Language and Science

Written by Chad Cowan

As humans, we have always been drawn to stories, whether around the campfire, in print, on the stage or on the screen. It is no different, in science. The scientists I admire take our limited understanding of the world around us, craft a story and tell it. In a way, they are like poets and playwrights for the natural world.

T.S. Eliot begins the “Wasteland” with a line that has always stuck with me, “April is the cruelest month.” Now a resident of the cold northeast where he lived, I understand better than ever the sentiment. Although, I would argue it is March that has proven cruel this year by reminding us of winter’s doldrums. The last two months have been filled with work and colds and dark mornings and dark afternoons, but I see the beginnings of spring. At work, we are busy making plans for more social outings, including a company-wide event. At home, we are packing to go away for two weeks of glorious vacation in the Bahamas. Together these efforts combine what I seek in life, purpose, and joy. It has taken me years to realize that joy is not a private matter but found amongst those we love and those we live with and are together with. A hard truth to come by for a dedicated introvert. So, let’s hope some fun together will bring joy and make April seem less cruel.

As I have been reminded, this blog should speak about how my career path uses writing and language, so to business then. I am a scientist by training and now by mindset. In science, our greatest hope is to discover something worth communicating to others, be it a simple innovation or a deeper truth. As a native English speaker (if we as American’s can claim this), it has been my great fortune that the language of science is English, otherwise I may never have made progress in my chosen profession given my lack of facility in any other language. The reasons for English becoming the language of science are many and not worth re-hashing, but as of today, most if not practically all scientists communicate in a common language. We seek to share our insights and the problems we set ourselves against with the likeminded and learn from those who tilt against their own windmills but have inadvertently solved some of the riddles we seek to puzzle through.

As a result of our common language, I have travelled the world as an academic scientist and attended conferences on almost every continent (Antarctica is missing from my travels). It has been my pleasure to exchange information freely with scientists everywhere I’ve gone because we’ve agreed to communicate in a single language. Science and the community it fosters, transcends nations, cultures and creeds. In a way I have never witnessed in any other endeavor, except sports, it unites us. In my lab at Harvard, we had people from all over the world working together on a common problem. The same was true in the lab next door and the one across the country in California. In the company I’ve founded, it is the same. People from all walks of life gathered around a common purpose and united in their ability to exchange information in a common language.

A final digression, I have taught many scientists over the years how to ask questions and design experiments that will help them understand the answers. The most important lesson I have imparted to those I have worked with the longest is that the best scientists are often also the best at telling stories. As humans, we have always been drawn to stories, whether around the campfire, in print, on the stage or on the screen. It is no different, in science. The scientists I admire take our limited understanding of the world around us, craft a story and tell it. In a way, they are like poets and playwrights for the natural world.

My last words of wisdom for my students, is that whether we tell others stories or not, we are always telling ourselves a story. To make sure the facts as we have collected them agree with the story, we tell ourselves before we tell others. In other words, be willing to rewrite your own story rather than fall in love with the first draft. Otherwise, you may do the world a disservice and communicate a fiction versus a description of the wonderful world around us.

Written by Chad Cowan

Late Fall / Winter Reading with a Scientist

Written by Chad Cowan

Reading has always been one of my favorite things to do and it remains my number one past time for relaxation.

Late fall and early winter are very busy times for me, both at work and at home. First at home, we have two birthdays to celebrate and multiple holidays. My youngest son, Ellery, joined the double-digit club and turned 10 this October. Ellery has mild autism, and he is deeply fascinated by giraffes. We have gone “all in” with his obsession and his room and much of his learning seems to center on giraffes (or other animals).

Last year at his birthday, his two large stuffed giraffes, Super Doctor Mummy Raffie and Tall Neck, were married by his grandfather a sea Captain at a lovely party attended by friends and family members. This year, the young couple was expecting, and we threw a baby shower for his 10th birthday party. We celebrated the arrival of “twin” baby giraffes with cake and had several baby animals join the party for people to hold and play with. A good time was had by all.

