like to read 19th-century fiction. I like to read a novel by Hardy, Dickens, somebody like that. I like to read books that are written in a language as far away from our contemporary language as I can get. I'll even read essays by Macaulay, Gibbon, somebody like that, just to get those sentences running in my head again, those wonderful long, involved sentences. But most of my reading is professional.

Could you talk about when you first got into jazz, the personalities of jazz, and also the rhythms of it, and how that effected your writing.

I began listening to jazz when I was a boy, almost a child, in the 1930s. I've been listening to it ever since. I've written a lot about it, and yet I can never demonstrate that my poetry has been influenced by jazz, and I don't think anybody else can either, because you might find another poet who has exactly the same prosodic effects in his poems that I have in mine, and he never listened to jazz at all. So it's hard to show that there is a direct connection.
I believe there is in my case. I believe that the tonalities of my poems, the timbre of my poems, has been influenced by jazz and the blues. To some extent, rhythmic effects are influenced by jazz, although not very much, because a drum beat is a very different thing from the meter of language. To me, jazz music is the only native American art that amounts to anything, it's separate from all the other arts, it has connections, philosophical, sociological connections with the history of our culture, but it is not the same as poetry and, although more and more poets are influenced by jazz, I still think it would be very difficult with any of them to show the influence except in a very superficial way.

Would you please talk about your personal work habits, and how they have evolved.

They change. They've been different at different times in my life. It depends on what I've been doing.
A lot of my poetry was written in Vermont when I was very poor and living in seclusion, because I was also rather ill. I was working on a farm, I was woodcutting, I was also doing a certain amount of hack writing for anybody who would employ me. I worked for encyclopedias, I did ghost writing for people who wanted to write books, I did a lot of book reviewing, newspaper reviews. So I wrote my poetry mostly between the hours of 5 and 6 in the morning, after I had been working all night on other things. I wrote it very fast. Everything I've ever written at all, as far as that goes, I've written very fast. I guess I got that way because I started out as a newspaperman, when I was very young.
Nowadays, I've changed somewhat, because I get so tired I can't work at night anymore. And also, since I've retired, I don't have to go to work. So I get up in the morning and I turn on some music and I drink some coffee and I smoke a lot of cigarettes and maybe every third or fourth day a poem occurs. That's my best time now. Not when I get up, like some people. I can hardly find my way downstairs when I first get up. I have to have three, four cups of coffee, half a pack of cigarettes, then I can do it.

How do you feel your work has changed in recent years?

It's changed in part because I've changed it. I have great admiration and envy of poets who can write in a straight line all their lives. I just think that would be wonderful to evolve a single, unitary mode from beginning to end. I have never been able to do that. I get very bored with my own work that I have to make changes. So my work is very miscellaneous.
Sometimes these changes have been extremely deliberate. It's hard to make people understand. When I moved from Vermont, where I lived a long time, I got a job at Syracuse, at the university, and I moved over there and ended up in Liverpool, which is a suburb north of Syracuse. I was living right on the strip. It was a total 180-degree change in my life, from living in the woods, from being self-employed to working for a big institution -- and all that. And when I got there, and I got my apartment, a couple of weeks after I moved in I sat down and I took a legal pad and I wrote down a poem in an absolutely arbitrary new form that I had never written in before. Eight syllables, six syllables, eight syllables, six syllables, the second and fourth lines perfectly rhymed, absolutely perfectly rhymed -- in other words, I rhymed the and a -- I rhyme according to the way people actually pronounce words, rather than how they're spelled -- and I cast against this very, very tight form the loosest conceivable colloquial language that I could find, that I could invent, that I could overhear.
I used to go to the Pizza Hut, and the Burger King, and all the rest of the places along the strip in Liverpool and I'd carry a notebook with me and I'd write down what the people in the booth behind me were saying, then I'd work it into a poem. I don't know if those poems are successful or not -- some people like them quite a bit. I think other people don't. But they are absolutely totally different in tone, structure, even in their objectives, in some degree. But I had to do that. I could no longer write Vermont poems in Liverpool. It would be ridiculous. That is rather an extreme case, but it is, at the same time, similar to the changes I have made in my work any number of other times.
My work started out like most young people's work. I didn't go to any workshops, because there weren't any in those days. I started off imitating poets that I liked, especially Yeats. Also Ezra Pound, and to some extent Wallace Stevens. I did a lot of that kind of work, and they were terrible poems. I wasn't until I was in my 40s that I really began writing with some kind of freedom, confidence. I didn't publish my first book until I was 40. I was a slow driver.

The following day, Carruth was interviewed by Tom Smith, then-associate director of the Writers Institute and professor of English at the University at Albany. The interview was done for The Book Show, a 30-minute interview program broadcast in Albany by public radio station WAMC.

Tom Smith: Hayden, you've been writing poetry for half a century --

Carruth: At least.

