Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Art and Science Together

Andrea Barrett is one of those rare individuals who can successfully combine art and science. The proof is on display in full force in her book Ship Fever, a collection of seven short stories and a novella of the same name, which won the National Book Award in 1996.

Barrett majored in biology as an undergraduate. As a graduate student she started but did not finish programs in zoology and in medieval history. Throughout, she was a dedicated reader of fiction. When she finally turned to writing, she brought all of this background with her. The stories in this book are woven around actual historical scientists (Carl Linnaeus, Gregor Mendel, Charles Darwin); scientific theories (the migration of swallows, as an example); and historical events such as the Irish potato famine.

It would be hard for me to pick a favorite among the stories but, if pressed, I guess it would be “Rare Bird.” In the 18th century, the prevailing theory, supported by Linnaeus, was that swallows hibernated underwater in the winter – sounds unbelievable now. Two women, a spinster and a widow, make their own attempt to disprove this theory showing themselves to be as elusive as their subjects.

The novella of the title, “Ship Fever”, takes place during the period of the Irish potato famine of the mid-19th century. It turns out that the largest emigration from Ireland was to Canada (rather than to New York as we may have come to understand). But having left the starvation of their homeland, the voyageurs had still another struggle on their hands while in transit: an epidemic of “ship fever” which we now call typhus. Very little was understood at the time about the ways in which the disease was transmitted. As a result the passengers arriving in Canada were quarantined on an island until they could be examined and judged disease-free. The conditions on the arriving ships and on the island were more than deplorable. The story is that of a young idealistic doctor who volunteers to serve on the island.

The story raised several troubling questions for me. Why was this part of the Irish potato famine history so little known? How would we react today if or when there really were a global outbreak such as SARS? Would we be able to control the suspicion and paranoia? How will we deal with the same dilemma in the story: the allocation of scarce resources among a population of greater numbers? Who will be the real heroes and heroines?

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