by Adrienne Bischoff
Author of The Weather Makers and 2007’s Australian of the Year, Tim Flannery made his writer’s conference debut with NonfictioNOW 2015. As a practicing scientist, he confessed he hadn’t spent much time “dedicated to the tool” of writing. Surprising words from a bestselling author who has managed to explain the nuances of climate change so clearly and lyrically.
His hour-long speech went by in a flash as he discussed how scientists approach writing differently than everyone else; how he must be an outsider to get inside nonfiction; and how American tree leaves are the McDonald’s coffee cups of the plant world.
The clear exception to the rule, Flannery discussed why so few scientists write successfully for broad audiences. First, Flannery defined that science is not a search for truth, as commonly believed, but a search for falsehood. Contrary to popular belief, science doesn’t have laws, but theories. Even our beloved “law” of gravity, isn’t really a law, but merely a theory. Should an apple decide to rise to the heavens instead of fall squarely upon the head of some genius, poof! – our theory of gravity is gone.
Might then a discipline wholly devoted to finding flaws communicate differently than those which search for truth? Might this explain Flannery’s description of science writing as the “spiriting practice to write arcane articles that get ripped apart”? A search for falsehood might encourage editors and writers to shred anything that may seem extraneous or distracting from logic and evidence.
“The language of science is a telegraphic language; it’s not a language of beauty…. [Editors] want the facts,” explained Flannery.
So how does Flannery write about science in such an engaging way? The answer may be two-fold. First, he believes that to write nonfiction, he needs to be an outsider, understanding the topic as he writes. His writing then is really a journey of discovery and he’s only too happy to bring the reader along for the ride. You can’t get much more empathetic with lay readers than by being one yourself.
Second, both in his writing and speaking, Flannery exudes a fascination with the world and its inhabitants, even the smallest, seemingly most insignificant. Visiting the United States from his homeland of Australia, Flannery was stymied by how readily and liberally our trees dropped their leaves. He referred to them as the “McDonald’s coffee cup of the plant world.”
That’s not something you hear every day.
Even the shapes of the leaves, similar to a hand, amazed Tim. He did some research and learned that the hand shape is “the most economical way to stretch a membrane over a structure.” The biology of leaves has never seemed so whimsical.
The language of science may not be a language of beauty, but Flannery masterfully communicates in his writing the beauty we should hope to see.