This event was followed by Halloween, which we have perfected if the objective is to collect enough candy to eat until Christmas (we may have over done it and gotten enough to last until Easter!). Next up is one of our favorite national holidays, my lovely wife Lindsay’s birthday. More cake, more stuffed animals, and good times.

Then Thanksgiving, which we hosted for 18 people and made sure we had all the family favorites, turkey, ham, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, stuffing, brussel sprouts, asparagus, green beans, pies, cake and of course ice cream. On the horizon is our yearly trip to New York City. We plan to visit the Natural History Museum and the Metropolitan Museum this year. We usually catch a show but were unable to come to a consensus on whether to see the Rockettes or a Broadway play so may skip it this season. Finally, we will spend Christmas in the British Virgin Islands on a sailboat with friends.

At work, we just achieved 95% of our corporate goals for the 2022 (hooray!), finished a private financing, completed our performance management reviews, and set new Corporate Goals for 2023. We welcomed our 50th employee to our rapidly growing team and are moving to our new office and lab space. We’ve been so busy, we’ve all agreed to have our holiday party sometime next year when we can finally catch our breath and celebrate what we’ve been able to accomplish!

The two most selfish things I do every day are exercise and read. Reading has always been one of my favorite things to do and it remains my number one past time for relaxation. According to my Kindle app, I have read for 207 weeks in a row, with a current consecutive streak of 146 days. This year on Kindle I have read 37 novels. I read anything and everything, but still have a soft spot for science fiction and fantasy novels, my favorite sci fi novel this year was “Anathem” by Neal Stephenson and favorite fantasy series was the “Age of Madness” trilogy by Joe Abercrombie. I have to give a nod to a trilogy that I found unbelievably entertaining, “The Scholomance” series by Naomi Novik. I have recently begun reading more non-fiction books and some that made the list this year include, “How Not to Be Wrong” by Jordan Ellenberg (a delightful book about using math to make better decisions), “Algorithms to Live By” by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths (more of the same), “Popular” by Mitch Prinstein (which takes a hard look at the neuro-and socio-biology of popularity), and “Behave” by Robert Sapolsky (which integrates psychology, neurology and sociology to help understand human behavior). All in all a good year of reading.

Reading also is one of the main ways our family gets together. We still read either poems or passages from books at every dinner we sit down to. We have recently made this a bit more light-hearted for the boys’ sakes and two family favorites are a book poems, “Throw the Damn Ball: Classic Poetry by Dogs” by R.D. Rosen et al. and an updated field guide to the birds of North America, called “The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of North America” by Matt Kracht. These have been huge hits as they are hilarious and irreverent. Caution, they both should come with language warnings as they use some very off-color descriptors to good effect.

Finally, I read almost every night to my youngest son, who in addition to autism has profound dyslexia. I want to make sure he learns to love the joy of stories and books and for several years his mental sophistication has been well ahead of his reading level, so rather than have him pay the price I am delighted to read books of all levels for his enjoyment. We just finished the entire Rick Riordan Greek Myths multibook series (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, The Heroes of Olympus and the Trial of Apollo). I am proud to report that we co-read the last book together (I read a page or two, he read a page or two), a major step forward in his literacy. Perhaps more enjoyable, has been listening to him read aloud the books we read every December in the run up to Christmas. Just last night he read us, “The Little Fir Tree” by Hans Christen Andersen. It is amazing to see another reader blossom before my eyes.

Written by Chad Cowan

The Read-aloud

Written by Henriette J. Runte

When we engage in writing and reading, we retreat into our mind. We reflect. We imagine. We explore. We reach a state of relaxation that rivals the results of any of the popular forms of meditation. But humans are social beings, and we enjoy sharing what we love. Just like meditation, both writing and reading can be shared. Today, I’d like to write you about the beauty of reading together, aloud.

Writing and reading, mated for life, hand in hand, and yet so alone.

When we engage in these two solitary activities, we retreat into our mind. We reflect. We imagine. We explore. We reach a state of relaxation that rivals the results of any of the popular forms of meditation. But humans are social beings, and we enjoy sharing what we love. Just like meditation, both writing and reading can be shared. Today, I’d like to write you about the beauty of reading together, aloud.

