Nostalgia : My College Entrance Essay

I have been organizing files on my computer this morning and I came across the essay I wrote to get into college, and thought it would be worth reprinting here. When I wrote this, I had no idea of the direction my life would take me; I was planning on studying poetry intensively (which I did) and applying to an MFA program right out of school. But even then I realized how important the sciences were to my interests, including my creative interests. Now I work in a field in which I am allowed to do precisely what had inspired me to write this essay in first place: to work with the aesthetics of scientific material. This essay has not been edited or “touched up” at all, so please excuse the incidents of incorrect word usage, etc.

An often unexplored relationship within the academic community is the direct and beautiful tie between the sciences and the arts.  From the moment we begin studying, we are pegged as “arts” students or “math-and-science” students, and too often the public education system denies us opportunities to dabble in subjects which are not of our chosen fields.  Instead, the few of us who are passionate about both fields are simply asked to settle for our “favourite” side of academia, or the side on which we are most successful.  Assigned the “arts” category early in my studies because of my love of the written word, I had frequently underestimated my passion for science.  However, only weeks ago did my realization of this unfortunate schism take place at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

I wasn’t aware of a temporary exhibit which was to be taking place at the time of my visit, by the title of “Brought to Light: Photography and the Invisible, 1840-1900.”  Having recently taken several courses in photography, I entered the exhibit with a heretofore piqued curiosity, but was unprepared for its personal connection to my own interests.  This exhibition featured hundreds of works from photography’s birth in the 19th century with unique and scientific subjects; there were photographs of lightning and close-ups of celestial bodies, of microscopic bacterial components of human and animal anatomy, early x-rays of physical anomalies, and even early “moving pictures.”  The subjects were singularly beautiful in all their scientific glory, from perfectly symmetrical, florid cross-sections of frog intestines to tiny, multiple-exposure pieces chronicling the travel of the moon in black-and-white detail.  To me, these photographs aimed to accomplish something that I had previously thought impossible—they bridged the gap in academia to find beauty and art within the precise complexity of science.

Further, upon my return home from San Francisco, I viewed my present reading material, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, with new curiosity and a mind for the way he, too, blends seamlessly his science—as a naturalist—and his art—as a writer.  As a writer myself, I found the conjunction of these two works, the photography exhibit and Walden, to be an inspiring and heartening influence on my own work, invigorating my desire to unite the sciences and the arts in ways that the public education system had previously forbidden me.  It has helped me to rekindle my long-lost love for science (as I had been deemed an “arts” student in my high school) and to truly realize the electric potential of rectifying the arts and the science to find true beauty—and truth—within my art.

Further Explorations:

Brought to Light at SFMOMA

from SFMOMA blog


Hortus Conclusus

The Unicorn in Captivity (from the Unicorn Tapestries)

“The Unicorn in Captivity,” courtesy of the Met

Unicorns are a bit of a joke. Today, they are mainly associated with twee girly-girl types, and are generally not taken seriously. At best, they are used ironically (as in this advertisement, plastered all over NYC subways this past summer), or deployed by jaded hipsters as the subject matter of stupid tattoos. Sometimes, we couple them with other symbols like kittens, cupcakes, and rainbows and joke that they “poop glitter.” For most of my generation, they stand as a clichéd symbol of vapid femininity, naiveté, and general wide-eyed stupidity, even among the wide-eyed, naïve females among us.

For this reason–as well as an ill-founded prejudice against whatever artworks tend to be the most popular at a given museum–I have never given the Unicorn Tapestries at the Cloisters much thought. On a recent trip to this museum, however, I was very much struck with these tapestries, and it got me wondering why I had never paid them much attention before. In many ways, they are exactly the sort of thing I am usually drawn to: they are from a time period that fascinates me; their colours are muted and imagery floral; their craftsmanship is exquisite; they are rife with allegory. But the Met puts them on t-shirts and refrigerator magnets à la Mona Lisa, and unicorns have become clichéd, so I had never really studied them where they hang on the stone walls of the Cloisters. On this last visit, however, I deciphered another layer in the familiar unicorn allegory that has piqued my interest.