Smith: -- and you've been recognized as a master of many many different poetic modes and forms for quite a long time. How and when did you begin as a poet. Did you begin all of a sudden? Did you always know that this was your vocation?

No, it was a gradual thing. I read poetry when I was a kid, I had poetry read to me, I came from a family of writers, editors, journalists and collectors of books. My grandfather published a number of books, and he had the same name that I do, so that causes a certain amount of confusion.
I began writing poetry, I believe, when I was about 4 or 5 years old, and on through high school and college I continued to write. I didn't know what I was doing very well. I had very little instruction. I imitated Shelley, and tried to write what I thought were Shakespearean sonnets, and things like that. I went to college at the University of North Carolina before the war, and it was a wonderful place to be -- very isolated and quiet. I met a great many good people there, but we did not know anything about 20th-century literature. I don't believe I read any 20th-century poets except Sandburg and Frost when I was an undergraduate. And immediately I got married and went into the Army.
I got out after the war was over and I decided I didn't want to work. I went to graduate school at the University of Chicago and immediately became just surrounded by contemporary American writing of all kinds. Many of my fellow students were practicing writers. I quickly became very serious about my writing; up till that time I hadn't been. I began submitting my poems to magazines and things like that. I had some poems published in Poetry , and then was asked to be a reader for Poetry and then, a year later, I became editor of the magazine.

In your early years as a professional poet, I'm talking about the 1940s and into the 1950s, what characterized the vocation of poetry in contrast to recent decades? The role of the poet, the idea of the poet in those years, in contrast to the last 20 years, let's say.

Well, it seems to me, and I hope it's not simply nostalgia, that in the middle of the century, American poets had some kind of functional relationship with society. There was a readership that was not simply limited to professional writers and critics -- it wasn't a big one, but nevertheless. We were writing with knowledge that Eliot was still living, Stevens was still living, Williams was still living, we knew these people, we talked to them when they came to Chicago. They had an audience, they were affecting the official culture to some extent, at least, and we thought that we had a chance to do the same thing. I feel that the young poets today are so isolated from what's really going on in this country, and so inbred through their interlocking networks of academic jobs and workshops and things like that, I don't think they entertain the hope of this kind of a relationship.

You've written admirably about the natural world, but in one of your essays you state you don't like to be described as a nature poet. There's a kind of philosophical stance vis-a-vis nature.

Well, there is. I suppose the way most people [discuss] it when they're talking to me or about me is through my essay about Thoreau, whom I attack as being an elitist and a mystic and all kinds of other things.
My feeling is that nature is the most beautiful thing we have. I love it, I love to live in it, I love to be part of it, I wish I could be part of it more than I am. But at the same time, nature contains everything. It contains our death. It contains all of our injustices, and all of our pains and anxieties. It is not simply a benign presence in our lives. All we have to do is look at floods and earthquakes. I'm always aware of that, that the blossom on the rosebush contains, by inference, at least, all of this difficulty and burden and hardship that the human race has to sustain.

Do you regard yourself -- I'm talking about the persona of your poetry -- as part of nature, but also not part of nature?

No, I don't say that. My feeling is we're all part of nature, everything. Nature is everything. It is reality. From the point of view of somebody on Mars, for instance, a poem has the same existential reality as a broccoli plant or a stone or anything else, and we have the same existential reality as the elephants or the kangaroos. We are separated from the animals, which is part of our problem, and I've written about that. I think that when the human race withdrew from the rest of the animals, which probably happened in the caves in France when they drew the bison on the wall, we developed a sense of great sorrow and loss in our racial consciousness, which has always been there, and still is there. Attenuated, obviously, in most people, but still it's there.

Politics, at least in this country, has been thought to be not a suitable subject for poetry, and yet over the years you've written powerful political poems; poems about war, poems about the body politic. But was Auden right -- does poetry change nothing? And have you changed at all, in the last 40 or 50 years, since you've been writing political poetry.

Oh yes, of course I've changed, although the beliefs that I formed when I was in high school are still the ones that I hold today. But of course I changed and developed along the way.
Auden -- I've always disliked that aspect of Auden. I've written about it, and disagreed with him, his idea that there are these two worlds, the world of poetry and the world of everything else. I don't like that idea at all. I partly don't like it because I don't believe that poets are that different from any other people. I think we do have different skills that are specialized, and we have certain ways of looking at the world which may be specialized, but essentially what we're doing is trying to make sense out of everything, and so are plenty of other people, plumbers and carpenters and all kinds of people.
I think that politics certainly belongs in poetry. It's in all the great poetry -- The Illiad is a political poem, The Divine Comedy is a political poem, and Paradise Lost.

But it does seem to be a constant in your poetry.

Oh, it is. It is.

