I am finally finishing a book that I found by chance, last year, in a beautiful second-hand English bookshop in Amsterdam. Death of a Hornet, by Robert Finch, is a minor book. That is a praise. Collecting years of short columns on the nature around Cape Cod, where the author lives, it is a little monument on the marvel of the natural everyday, of the beautifully mundane.
Many science books speak of galaxies, of the beginning and the end of the Universe, of the extinction of dinosaurs or the evolution of men: the immense themes required to understand our place in the cosmos. Other books speak of cancer, of vaccines, of global warming, of genetically modified organisms and other themes that impact our everyday life, our living. Death of a Hornet, not so. It is a book on the tiniest stories. You can find pages, as the title suggests, on the death of hornets trapped in a spider web in a house corner; on the birds who nest on top of a house; on the way the sand grasps back the abandoned huts on the beach; on the unexpected stranding of whales; on the way we transcribe birdsongs, and so on. There is a combination of effortless poetry, clarity of language, rigorous attention to factual detail and anecdotal universality that moves the heart and the brain together. This is not a book that explains nature (there is explanation, but not so much): this is a book that makes you love nature, that makes you look at it with new, children’s eyes, that puts in your hand the warmth of discovering a treasure that has always been under your feet. No little leaf on the ground, no tiny fly on the wall is the same after seeing it with the eyes of Finch.
I was discussing a few minutes ago, with people who write of science, people much more experienced and much better than me. I tried to stay on top of them and I couldn’t. I am, at best, a dilettante. I can’t compete -my efforts in that direction, even if honoured by print sometimes, are askew, insecure, missing formal grounds. They were discussing of projects, of reaching objectives, of “efficient” communication. That is all right and good. Communication of science should reach objectives. Which ones, however? We might want, immediately, to teach our public something. To let them understand clearly a complex topic, for a start. And then, maybe, to let the public understand why vaccinating is better than not vaccinating. Or why GMOs are more of an opportunity than a danger. Or why global warming is real, dangerous, and would have needed action much before now. To reach these objectives is a complex art, that I do not master. It is a serious job -after all, there are lives, often, on the stake. And there are also jobs, including the ones of the communicators themselves. We do not necessarily choose what to write for -more often than not, we don’t. We can’t.
However I worry sometimes we miss the real point, the real deep reason for this communication. Do we enter science communication because we want to teach people about vaccines? Do we write about science because it is useful? What do we really want to communicate?
I say that we should first and foremost try to communicate two things, always. First of all, that nature is beautiful; and second, that this beauty can be understood by reason. Once you have given this to a reader, all the rest is somehow effortless. Of course we cannot do this all the time, not in a small news article, not in a feature online column where you are asked to debunk something. But yet these two pillars should not be forgotten even in absentia, abandoning ourselves to the temptation of considering communication as a mere tool, using no matter what techniques to bend other people’s minds on a single narrow topic. I fear -and perhaps it’s a misguided fear, but it is my fear nonetheless- that there is a blurred boundary between communication and marketing that is at risk of being crossed. Not today, not tomorrow perhaps, but one day. I feel it in the conversations. I feel it in some initiatives that pop out, like this misguided attempt at a petition of which I share emphatically the end aims, but not the shoddy, propagandistic means. Or even in official communications, like this embarrassing NASA spin of a discovery.
I am idealistic; I am a romantic; I am naive; I have no pragmatic sense; I don’t know what I’m saying. I know. Tell me. Yet I think that even the most pragmatical and cynical communicator, with all their sharp skillset that I cannot dream of, should not forget the two kernels above: for their very sake. Is a book like Death of a Hornet “efficient”? Surely enough, it does not try to “efficiently” communicate any clear concept. It’s little more than a beautifully written diary. But if a kid stumps on it, and she learns to marvel at the everyday beauty of nature through it, and other books like it, I bet it does more for scientific literacy than a thousand carefully crafted articles. A column teaching you brilliantly why global warming exists surely helps, but then you’re back to square one, for that reader, on the next topic. Teach that young reader that nature is an eye-watering marvel and it can be understood by observation and reason, and this will be never forgotten. She will not even need, then, the article on global warming: she will understand and accept the scientific method that gifted her with that wonder.
Death of a Hornet is a humble, minor book. But it is also a declaration of love for the natural world to which one surrenders; changing not a single viewpoint on a single topic, but letting you embrace a new vision of the world, for all days to follow. This is, I think, the highest result any science communication can hope to achieve.