The tapestries–actually entitled “The Hunt of the Unicorn”–depict a common piece of folklore: the hunting of the elusive and desirable unicorn. It is sought, captured, and eventually killed by hunters, who want to despoil it of its horn (thought to have healing and purifying properties). But, true to unicorn mythology, the beast cannot be captured by mere violence; it must be lured and beguiled by the purest of virgins, who is able to tame and capture it so that the hunters can accomplish their task. This panel, unfortunately enough, is mostly obliterated and torn in two pieces (here and here). Although the hunters eventually kill the unicorn and carry their quarry to the castle, the last panel in the series shows the unicorn enclosed in a garden (the image above), alive again, but conquered.

Beneath this narrative are two historically accepted allegories: a courtly love story (a man is enthralled by his lady love); and a religious allegory (godly Christ becomes vulnerable/is made human through his birth to the virgin Mary, is crucified, and and rises again). But this time around, one of the panels got me thinking about another allegory that lies at the heart of these tapestries and at the heart of unicorn mythology in general.

The Unicorn Defends Itself (from the Unicorn Tapestries)

“The Unicorn Defends Itself,” courtesy of the Met

Maybe I just have my feminist goggles on lately, but these tapestries suddenly seem to me to be a sad and beautiful allegory about the treatment of women in society, and about dominance and exploitation in general. Let’s lay aside our cultural prejudice against unicorns for a minute and take a look at these tapestries.

The unicorn is not necessarily a feminine symbol (after all, we can’t completely overlook the shape of the horn on its head), but the narrative that surrounds it suggests its role in society is comparable to that of women. Here we have this untamable, autonomous beast, unable to be subdued by force alone; yet its role within the human society around it is one of an object to be exploited. Its horn, presumed to have magical powers, is the object of the storied hunt, pursued by violence and then by guile. The images of attack against this creature are telling, too: in “The Unicorn Defends Itself,” pictured above, the most dominant act of aggression against the animal comes across as sexual in nature, the hunter’s spear poised directly behind the creature’s hindquarters. These hunters are determined not simply to despoil this creature of its horn, but to conquer it, violate it, assert their superiority by taming the untamable.

But we know that the unicorn may not be conquered with spears and hounds. Attracted by the purity and gentleness of the virgin, it is beguiled into capture. Unfortunately, much of this central piece has been lost, but let’s take take a look at the imagery in these fragments:

Two Fragments from a Lost Tapestry from the Unicorn Tapestries, courtesy of the Met

Here we see the unicorn tamed by a virgin (only her left arm and hand on his mane are visible) and her accomplice within the type of walled garden that we often see in medieval art. This sort of garden–the hortus conclusus–was popular from Biblical times through the Middle Ages, and was the particular realm of court ladies, whose chastity was strictly monitored in order to ensure pure bloodlines in noble families. They came to be associated with the Virgin Mary through a verse in the Song of Songs: “A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.” (4:12) Mary was often seen as this “fountain sealed,” on account of her perpetual virginity, and this gave the hortus conclusus an air of piety and chastity. In some castles, the hortus conclusus was the only place a woman was allowed to go out-of-doors, and in courtly love poetry, there are definitely sexual implications in the idea of a lover “climbing the trellis”–breaching the walls–in order to reach his lady love.

It is no wonder then, that the ladies in this tapestry are safely enclosed in their castle garden, where they lure and betray the unicorn to the hunters without. The fence that surrounds them is teeming with red and white roses which, according to traditional allegory, are associated with the purity (white) and charity/compassion (red) of the Virgin Mary. I prefer to read these flowers with the more usual symbolism of the red rose, which is that of romantic love or even, according to Kate Greenaway, shame. Here we have, not necessarily the virtues of the Virgin, but more likely a duality between the ideal of womanly value (purity), and the reality of human life (love, marriage). Mixed up with this is a healthy dose of shame, present when this reality does not match up with the perceived ideal.

In a feminist reading of this series, these beguiling virgins could be seen as having made a patriarchal bargain with the hunters (patriarchy) without; they have bought into a system that harms themselves and their kind, for personal gain (perhaps they will become purer, i.e. more desirable, on acquiring the horn? or perhaps merely prestige in court for their part in the hunt?). They are not wearing the traditional blue and white of virginity, but rather red, carrying similar connotations to those of the red roses around them.