Telling the Truth Symposium

Words on Things Panel

In April, 1991 the Writers Institute held a symposium on many areas of non-fiction writing entitled "Telling the Truth." Among the areas, science writing was covered in a panel called "Words on Things." The panelists included Tim Ferris, Richard Rhodes, Bill McKibben, Stephen Jay Gould, and was moderated by James Gleick. What follows here is a transcript of the second half of the panel's dicsussion. The first half will appeared in the previous issue of Writers Online.

McKIBBEN: It seems to me that one thing one needs to keep in mind is that how we feel about science has a great deal to do with the kind of policy choices that people are going to make in the real world. I think an acute problem in some ways is that sense that�s grown up that science is sort of the last holy order of man and is full of people out searching out truth for its own sake, and in a lot of cases that is true. But the areas that I write about are in some ways stories in which both the heroes and the villains are scientists, or at least technicians using the fruits of what scientists have found and confronting the choices that will be made in the future. I think that there is a very widespread belief, in dealing with environmental problems anyway, that science will take care of it somehow�you name it, science will take care of it. Partly this is because none of us really wants to take the responsibility of taking care of things ourselves and changing the way that we live, and partly it�s also this fable that�s gotten imbedded in our minds that science is going to always find a solution to each problem. Something that interests me very much is the whole subject of genetic engineering. I think by anybody�s definition this is one of the real breakthrough technologies in history. I think that you could argue for a very long time about the moral and cultural implications of a lot of the things that people have proposed and that will soon be happening if they are not already, but what�s interesting to me is that this argument is almost never made. The only arguments that people have about genetic engineering are technical ones, that something bad is going to escape from a laboratory someplace and eat my children, not what is the proper place of human beings in this world. And of course one way that scientists tend to answer this is, Well, we do basic research, what happens with it in the real world is not our fault. In the first place that�s in this case not true. Most of the genetic engineers are now presidents of publicly owned corporations, busily marketing this kind of thing. There�s no question that if someone comes up with something that�s potentially profitable at the moment, in the kind of regard with which we hold this notion of progress, that it�s going to be developed and used, and probably not with enough discussion. There�s something, some sort of hagiography about science that�s grown up that lets us allow science or at least technology to in many ways change the world in very fundamental ways without feeling that we sort of have the right to ask if we want this or not.

GLEICK: You have written more critically than anyone else on this panel of the way, as you have said, science has become a kind of religion for many of us. It has become a belief system that has replaced in some ways our belief in God. Tim Ferris has said that science is the century�s greatest art form.

FERRIS: I think I stole that line from Horace Freeland Judson actually.

GLEICK: There�s no question that there is a tension between these points of view, and furthermore this is after all the century of the famous two cultures, science and science journalism. For many people science is something alien, difficult, so little a part of their lives that it is impossible to distinguished truth from falsehood on simple questions like whether there are flying saucers buzzing around capturing citizens of Albany and taking them off to indoctrination sessions.

FERRIS: It seems to me that there is another side to the point you are making about this opinion that science will take care of everything. There is also an opinion that we�ve got to stop this, that we can�t learn more about this, it�s too dangerous, which considering how little we know is a pretty interesting opinion to hold. There may be some field in which the human race has so much knowledge now that we ought to call a halt to it. There really is an enormous gulf between those views, and between the scientists. Two days ago I was at a meeting at Berkeley with a group of graduate students who were in biotechnology. These are people who are right on the edge of a wave of one of the most powerful developments in the history of science and technology, they�re right in a position to do something about it. They�ve got a list of horrible diseases and things that happen to people that they have a real prospect of doing something about real quick, and to tell them that they ought to stop and think about it, is as if they had a loaded star ship in orbit, ready finally to go to Alpha Centauri and one of the crew members says, Well, maybe we shouldn�t actually take this trip, you know, maybe we belong here on Earth after all. To them it�s not the time and place to debate it. The question becomes, where is the time and place and that debate really isn�t taking place very often in an appropriate way that�s useful and profitable to the society.

RHODES: It seems to me a relatively easy distinction to draw between science as an enterprise and technology as an enterprise. I think that much that we worry about and complain about about science properly belongs in the other category. It�s a curious notion that we can pick and choose which aspect of the real world of the world of nature we will endorse. It�s an old notion, primarily a religious notion, and it was a forlorned hope even then. If there is any rule that obtains in the world that we are all as animals a part of, it�s a rule that I think was first listed in The Once and Future King: everything that isn�t forbidden is required. Niels Bohr used to talk about science in a time when science was generally assumed even by scientists to be some sort of deluxe search for truth. He used to suggest that it had a much more modest purpose, and he described that purpose as the gradual alleviation of prejudice, the gradual removal of prejudice. And he meant by that something like what happens when one day in Berlin a couple of chemists discover that they can split the uranium nucleus. That discovery has nothing to do with whether they sat around and voted on it. It was indeed an accident. They were ready, the time was ripe, there were a lot of other laboratories that probably would have come across it the same week, and in fact did. Luis Alvarez, a physicist, told me that he discovered nucleur fission too, only it was two days after the real discovery, so his didn�t get counted. But he made it independently.