My husband and I started reading together – to each other, aloud – when I was pregnant with our twins and no longer mobile enough to go out or engage in any activities. Watching a movie together got mundane and made us only long for more adventurous, social, or athletic pastimes. Reading next to each other made us feel somehow remote. We had already explored every discussion topic imaginable. We needed something that we could do together that didn’t involve much movement and still allowed us to escape the monotony of our brooding.

A friend of my husband’s had just given him a copy of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. I looked into the book and started reading, but my brain was clouded by pregnancy hormones and my body tired from the extreme weight gain; I only made it through the first few pages before needing one of my numerous daily naps. My husband took up the book a few days later and found it thrillingly touching from the beginning. One evening, he wanted to read a passage from the book to me, thinking I would find the language interesting. My husband is a physician and expresses limited enthusiasm for literature and the arts. He loves to accompany me on my discoveries, but he rarely takes the initiative in this area. If he felt the need to share a passage of a book with me, I most certainly had to listen. Because reading a passage out of context makes little sense, my husband started reading the book to me from the beginning. Lying cozily cuddled on the couch, with my head on my husband’s lap, I felt like a child during a bedtime story. The energy I saved through this comfortable position allowed me to make it through more than the first few pages. When my husband’s voice grew hoarse from reading, I took over. By then, we were sucked into the story and couldn’t put the book down.

I was fascinated by the way Jonathan Safran Foer plays with language, recreating accents and grammatical mistakes. I loved the attention he pays to history and the importance of our ancestral heritage. I marveled at the way he strings characters together, the way he transcends time, and the way he tackles the question of cultural identity. My husband found the book incredibly entertaining, in turns philosophical, touching, and even humorous. We loved the book’s exploration of the topics of personal and social memory. We were touched by the way the book handles the idea of guilt. We enjoyed the light sexual tones. And we were fascinated by the changes in mood and tone.

We took about four weeks to finish reading the book. We had to stop many times to laugh or cry together. We discussed passages in detail. We read and re-read the particularly beautiful ones. We talked for hours about the messages and the questions the book brings to light. It was a beautiful month of our twin pregnancy that was filled with excitement, closeness and true cerebral connection.

We watched the movie once we finished the book and felt a sense of disappointment. It’s not that the movie is badly done or that the acting isn’t good. It had more to do with the experience itself. We enjoyed the movie passively. Sitting next to each other in a dark room in silence, the only thing left for us to do was to take in the images and the sounds, and hold hands. Of course, we could talk about the movie afterwards. But the experience just wasn’t the same.

I’m not one of those academics who scoffs at the movie version of a literary piece. I quite enjoy movie adaptations of books. Oftentimes – most of the time, in fact – I find that the movie adds another level to the book and a new way of enjoying and exploring specific aspects of the story. But I consider Everything is Illuminated a literary masterpiece, a novel that sets a milestone in literary history and will be remembered as one of the greats of the early 21st century. And as far as literary masterpieces go, I guess I do believe the movie version can never compete with the written word.

What set our reading of Everything is Illuminated apart from our previous literary pleasures was that we read the book together. The experience came at an interesting time in our lives, as we were preparing to become parents, as we were setting ourselves up to read to our future children. Perhaps we thought it would be the last time that we could pamper each other with such attention or take the time to discuss and marvel over a book together.

With the birth of our twins, time became very precious and, unlike during the pregnancy, we were never at a lack of things to do. We read to our children from the get-go, like you’re supposed to, but we stopped reading to each other.

Now, here’s something few people know about me. As a child, I hated reading. Truly! My dad read to me every night when I was young, and that, I loved! I learned to read at an early age but never really developed a taste for books. My father kept reading to me (in Hungarian) until he defected from Romania when I was 10. The three or so years that followed were filled with turmoil and hardship, and I only remember reading two books. They are Hungarian books, so they will have little meaning for most of you, but I will give you the titles anyway: Egri csillagok and Pál utcai fiúk. I remember my mother going to great lengths to get me excited about books. She bought me young adult books about a girl named Csöpike. She asked her friends what their children were reading. She even tried to read to me aloud, but her voice was serious and had sad undertones, which first depressed me and then made me angry.