We know the end of this story; the unicorn is, indeed, killed, and brought to the castle on horseback, amidst a throng of onlookers:

The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle (from the Unicorn Tapestries)

“The Unicorn Is Killed and Brought to the Castle,” courtesy of the Met

But despite this seemingly straightforward ending, this is not the last tapestry of the series. Instead, we are left with the iconic “Unicorn in Captivity.” Here it is again:

The Unicorn in Captivity (from the Unicorn Tapestries)

“The Unicorn in Captivity,” courtesy of the Met

This tapestry is the real hinge of the allegory: in the story of courtly love, we have here the image of the conquered bridegroom, chained to the pomegranate tree of fidelity and matrimony; in the Christian allegory, this is Christ resurrected after death. However, I see here an image of the vanquished feminine. The unicorn here is chained to the pomegranate tree (marriage, “fruitfulness,” i.e. virility), the fruit of which is so abundant and ripe that the juice from the seeds is dripping onto the whiteness of the animal, mimicking bloodstains. There is even one suggestively placed stain just beneath the animal’s tail. The flower imagery is significant here, as well, (more fully examined on this interactive page) and mostly comprises of contradictory emblems of purity and fruitfulness, as well as a large number of herbs that supposedly caused women to conceive male heirs. And of course, our unicorn is once again within the confining walls of the ever-present hortus conclusus–subjugated.

I am not suggesting that the designers of these incredible tapestries ever intended them to be a subversive message to future generations about the perils of patriarchy. But I think that, to the modern viewer, these symbols are potent enough for us to read another layer of allegory into the story of the unicorn. For me, this allegory confronts the subjugation and exploitation of women, but it could just as easily represent the struggles of subjugated peoples, or even the exploitation of the natural world (unicorn as endangered species?).

Reading these tapestries in this light has also made me rethink society’s and my own prejudice against unicorns, and how we have come to understand their symbolism. Maybe they are clichéd and laughable to our modern sensibilities, but they still carry the burden of symbolism: they are still associated with young women, still associated with innocence or naiveté, still satirized and victimized by an exploitative public. As a society, we are still hostile and victimizing to women; we take young women little more seriously than the unicorns we associate them with. We are more hostile than the Middle Ages were to innocence or naiveté in adults, which we now associate with closed-mindedness, gullibility, or even stupidity. (Personally, I rather think these virtues seem more relevant to wonder and curiosity.) And our societal “system” still exerts considerable power in disadvantaging and exploiting those belonging to these parties. Our cultural scoffing at the unicorn is, I think, reflective of our cultural scoffing at what it represents historically and symbolically.

Thankfully, this intriguing beast left a different cultural legacy, before it acquired the associations with which it is laden. As an element in medieval art and mythology, the unicorn is something we throng to glimpse; after all, these tapestries are still the Cloisters’ most famous and beloved artifacts. After 500 years, they are admired for their beauty and their mysterious legacy, and critics and historians–as well as pseudo-critics and -historians, like myself) are still drawn to and puzzled by their narrative, allegory, and symbolism. The unicorn, after having been persecuted and exploited within the world within the tapestries, has now been accorded some of the reverence we should have shown it all along.

Further Explorations:

an interactive portal on The Unicorn Tapestries at the Cloisters

Kate Greenaway’s The Language of Flowers, for more plant symbolism

an article on the restoration of the tapestries from the New Yorker

Wonder for Grown-Ups


Courtesy of New York Public Library

I think that perhaps my first encounter with the word “wonder” was in the context of “the wonders of the world”: the natural and manmade spectacles that I imagined couples used their life savings to visit in their old age. I saw some of these important places in my childhood–Yosemite Valley, the giant sequoias, the Golden Gate Bridge, Haleakala volcano–and fantasized about many more. I looked with longing at the glossy photos of the Great Barrier Reef, the Everglades, the Taj Mahal, and the pyramid of Khufu in my books, imagining riding across the Sahara on a camel, or watching lazy alligators and flamingos from an airboat in Florida.

What I didn’t realize until I was older was that you cannot understand the idea of a world “wonder” without also having experienced the state of “wonder” that these places and objects imbue in their spectators. What is Yosemite Valley, for example, without the rapt, quasi-religious exultations of John Muir, who stood in awe of the sheer granite and vastness of geological time? What is an ancient Eqyptian ruin without the awe of age and the insistent questions of “how?” and “why?”