What followed from that discovery was the human world adjusting to the alleviation of the prejudices, realizing that it wasn�t possible to have essentially an unlimited source of energy in the world. That was the prejudice that was alleviated, and as it cascaded down through the years, gaining momentum through human society, it finally changed our whole system of international politics. I argue that simply because by the time nuclear fission had been embodied in the course of technological decision making and political decision making and military decision making into a series of increasingly destructive weapons, it finally reached a point long before 1989, I would say probably by 1953, when all the leaders of all the contending nation states of the world tacitly understood that they couldn�t use those things. And at that point world war ceased to be possible in the world, and in fact there have been none and there can be none, although there can still be devastating wars on a smaller scale as we recently saw. All that huge change in the course of human affairs followed from something that happened in a context where no one had a chance to vote, and even if we had voted or a dictator had dictated, they could not have discovered that discovery until they did and it could not have been suppressed. So I think it�s whistling in the dark a little bit for all of us to say, like Luddites, We�ll stick our wooden shoes in the machinery, and argue that we should stop all this because we have this cultural dissonance about it. It won�t be stopped. It will go on and it will accelerate, and it will change our world beyond recognition as it already has.

FERRIS: Stephen, given that science isn�t a religion, does science incline its practitioners toward any particular attitude toward nature?

GOULD: I think so much of this discussion really involves a set of mistaken categories. As I see science, it�s that enterprise that tries to probe the empirical character of nature and to coordinate what it finds with explanations that we call theories. In some technical sense I really do believe that it�s value neutral.

Now ideologues, and that�s all of us to some extent, use any material that�s available. Science is notoriously available because it is very powerful, by which I don�t mean that scientists don�t have ethical responsibilities, of course they do, but I don�t know that they have ethical responsibilities per se arising from the material of science. They have ethical responsibilities as human beings. All human beings have ethical responsibilities, and we damn well have ethical responsibilities to the things we�ve created. So if we happen to be harnessing ourselves to this enterprise of science and have discovered something that has implications, of course as human beings we have responsibilities for them.

Science is so broad and it is so value neutral in that sense that I don�t even know how to respond to Tim�s question, a very important one � do scientists have a particular attitude towards nature? The spectrum of science, first of all, is so great. It goes from funny little characters in my profession like me who get tiny little grants, if we get any at all, and go out and describe nature and love diversity as an aesthetic that motivates almost anyone in the field, to people who are bringing in millions of bucks a year and have very hard models about reductionistic, underlying realities that take all diversity and channel it in. Now if there are corrolated general attitudes, and there probably are, that don�t again arise out of the facts, then those are more sociological or psychological correlations. Whatever attitude you have towards nature, some of which can properly be described as philosophical, theological or ethical, really doesn�t derive automatically from science anyway and can�t. McKIBBEN: I feel the need to speak up for Luddism. This sense that things just inevitably go on and that as societies and human beings and political systems we have no possibility or right to even think of controlling them, strikes me as a dangerous, not necessarily physically, but morally, the yielding up of something important about ourselves to a priesthood that�s not necessarily any more reflective than priesthoods have tended to be in other regards. In the first place, it�s not clear physically that things will just keep going on and on forever. The Luddites said, Let�s have workshops instead of enormous factories to protect our jobs. We decided on enormous factories but one of the results, among the many good results I suppose, of that has been that the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere from the combustion of fossil fuels will have doubled by the middle of the next century. And this may represent certain physical limits.

But there�s also, this line you draw between science and technology, and at least in some of the disciplines it is not a true line, really. When I was at Harvard as an undergraduate, the people who were doing genetic engineering, were right at the beginning of this sort of commercialization of genetic engineering, and each of the labs was forming into its own corporation. At the Harvard Crimson for a while, we were keeping a table each day of what the value of the common stock of each lab was. There�s a possibility always that people live in a unique moment, and that we may be crossing over thresholds that carry us farther than we want to go. We�re talking about, for the first time in human history, a period of great loss of genetic diversity around the world, a lot of which can be traced to some of the things we�re talking about. That may be one threshold, the first time that humans are able to fundamentally alter the most basic physical systems like climate, things like that.

GLEICK: You�re complaining about the scientists. Where are the science writers during this process? Are they just drifting along like pilot fish with the sharks, reporting a naive version of the truth, or are they less cynical than their counterparts writing in other fields?

McKIBBEN: Science writers like scientists, self select to a certain degree. One of the problems with this conference is that it�s only the sort of really good people who have been invited. So you have the historians up here and really they can�t point to each other as an example of the kind of bad history that they�re talking about because they�re not writing it. I think by and large that there�s an awful lot of popular writing about science that consists of going to scientists and asking them what�s coming next and happily writing it down and assuming that�s all you have to do. All I�m saying is that whether or not you throw your wooden shoe into the machine, it�s all right for human beings to at least contemplate throwing a little bit of their culture and their religious sense or their feelings about the natural world or whatever into a machine. I don�t feel that in the end that�s illegitimate, but I do feel it�s pretty ineffective.