In the US, my dad took up reading to me again, this time in English, but his accent soon outgrew me, and I politely discouraged the activity within months of our arrival in Texas.

I did start to read poetry with my first best friend in Texas. We enjoyed reading Emily Dickinson poems, because they were for the most part short, and because we liked the idea of a female poet who never got married. The poetry of Robert and Elisabeth Barrett Browning made us dream of the future love affairs we were hoping to have. We also read Shakespeare, because his sonnets made us feel smart and sophisticated. It would be important to point out that all our reading was done aloud, to each other.

In high school, I was really into theater and acting. I devoured plays, but always in preparation for a scene or a theatrical piece we were putting on. Delivering the lines was always part of the enjoyment, so again, the texts were read aloud.   

It wasn’t until college that I read alone, to myself. I wanted to go for a degree in performing arts and creative writing, but my immigrant parents insisted I major in Human Biology and Pre-Med. I did as I was told, but escaped the fate of becoming a scientist by committing to reading; after completing the degrees required by my family, I went for a PhD in French literature. As if to show a certain solidarity with my parents, the Literature Gods punished me for my choice. In my graduating year, there were about 900 books on the PhD reading list! This cruel practice has since been changed, and the list has been shortened! But I still had to abide by the old system to complete my degree.

Through my PhD, I learned to read fast, mainly in French. I learned to read academically. I learned to make a science out of it. Reading became a job.

If I think back to the years between my PhD and my first pregnancy, I don’t think I read one single book for sheer pleasure. I always read as part of my research or to prepare the classes I was teaching.

It strikes me as very odd that I was never conscious of this fact until now.

When my husband and I read Everything is Illuminated to each other aloud, I rediscovered the ritual that originally connected me to literary pleasure. For me, reading aloud has always been synonymous with enjoyment, marvel, coziness, and well-being. 

So, I read to our twins as soon as they were born.

I would spread a big blanket on the ground, place the little bundles that were my new son and daughter on either side of my head, accept the jealously insistent snout of our huge dog on my tummy, and I would read.

I read to them the favorite Hungarian books of my infancy, taking great care when turning the crisp yet smooth brownish pages. I read to them the German books of rhyme of my husband’s childhood; the twins’ great-grandmother, my husband’s grandmother gave us shiny new editions of these already in the pregnancy.  I read to them the French children’s books I bought myself during my studies in Paris, Besançon, and Avignon, already then dreaming of the time when I would become a mother.

Ironically, I had no connection to American or English-speaking children’s books. It was my dear friend from Chicago – we call her Aunt Patty at our house – who brought us a suitcase full of books when she came to see the wiggle worms shortly after their birth. She introduced Dr. Seuss books into our home. She initiated us into reading Goodnight Moon every evening. She brought us The Rainbow Fish and The Going to Bed Book, and many others.

We read a lot. All the time.     

Once our twins were old enough to read themselves, I started reading the books together with them, allowing them to take turns to read a paragraph or two, and taking it upon myself to read the bulk. With the birth of our third child, the twins interestingly started reading to the baby on their own initiative.

Now the baby is also old enough to read. She’s now eight, and the twins are twelve. And the kids have reached a maturity where reading can go outside of the tight sphere of children’s books and books for early readers. We select the books together and truly look forward to this shared activity. My husband reads mainly science fiction and fantasy books with them. I stick to classics, best sellers in fiction and non-fiction, and to the lesser-known gems I discover in book stores or through recommendations. The twins have decided to learn French at school, and I’m counting down the days until I can introduce them to the myriad of amazing books written in this beautiful Romance language.   

When I read to the kids, I really ham it up. I come up with different voices for the characters. I use foreign accents whenever the story allows it. My Texas and my Italian accents are particularly popular. My husband delivers more serious readings, but he is passionate about the books and his enthusiasm rubs off on the kids and draws them in. The kids try to emulate our reading styles, but, for the time being, fail, for the most part. Naturally, I encourage them to experiment and to always lend special meaning to the words they bring to life with their voices. On the other hand, I find myself desperately clinging on to the title of best reader, because it makes me feel needed and like I am still their mommy.