This “sense of wonder” is often attributed to childhood; adults are entreated to “preserve” this quality to have a more fulfilling, mindful existence. But in my experience, this is not necessarily the case. I certainly experienced interest, shock, and even fascination in wondrous things in childhood, but it was the commonplace sense of wonder that comes from learning new things about the world every day, and being generally interested in them, without being touched in a deeper place by them. I would sit and watch snails for hours, feeding them bits of leaf and letting them slime up my arms, without ever marvelling at the symmetry of their shells, or pondering the ages-old process by which they acquired such an unusual mode of locomotion. A long attention span and general interest are not the same things as wonder.

I think it is difficult to truly experience wonder until you are older and the world has lost a little of its newness. Wonder involves a certain amount of surprise–such as being presented with something in the world that you cannot quite comprehend or explain–and that surprise is hard to achieve when you are used to questioning and learning about your world. You don’t truly “wonder” at the building of the pyramids when you still believe that your dad could easily lift up a car and set it on the neighbor’s lawn. As a child, you assume you know little about the world, and so the surprise necessary for true wonder is hard to come by. When you have begun to assume that you have a certain amount of true knowledge about the world around you––that is when true awe and wonder strike their hardest.

As a child, my family often visited Calaveras Big Trees State Park, a preserve of Giant Sequoia forest on the Western Slopes of the Sierra Nevada. It was a favourite playground of my brother’s and mine, with enormous, hollow, fallen trees that you could walk straight through without hardly ducking your head. There were chickarees, delightful little squirrels that chuckle as they dart in spirals around the trees, and lots of woodpeckers to listen for and try to spot a hundred feet in the air. We went to Calaveras about twice a year throughout my childhood; in spring, for the dogwood blossoms, and in fall for their colour. But it wasn’t until I was in the eighth grade or so that I experienced, in this place that I had so often come, the sense of wonder that drives artistic and scientific inspiration and leaves you breathless with awe; it took me years of knowing the place to be surprised afresh by the quaking, flaming dogwood leaves under a spattering of sunbeams filtered through the canopy of the giant sequoias. Wonder only visited when, after outgrowing the rudimentary curiosity of childhood, I could comprehend the true smallness of my own experience compared with the vastness of time, history, and the universe.


Courtesy of NYPL

As an adult, I have learned to chase wonder as some chase thrills or highs. Wonder drove my education as a child (homeschooling allowed me a certain amount of say in the curriculum) and in college. But it is still somewhat enigmatic to me, disappearing for months at a time, leaving me feeling dry, anxious, and predictable, and then reappearing where I hadn’t the slightest intention of finding it (in breadmaking, the Bible, or algae, for example). As an experience, I find it somewhat related to the Sublime; but if the Sublime is supposed to alloy fear with beauty, perhaps wonder mingles beauty with incomprehension. Rather than the anxiety that accompanies recognizing the unknowable, wonder induces a curiosity that comes from believing that something is knowable (whether or not it truly is). For this reason, I think that wonder is a state that occurs somewhere at the intersection of science and aesthetics, with implications of beauty, curiosity, metaphor and the creation of meaning, as well as pattern, truth, and intricacy.

In an article on wonder for Aeon, Jesse Prinz adds a third element to this mixture of science and aesthetics: religion. Nowadays, I think the sense of religious wonder is often conflated with aesthetics and scientific wonder (perhaps the subject for another post), and so I don’t necessarily include it as a separate element. But it is a topic that comes up often in the field of ecology and religion as well; in Grounding Religion, for example, Lisa Sideris argues that “Wonder at nature can help to engender a host of related ‘environmental’ virtues – generosity, humility, simplicity, farsightedness – that enable us to flourish and allow future generations a chance of flourishing as well.” Part of this goes back to the role of wonder in reminding us that we still know very little about our world; when we wonder at something, we get a whopping sense that our perspective is small, our time is limited, and the universe is keeping most of its workings a secret. In a best-case scenario, this sense of smallness and incomprehension should inspire us to the virtues that Sideris describes, even if only because they are the qualities that help us preserve wonderful things for the generations that proceed us.

Further Explorations:

Explore Yosemite

How wonder works, by Jesse Prinz, for Aeon

Rachel Carson

Keri Smith, wonder warrior and her best book.

Grounding Religion

Tidbits on Education



I am at work on a new post, but while I am polishing it up, I thought I would make a few offerings for the curious. Here are some gathered thoughts about education:

Resilience-based school disciple

Sexism in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education

Emotional literacy

A new future for the one-room schoolhouse?