RHODES: In talking about these issues of science and technology we�re also talking about science writing because we as writers of verity have to try to grapple with these very issues, as is clear from this discussion. I still think that there is a valid distinction that can be drawn, perhaps it�s a shaper distinction in physics than in other lines of science, between basic scientific experiment and the technological development of that basic information that comes from that operation.

To take perhaps the most notorious example and one about which a great deal of garbage has been written, the question of the physicists working on the bomb. Now there was an example where very clearly scientists had decided to do some engineering. Robert Oppenheimer said in 1946 there was no physics done during the war. And he was referring among other things to the emptying out of the universities, graduate students going off to do this and that including work on the bomb. The decision to work on the bomb had, as far as I can see, nothing whatsoever to do with science, not only in the practical sense that it was engineering, but also in the personal sense. They made the decision as human beings. They made it on the basis of great fear of what would happen if Germany got the bomb first. And later when they knew Germany didn�t have a bomb they made the decisions on the basis of an understanding, which was quite insightful for the time, that this thing was going to change everything, that in the long run it would probably mean an end to large-scale war. They weren�t acting as scientists. When they were acting a scientists was when they were messing around with some neutron sources and some uranium nitrate in the laboratory in Berlin in 1938. That�s when they were acting as scientists.

What�s important about the question of science versus technology, and why one shouldn�t decide that scientists should sit around trying to decide whether they�re going to do an experiment and whether that�s a good thing to do for humanity, is that it�s very difficult to predict, especially the future. You can�t know the outcome, you can�t know the future unless you go there. And that�s a very frightening and threatening thing to do. I would point out, in terms of the specific context that Bill McKibben has been talking about, that the instruments that people use to determine that there�s too much CO2 in the atmosphere, the instruments that the Swedish used to determine that Chernobal had exploded, were instruments that were developed as a part of an ongoing process called science. Most scientific instruments and then their commercial versions originate as experiments and then later find application, are standardized, are manufactured and find application to look at phenomenon on a regular basis. Without science, which is I think neutral�but that doesn�t mean good or bad, it means good and bad because the consequences are the future�without the work of science there is no way to solve the problems that science and technology introduce into the world. It�s all part of this larger human enterprise which is ongoing and which I don�t think we want to stop however many stupid mistakes we make along the way, of alleviating human pain. I would just point out that at least half of the number of people in this room would be dead, would not be here, if it weren�t for some fairly simple kinds of public health measures that were devised in a scientific spirit and context over the last hundred years. But it�s also true that some who might be here were killed in war because of explosives that were developed at the same time. Everything that science develops and technology elaborates can be either a tool or a weapon.

GLEICK: Certainly it�s clear that everyone on this panel writes with a conviction that the ideas of science, if not the things of science, are intricately bound up with the rest of the culture, with the questions that we are most seriously interested in. Dick Rhodes could have written his history of the atomic bomb, which is a military history, a political history, a social history, without including the intimate details of nuclear physics that he chose to make a part of that story. Bill McKibben, with his powerful mixed feelings about the role of science in our time, nevertheless could not help but make the ideas of science an intimate part of the story that he told in his book.

RHODES: But to leave out the science would be I think the same sort of sin of omission as the histories of the West that left out the Indians, that left out the other part of the story. I put all that physics in the book�which I think many people found to be a real stumbling block, and I understand it, so did I�because I didn�t think it was possible to understand all those other consequences unless one had some grasp of how this happened and its inevitability. That�s what was so important to me.

GOULD: I have a hundred thirty pages of anthropoid anatomy in Wonderful Life, in part for some abstract notion of completeness, but in part because it�s just wonderfully interesting material. So is your physics.

FERRIS: There�s a relationship, too, between what makes for an interesting story and a felicitous style and this goal of trying to tell the truth. Anyone who aspires to be a good writer wants to tell the truth. It�s hard to do that. I think Cervantes quotes an old Spanish saying that it�s very difficult not to write satire. Particularly when you are starting out as a writer you�re writing satire all the time without meaning to. I often tell my students that when you have a stylistic problem, a persistent stylistic problem like a lead that won�t work, and for a month you�ve been trying to start this magazine article, let�s say, and you keep moving the words around and it never works, very often what�s happening is that style is trying to signal you that the contents of the sentence are not true, and that can happen often to a young writer for many reasons, because you don�t know the truth or you�re not honest enough with yourself yet, you�re trying to get away with something, often in the lead particularly because you are inviting the reader into the story and there�s a temptation as in all retail merchandising to bend the truth a little bit in order to attract their interest. I think one of the things that attracted me to science as a subject is that one could find some verifiably true things here. But you reach a point where you say, This isn�t ultimate truth, either, and this powerful mechanism of science is embedded in the larger culture and has all kinds of effects beyond the scientists� own power to control or foresee them. What is the most truthful attitude that one can take to that, and with that question you�re drawn out of science and into broader philosophical and religious questions, which some scientists I think, to the impoverishment of their lives, regard as irrelevant. There are scientists who simply think that all religion and philosophy is just kind of soft-headed. That is a narrow attitude and it�s by no means the attitude that all scientists take. And you know, it�s the dilemma of the writer as well. You�re following all these threads, but everything turns out to be connected and ultimately you�re back in the same soup that you were when you started the whole process. But by then you�re old and you�ve written a bunch of books and it�s all over anyway.