I paint an idyllic picture of family fun while reading together aloud, but it’s not always smooth sailing. When it’s their time to read, the kids often protest, at times rather vehemently. Their reading slows down the process and even leads to the occasional fight between them. And this is now, after years of working hard to establish this family ritual. It was even more of a struggle in the early years. Tears were shed, questionable deals made, and the occasional ultimatum pronounced.

We have insisted on reading aloud with our kids not only because we find it enjoyable. Of course, hearing their little voices and their own little interpretations of the text is wonderful, and it is thrilling to observe how they improve over time and become better, more expressive and confident readers. But there are many other benefits to reading aloud with them.

First of all, the kids feel involved in the process and pay significantly more attention. This allows them to develop listening skills that will help them in school and in their relationships with others. They learn to listen not only to adults but also to other children.

Secondly, they practice pronunciation, intonation, voice control and projecting their voice, and they learn to notice how their audience is reacting to their words. This contributes to their general presentations skills. This allows them to become better negotiators and develops significant leadership skills. By the way, these benefits don’t only apply to the kids; mom and dad can use the practice in this area as well. 

Thirdly, they improve their vocabulary and comprehension skills by immediately being able to ask for clarification. Having a large vocabulary in one language has a synergetic effect and improves their potential to learn foreign languages. Using vocabulary that goes beyond basic, every-day words makes them more eloquent and better at expressing complex thoughts and sentiments. Being able to immediately discuss difficult transitions in time, plot, or character lends clarity to their reading and increases enjoyment. 

In addition, they gain experience in discussing difficult topics. They learn to tell a story. They get the chance to talk about their own feelings, and it allows them to hear your perspective on things. This is incredibly helpful in discussing some of the social dilemmas kids have to confront and deal with. For example, we tackled early age difficulties with anger management by reading  Knut hat Wut in German and The Anger Gremlin in English. Love that Dog helped us work through some of the sorrow of losing our family dog, the one whose snout accompanied years of reading together. 

Our read-alouds have multiple benefits. We relish the time we spend together, and we take delight in the books we are able to discover as a family. Every book we read together is fun and entertaining, and most have meaningful messages, interesting topics, and great literary value. But some stand out above the rest.

A few months back, a friend gave me a copy of The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill. I started reading the book by myself, but realized after a few pages that I had to share even the first reading with my children and my husband.

Kelly Barnhill’s book is sheer poetry. The language lulls you, and pierces you, and has you feeling every new development. We read and re-read passages, taking in the beauty of the author’s word constructions. The language itself is touching and gentle, even when conveying pain or danger. The plot is exciting and doesn’t cease to surprise you. The suspense is thrilling and keeps you binge reading. The multiple perspectives allow you to delve into the story and the characters from many different angles, thus provoking discussion and reflection.

The kids had many questions and many ideas for how the story should go on. While reading, we wrote in our heads dozens of alternate endings. We often stopped to talk about the thoughts we were having, or why the book made us feel sad, or angry, or disappointed. But we also stopped to cheer when things were going well.

From a literary point of view, the book is rich in literary devices. The use of foreshadowing is powerful. Symbolism is strongly used, especially to convey hope and sorrow. Character development is excellent.

In our family, reading aloud started with my husband and me reading a book to each other in an effort to find a joint activity during our twin pregnancy. Now, we continue to read aloud, but our circle has expanded to include our three children. In the future, we will perhaps embrace reading together as a couple again. Or we might convince friends to read aloud with us. Or maybe we will be joined by the next generation of readers, our children’s children. But one thing is for sure: reading aloud will remain strongly anchored in our family culture and will continue to be a favorite family tradition and pastime.

4 Literature’s Sake is a work in progress. Thank you for letting me share my thoughts with you. It has been a pleasure to write them down. Bis zum nächsten Mal! À la prochaine! Bye for now! Sziasztok! Hasta la proxima vez! Henriette Javorek Runte (aka Dr. J)