The Search Institute

A few statistics about homeschooling

and a great find from a friend:

John Taylor Gatto



Now, in October, I am beginning to hear the geese. They are restless and noisy, traveling in small groups from river to river, sometimes in the dead of night. At these moments, I cannot help but whisper, “geese,” into the darkness, even if I am half asleep; their parade seems a solemn, anxious affair. Annie Dillard describes this in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “This October restlessness is worse than any April’s or May’s. In the spring the wish to wander is partly composed of an unnameable irritation, born of long inactivity; in the fall the impulse is more pure, more inexplicable, and more urgent.” The geese scrabble frantically at the grass, fattening themselves for their southing. As the maples turn–and they are beginning to turn already–there is something hurried and anticipatory in their colours, as though the trees are trying to use them up before they spoil. The whole season reeks of the sort of meals we had when hurricane Sandy knocked out our refrigeration: big feasts with too many dishes where everything tastes a little off. This is not wholly unpleasant–in fact, there is a certain satisfaction to be found in salvaging the waste, as perhaps the maples and geese can attest.

As my whole world migrates around me, I feel a little like the Water Rat in The Wind in the Willows: “The Rat was a self-sufficing sort of animal, rooted to the land, and, whoever went, he stayed; still, he could not help noticing what was in the air, and feeling some of its influence in his bones.” I am not in the process of any grand migration or evolution, but it is “difficult to settle down to anything seriously, with all this flitting going on.” I am inert as the birds migrate, the trees change, and friends recommence classes. While I do not necessarily hear the “call of the South” which Kenneth Grahame discusses, I am not immune to a certain westering this time of year; my thoughts and hopes skip over the Appalachians and Rockies, westward, westward, to the Sierra Nevada. Thoreau describes this phenomenon in his essay, “Walking.” On choosing a course to follow, he muses: “My needle is slow to settle… but it always settles between west and south-southwest. The future lies that way to me, and the earth seems more unexhausted and richer on that side.” He even goes so far as to say that “this is the prevailing tendency of my countrymen,” and that the progress of the human race “is from east to west,” an startling idea in our postcolonial, post0manifest destiny times.

“We must walk toward Oregon and not toward Europe,” he claims.

On the phone, a friend who recently moved to Los Angeles asked me what I missed about the West. I immediately thought of an essay by Simon Winchester that appeared in this summer’s issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. He writes, not about the West, but about the sea: “I suppose it to be a peculiarly English thing, this intense, near-painful fondness for the ocean that surrounds us.” The friend who asked me this question lived for a time in England, and so I told her, “I feel about the West as the English feel about the sea,” and she needed no further explanation.

I, like Thoreau, move westward in my thoughts, and even in my walks: west of me lies Van Cortlandt Park, “more unexhausted and richer” than the tired Bronx east of the river. My past is west, and my future, also. I am but a seasonal goose–I am here, happily, for the time being, but I do not intend to remain past this season of my life. In my October reveries, I am not here in the East at all: I am walking toward the Pacific on John Muir’s track; I am roaming the wild gold hills between the shadows of the live oaks; I am lost in a walnut orchard with miles of fragrant trees to each side of me; I am warming myself with red wine on Carmel beach on the windiest of days.

But the world around me tends a different direction. With the whole world making its way south, I am an exceptional tropical bird that migrates east, west, randomly, with the rainy season.

Further Explorations:

On the British longing for the sea

Simon Winchester on Lapham’s Quarterly podcast

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek unit study

Wind in the Willows on Project Gutenberg

Walking on Project Gutenberg

Joanna Newsom’s song “In California

The Accidental Archive

We human beings have devised countless ways of recording and archiving the things that we consider important. We have libraries, museums, zoos, gardens, galleries, journals, and myriad other collections that help us to conserve and organize information and objects of importance. I myself work on one of these grand archives: I work in the Steere herbarium at the New York Botanical Garden, where I conserve, organize, and curate a collection of preserved algae specimens that numbers in the hundreds of thousands. This job, like many of the archival projects around the world, has recently taken on a digital nature: I am preparing these thousands of specimens to be scanned into a digital archive that will be accessible to scientists and laypeople all around the world.