QUESTION: Is there a myth that science has to be entirely democratic and is not that myth not of a service to science but a disservice to democracy?

GOULD: In retrospect you can see that the junior person in research who is urging something was right and history may actually credit that person. But science is extremely hierarchical, and it almost has to be in part, a small part, in the legitimate sense that we all recognize that democracy is a terrible institution for getting certain sorts of things done. I would say, on the analogy to the orchestra model or the ship model, that to get things done you need a certain amount of non-democratic hierarchy. That�s not necessarily bad. What is bad, as it would also be on a ship, is when the captain doesn�t listen to someone in the right context. You may not be able to confront the captain while he�s leading a meeting but the captain should be willing to listen when the guy comes over to him later and says something. There are hierarchical aspects of science that are necessarily so and I don�t object to them. The bad part of scientific hierarchy is that most of it is done in institutions like universities that are intensely hierarchical in the very bad sense of the term. That is, they stifle creativity. In a sense that hierarchy of science is often very bad for people on the top because it drives them out of the laboratory. Most of my colleagues in biochemistry have not been behind the bench in years. They are administering science and writing grants. That�s what they do all the time. So there are many aspects of the non-democratic organization that are very bad as well.

FERRIS: The lionization of particular scientists at the hands of science writers has a similar effect, too. The average scientist is no better at handling fame than anyone else, and when we go out and make somebody famous we often cause a lot of damage in his or her life.

RHODES: I�m not sure that those things are exactly what one means by science. It�s certainly true that scientists organize themselves hierarchically as do most human beings in most situations. But I think the work of science itself at the level of experiment and so forth is profoundly democratic. I think it�s based on one Bill of Right, and that is freedom of speech. Without that one requirement it would not be as it is, self-correcting. If work isn�t published, if work can�t be verified, if work can�t be duplicated� those are fields of effort where democracy is vital.

GLEICK: Why do so many scientists discount science writers? Steve, why do you?

GOULD: As with all things, there�s a good side and a bad side to it, or good reasons and bad reasons. The bad reasons are embodied in the notion of parochialism. That is, we�re afraid that if people do it very well they�ll show us up. The other side of it, of course, is that many people who write science are very bad at it and we are sensitive to that. We�ve been abused often. The parochialism is enormously unfortunate, the bad writing is very unfortunate. If you could eliminate both of them would there be harmony? Probably not, given xenophobia, etc., but things would be a lot better.

GLEICK: There are a lot of built in reasons for tension. The time scales of the two disciplines are so different. Science makes news on a scale of decades or years or at the fastest, months. Newspapers like news on a slightly quicker scale. Scientists don�t like to believe a thing until they have read it in a refereed journal. Newspapers are quite happy to interview scientists in corridors. I think Steve is right. There�s a lot of bad science journalism, just as there is bad journalism in other fields. One difference is that scientists are by their nature less accustomed to the intrusions of journalists, less willing to let journalists have the arrogance to define for them what�s news in their business.

RHODES: I must say though I didn�t find that scientists disliked the work that I did. I found that historians of science were absolutely savage. Talk about parochialism�if you invade their territory, watch out.

GLEICK: A central theme of this panel has been that science makes a claim on empirical truth, yet scientists are human beings. They are ideologues. They stumble. They are, as Steve has said, always embedded in a social context. Are we doing enough to make that clear, or are we simply too accepting of the mantel of objectivity in which this discipline cloaks itself? Feynman hated the view of science as received truth, as authoritative. His dispute with text books actually was not just that they presented science as a succession of facts,but that they gave no hint of the human process and therefore they gave a false sense of what it meant to understand something. He disliked most history of science for the same reason, especially the academic history of science. My own view is that the writing of the history of science, whether by people in or out of the academy, has changed somewhat since he had these feelings.