Recently, though, I made a discovery at work that has made me think about archiving in a different way. UC Berkeley sent the Garden a donation of around a hundred dried, unmounted specimens, and I was charged with the task of mounting them on paper and readying them to be entered into the collection. These specimens ranged from 40 to 120 years old, and they had been sent to us in the original paper that they had been dried in–namely, contemporary local newspapers. As I peeled the algae off their pages for mounting, I set these aside to bring home; they would have been recycled otherwise. Although, to the herbarium, these newspapers were merely a medium for preserving the more “desirable” algae specimens, to a Bay Area historian, they themselves would have been the archived material. And, thankfully, due to the stable conditions in an herbarium, this ephemera has survived beautifully preserved.

The case of these newspapers has made me think about all of the other artifacts that have been archived accidentally due to various circumstances. I see these objects all the time in the Herbarium: from whole mussel shells and arthropod exoskeletons that collectors failed to sort out of their algae specimens, to the letters, grocery lists, and business cards that their collection information has been haphazardly written on. But there are all sort of example of accidental archives sprinkled through the archives of human history. For a broad example, think of fossils; these are sort of the ultimate in accidentally archived things, creatures whose bodies left petrified impressions that we now go to great lengths to discover, study, and preserve. While they themselves were accidentally archived by geologic forces, they are now intentionally archived by archeologists in museums and other research institutions.

A related example is the case of “bog bodies“: the corpses of people that have been nearly perfectly preserved by the conditions in peat bogs. These have been discovered all throughout Europe and The Southern US, and some even date back 10000 years. Bog bodies have helped shed light on certain areas of human evolutionary biology, as well as social evolution; garments and jewelry have often been preserved with the people, and offer insight into burial practices, including certain sinister–but nonetheless glamorous–insinuations about human sacrafice, suicide, and criminal execution. These bodies–in all probability–were not buried in peat bogs in order to preserve or archive them for future generations; in fact, it is assumed that peat bog burials were reserved for the ignoble or socially outcasted, who were not deemed worthy of proper burial and remembrance, or that some of the bodies were murder victims that had been dumped where they might never be found. Nevertheless, they have provided an important historical record, preserved by happenstance rather than intention.

In some ways, today’s landfills may end up being more important sources of archived information than the libraries and museums we have worked so hard to preserve. Contrary to what we would like to believe, most of our trash does not biodegrade in landfills to end up as dirt. When William Rathje pioneered the archaeological study of trash (“garbology”) in the 1970’s, he helped to dispel the myth of landfill decomposition by excavating organic matter–including newspapers and even a hot dog–that had been preserved, rather than destroyed, by the airless, lightless conditions in landfills. He talked about landfills as though they were time capsules, and discovered that people’s trash is often a better indicator of buying and consumption habits than their own estimation–when asked, we often overestimate our consumption of certain goods (such as fruit), and underestimate others (alcohol, junk food). Our trash, however, offers a more objective account of our lifestyles. Trash, by its very nature, should be a sort of anti-archive, but Rathje’s research has revealed how it can actually function as it’s own opposite, archiving our present culture–albeit in a disorderly and smelly way–for future generations to study.

Further Explorations:

Peat Bog Bodies

Landfill as Archive

Garbology Project

Landfill Reclamation

Slow Science Reimagined

As a little girl, I wanted to be a naturalist. I read numerous books on the subject, complete with their diagrams of pitfall traps and lists of field supplies. For a while, I turned my playhouse in the backyard into a naturalist’s laboratory; there were jars of pillbugs and harvestmen in the windowsill, my little microscope at the desk, charts and drawings on the walls, and an extensive–and much prized–rock collection. I idolized Jeff Corwin and David Attenborough, and imagined being hauled up into the rainforest canopy in a harness to examine stick insects, operating on big cats as a zoo vet, or roaming across the tundra, gathering lichens and following the caribou migration when I grew up.

My interest in science dwindled miserably as I enter high school, where administrators made it very clear that advanced science classes came coupled with advanced math classes, and that they were under no circumstances to be separated from each other. While I was okay at math, it had never been a subject I enjoyed, or had any interest in excelling at; but my beloved biology was now tainted with a fear of calculus. Dreading the advanced physics equations that I imagined would be the substance of my secondary science education, I shied away from the highest levels, and decided instead to turn to the advanced humanities classes, where no trigonometry lurked.

Unfortunately, this is a common story. Most kids are scientists by nature–questioning, examining, building and disassembling–and many of them are scared or bored out of pursuing it by the time they reach middle school. Part of the problem is the state of public education–and there is no time for a rampage here–which disadvantages teachers that take precious time out of their yearly curricula for non-standards-based science lessons. But another huge problem is the trend towards specialization in both secondary and college education. It was nearly impossible at my public high school to take both the advanced math/science and the advanced liberal arts tracks without collapsing of exhaustion. Unless they were bent on attending an Ivy, bright kids were encouraged by administration, teachers, and their parents to choose one track or the other. This meant that by the time you entered 9th grade, you had been pegged by yourself and your superiors as either a “math kid” or an “arts kid.” Those on the advanced math/science route were not generally there without purpose; they already had goals of college education in laboratory science, engineering, or technology. Those of us who didn’t necessarily want to be an engineer landed on the arts route by default.

If you choose the science track, and get through the AP tests and into the college of your choice, right away you are pushed to specialize once again. What will you do your graduated degree in? What will you publish on? You had better specialize now, and you had better choose something no one else is working on, because if you do, it will be a lifelong race to be the first to invent, publish, and discover.

If I had not thought when I entered high school that a career in science meant (a) loads of math and (b) working in a sterile lab and wearing a white coat the rest of my life, I may have pursued a different path. I loved science, but I loved the science of the khaki explorer’s vest and hand lens, of the plant press and the pet raccoon. But we are not encouraged to study science for fun or for personal enrichment, and we are not encouraged to be generalists in our studies. Natural History has been mostly left out of the nationwide discussion of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education, mostly because it is less specialized, less flashy, and less likely to create the next Steve Jobs. Compared with optics, astrophysics, or biomedical engineering, natural history seems to smell of mothballs. Natural history seems somewhat Slow. And, despite the numerous Slow movements that have broken ground since the earliest days of Slow Food, Slow Science still seems like an oxymoron.

But there have been attempts at creating a Slow Science movement; it even has a wikipedia page. In true Slow spirit, manifestos have been written, mostly arguing against the “publish-or-perish” system in established academia. In fact, this is the main platform of the movement: the argument is that when scientists are pushed to speed up their research and experimentation, mistakes are made and findings are released before proper testing. While this is certainly an important aspect of Slowing science down, I might suggest that a philosophy of Slow Science involves more than merely the rate at which findings are published. Science has become literally and metaphorically “Fast” in many other ways since the nineteenth century. I think that Fast, in the context of the biological sciences in particular, implies several other things: a widespread mechanization and use of specialized, expensive technology (DNA analysis software, particle accelerators, supercomputers, etc.); an assumption about the separateness of the sciences and the humanities; an increased emphasis on specialization rather than generalization; an emphasis on lab- and computer-work over field work, and an attitude that the purpose of science as a practice is contribution to the canon of scientific discovery, rather than personal discovery or transformation. All of these factors make Fast Science prohibitive to those who were not on the STEM track in school; Slow Science would, therefore, not just affect professional scientists, but hobbyists, science educators and communicators as well. Slow Science would be influenced by Carl Honoré’s 2004 definition (from In Praise of Slowness): “Slow is… calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity.” Slow Science would emphasize the sciences not just as an education and career path that leads to a lifetime of white coats and PCR analysis, but as a way to satisfy personal curiosity and find wonder, enrichment, and intellectual growth in the world around us. Slow Science would encourage observation and reflection and promote ready dialogue between the sciences and the humanities. It would work to bridge the gap between STEM professionals and “everybody else,” to create an environment that values individual discovery as well as institutional discovery.

For Slow Science to really gain ground, I think it would be necessary to re-instate natural history as an important aspect of the sciences, simply because it is the most accessible and democratic: to practice natural history, you only need curiosity and field guides (easily accessible in most libraries). Natural history is the science most people come into contact with the most, whether they realize it or not, when they watch clouds, observe an unusual insect that has come into the house, enjoy morning birdsong, or pick up a pretty stone. It is quiet, observant, reflective, and more reliant on walks outside than on computers or other technology. And, just as a meaningful night of stargazing could open up a passion for astrophysics, natural history could potentially act as a “gateway science,” opening up possible interests in the Faster Sciences in those who may not have expected it of themselves.

Further Exploration:

“Taking the time to savour the rewards of slow science”

The Long Now Foundation


Smithsonian Institution

Charles Darwin audiobook on Librivox

Natural History Network

Natural Histories Project


Letters to a Young Scientist (E.O. Wilson)

The Amateur Naturalist