RHODES: As Steve said at the beginning, not only scientists do science. I think what scientists do is not different from other exercises of human imagination, except again in the particular set of reference that the field defines as necessary to arrive at a given conclusion. When writers write, they try to find within the sentences that they construct with the kit of tools that they have, which is language, a very complex and rich and multi-layered kind of set of tools, a kind of verity, just as scientists do. The difference is that the set of references are different. If we are taking about fiction, for example, they are internal and they have to do with some very subtle and not usually articulated balances between experience and invention, common memories that we think we share with others and therefore can analogize with. Many things like that that are not exactly different from what scientists do except that at the end of the quest of a scientist in a particular experiment, if the experiment produces useful and interesting results� and I�ve always envied scientists this�it�s as if at the end of their effort of imagination nature steps forth and says, with a pat on the back, You�re right. One writer has compared it to paranoia, in the philosophic sense of believing that at some ultimate extreme the universe is meaningful because the paranoid essentially believes that things are happening out there that have to do with him, and that they connect with him and that there is a connection whether they be little green men or uranium nitrate. But at the end of this little paranoid exercise, nature says, Yeah, you�re right. Catching that is maybe what a lot of science writing ought to be about.

QUESTION: Recently we had a disturbing glimpse into the process of sciencing in a series of stories in The New York Times and other newspapers. The stories reported that a scientist changed data to reflect what she wanted to reflect. Someone else blew the whistle on her but was put down by the rest of the scientific community, and it took five years for much of this to be uncovered. Do you think there is enough investigative reporting into how we conduct science?

GOULD: First of all it wasn�t investigative reporters who uncovered it, but the zealousness of one person who persisted. I think it�s an unfortunate case because the incident in itself, though not unreflective as any small incident is of something that is very common in science, in this case is unfortunately so. It�s not a good paradigm case for the very real and important issue of fraud and other kinds of malfeasance in science because, handled a different way, which would have been not only more right but immensely more practical in terms of saving time, it could have been so easily handled. It�s more a question of the psychology of the people involved, and in some sense I understand. The incident itself was relatively minor, but I think the subsequent cover-up became much larger. And if investigated fully when it had first happened it would simply have led to one of the many correctives that occur all the time in science that are momentarily embarrassing to those who have to publish them but in no way life or career destroying. Any lab director must trust the people brought into the lab. Otherwise the enterprise collapses. There�s nothing wrong with that, but when it�s brought to your attention that all may not be on the up and up, the one thing this teaches us is that you really better investigate it thoroughly and not try to use authority to cover it up. But I don�t know what big issue it raises. To me it�s just a very unfortunate incident that has caused immense loss in reputation and loss of what is absolutely the most precious thing in the world, which is time. That�s something people forget. So often you suppress things not for really deep nasty reasons, but just because time is so ultimately precious.

GLEICK: But don�t you think that the press, which in other areas of social life might have been conducting investigations, asking questions, trying to bring facts to life, questioning the authority of the scientist, might have a greater role to play in such cases in the future?

GOULD: In this case a more active press role might have made the resolution quicker, which would have been less painful, but in fact there was very little press intervention until the whole thing got going. There are probably thousands of cases like this brewing.

QUESTION: Should not the public or the Luddites or whomever, have some more say into what amount of money and time is given to one particular project to the exclusion of others?

RHODES: We do have say. We elect representatives. They go to the government. Are they not our elected representatives? Don�t they say what we believe? If they don�t, then we really shouldn�t elect them. I�m saying there is a mechanism for these large financing decisions about science. It�s of course influenced by the terrible scientific illiteracy that we suffer from in the United States. We don�t really know whether we should invest in the superconducting super collider, whether we should invest in the space shuttle, etc. Those are problems which I presume refer directly to the sort of work that we as more or less informed laymen, try to do, to examine these questions, to look at past examples, to see how they came about and what we might learn from them. I�m rather cynical about what Washington might learn from my book or anyone else�s book. We�re still working on Star Wars you know. Edward Teller has a plan that perhaps the Israelis would like a little star Wars system to fight those Scuds.

FERRIS: The funding process for big science projects has itself generated a lot of problems, of which NASA is a case study. In my opinion, NASA�s constituency has become the aerospace industry and the members of Congress who fund NASA. What typically happens is the kind of space shuttle or Hubbell telescope mission where the project takes on a certain size because otherwise its not exciting enough to attract and maintain its funding from Congress. The Congress then gets cold feet about actually pouring this kind of money into it year after year so they cut funding. That delays the project and you end up with a big thing in space that�s got technology in it that�s ten or twenty years old and that has cost two or three times what it originally should have cost because you had to pay everybody�s salary during all this time that you delayed everything. And this aspect is not being covered sufficiently yet in the press. NASA is criticized for things failing, but this mechanism that�s causing failure and obsolescence of big science projects has not to my knowledge been adequately treated in the press.

QUESTION: How can theoretical concepts be adequately reported?

FERRIS: The traditional wisdom amongst newspaper editors is that there should be a paragraph around about the third paragraph or so of the story, called the nut paragraph or the billboard, and the function of this paragraph is to explain the relevance of this purely theoretical development to the man on the street as this person used to be called. I�ve always felt personally that the theoretical developments are often sufficiently interesting in themselves and I�ve had fights with editors about this as a result. In one piece in The New York Times Magazine about the search for a unified theory that would explain every fundamental process in the universe, we fought forever because there wasn�t any practical thing in this third paragraph and they kept trying to come up with things. And I would say, But it really is just interesting enough in itself. If you really say this theory would explain every fundamental process in the whole history of the universe and the reader still isn�t interested, then maybe that�s not the reader for the rest of this article.

GOULD: I think you underestimate the public, 250 million people in the country. It may be that for a majority, even 100 or 200 million, that unless there is something immediately palatable and practical they won�t read it. But there�s tens of millions of other readers who have fascination for the things of science and the concepts of science for their intellectual sake. I think that�s proven by many of us who do not in fact generally write about practical consequences but are read. Maybe we�re never going to be majoritarian but I don�t know that that necessarily matters.

GLEICK: You�re looking at a whole panel of people who have pretty much written about science as ideas without any particular product, although maybe Dick Rhodes is the notable exception. But it certainly is true. Tim is right that most newspaper editors have the cynical view of the audience that Steve has just decried�that people like to know whether this theoretical advance is going to somehow lead to a better toaster oven. I also think that it�s obviously the goal of most of the writers here to write about the ideas themselves as a part of our shared culture.

RHODES: Maybe there should be a standard piece of boiler plate for that third paragraph that says, This piece of work may help us understand how the world works.

FERRIS: Actually Walter Sullivan was said to have had a genius for this, and he always put in the same sentence which was, "That if verified this development will cause researchers throughout the field to rethink some of their basic assumptions.� In the case of the story I was mentioning, 48 hours before deadline an unidentified editor at 10 in the evening came into the office and on the computer inserted a sentence that would perform this function in my piece, which I caught before it went to press. But had I not scrutinized the computer printout, the third paragraph on my unified theory article in The New York Times Magazine would have said that if the unified theory could be found it would be �the greatest thing to have happened since the bomb dropped on Hiroshima."

QUESTION: Are science textbooks written well enough? Do they fail to provide narratives?

GLEICK: Well all of my writing is addressed to a childish level. You don�t get too much of the narrative in textbooks and I think that a consequence of that is that we receive a view of science that is not accurate, it�s not true, it�s a view of science as a collection of facts as received wisdom. When you do finally get to the frontiers, you discover that science is a bunch of human beings stumbling around in the fog, making mistakes, failing to communicate well with each other and occasionally having that moment of exhilaration.

FERRIS: When I was in school I used to wonder why the great science popularizers like Isaac Asimov were not writing textbooks, and so when I got older I wrote a textbook and I found out why. It�s not an experience I would recommend to anyone. The forces controlling what goes into textbooks are forbidding. The process is debilitating to writers. It actively discourages good writers from being involved.

RHODES: I think that brings up exactly the problem with some aspects of writing for educational systems. They are in a way the very locus of the contention between various believers and various beliefs in our society. The most obvious example is creationism and evolution, which has been an ongoing struggle in the textbook business now for quite a while. As a result you get textbooks that are lowest common denominator, committee camels, if you will. I know this sounds totally utopian given the budgets and so forth, but I still will say that teachers at some level where it�s possible should try to go to the wider literature of science, even including scientific papers. It has seemed to me that after reading some of Niels Bohr�s papers and others that if I were teaching a course in writing, especially the writing of verity, I would include in that course not only Daniel Defoe�but I would include some scientific papers because they�re models of logic and clarity�some of them, not all of them by any means. So, perhaps the problem is to try to get around this impasse that textbooks represent. They are boilings-down and boilings-down never can clarify very much.

FERRIS: One other problem is that the good stories which seem to help science teaching also can freeze it in place. The classic example of a good story is that Einstein�s theory of relativity came as a revelation and shattered classical physics. We keep repeating this story in the educational process so our children are still taught Newtonian physics, then at some point along comes Einstein and their world view is shattered and they have to change it all. It really doesn�t seem necessary that the children should keep having to relive that story just because it�s a good story. It would be easier just to start with relativity and then pick up on Newton later on.

QUESTION: Do you need a solid background in science in order to write about it?

RHODES: I think it�s very painful to approach a scientific field from the outside and try to understand it enough to write about it without deep embarrassment. I was petrified, terrified. For me the ultimate moment came after the book was published and I was invited to speak to the Harvard physics faculty. I told them the history of their own field, and afterwards one of the younger faculty members came up and said what I thought might be a rather left-handed compliment, which was, You have a good intuitive grasp of physics.

GLEICK: I�m going to tell one more story about Feynman in that connection. Feynman was once asked by one of his colleagues, a physicist but not a particle physicist, if he could explain at the level of a freshman physics seminar some obscure thing to do with particles of spin one-half or something. And Feynman said, Oh sure, give me a week I�ll come back and answer that for you. A week later he came back and said, You know, I couldn�t do that, I can�t explain it at that level and I think that means that we truly don�t understand it yet.