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ISSUE:  Winter 2022

Cover illustration by Matt DorfmanFor all the intentionality behind each issue of VQR, there are plenty of accidents and unexpected outcomes that happen along the way. Half of them are lucky; the rest we wrestle with until they fit the larger puzzle. Every magazine improvises while editors learn to embrace unpredictability.

One happy accident of 2022—a serendipitous coincidence, at least—is that three of our columnists also happen to be practitioners in the sciences. Laura Kolbe, a hospitalist who specializes in medical ethics, has, with this issue, completed her first series of essays on encounters with art on the road. Raj Telhan, a specialist in interventional spine medicine, writes about the curious intersection between medical tradition and popular culture. And Jim Coan, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology here at UVA, has contributed a series of comics that explore science’s understanding of (and influence on) modern American relationships.

Literature, from fiction to poetry to graphic storytelling, is full of experts from other fields seeking to express themselves in ways their day jobs don’t allow. Practitioners of the sciences are all over this list—from Lewis Carroll (mathematician) to William Carlos Williams (physician) to Nawal El Saadawi (psychiatrist). But these literary moonlighters from the sciences also have the distinction of two callings that, while radically different, are arguably equally influential. The art of one practice meets the other somewhere between body and mind, in reader and patient alike. These are writers whose artistic choices are just a couple of degrees separated, if that much, from choices they’ve made in their more quantifiable but less publicized fields, whether its physics or biology or the quiet, vital grind of running a family practice.

This idea of influence between disciplines comes up in Kolbe’s interview with VQR’s Olivia Paschal, as part of a new feature in our newsletter called Shop Talk, in which contributors discuss process and idea generation. “Being a doctor is a hugely visual, hyper-sensory practice,” Kolbe says. “It’s almost akin, in a weird way, to being the audience of a work of art, except that the people on the receiving end of the medical gaze are, of course, their own subject, infinitely more than an object to be gazed upon.” As Kolbe says, it’s a “quality of attunement” that bridges her approach to both literature and medicine. 

This raises the question of whether practicing in the sciences adds something indispensable to the practice of literature.

“Being a writer has, I hope, made me a more careful and attentive doctor,” Kolbe tells Paschal, “because it’s accustomed me to revision. It’s accustomed to me to being wrong. In medical culture, there’s often an immense, self-imposed burden of perfection, authority, and detached objectivity. That can be emotionally overwhelming for the physician, but it also sets up this kind of artificial remove between physician and patient that ought to be overthrown from medicine. Having a writing practice that is, in some ways, all about error and seeking—about being open to criticism and change—has helped me to reflect that habit back into my medical work.”

Telhan tackles the phenomenon of fallibility in his column Human Practice, in which fundamental questions about literature and medicine collide to make room for physicians as human beings trying, failing—and then trying again—to understand the world. “The column is an attempt at two types of reconciliation. As a writer, I try to reconcile language and the world. As a physician, I try to reconcile the body and our ideas about how it should exist in that world.” 

Telhan, like Kolbe, pursued writing while studying medicine. In doing so, he says, the cross-pollination of influence was always there. “Both require a lot of sweat and both have to confront the reality that neither body nor word are passive objects,” he told me. “They both have lessons to teach the practitioner.” Telhan admits to being somewhat enchanted by the possible equivalences between medicine and writing, taking his cue from William Carlos Williams, who, when asked how he had committed himself to both professions for so long, answered, “they amount for me to nearly the same thing.”

But, Telhan says, “the most important part of Carlos’s statement for me is the word nearly. If I once had a desire as a medical student to see the gap between poetry and practice fully collapsed, I now make space to embrace the distance that separates the two, because it’s in that gap that we can discern the particular ways in which writing and medicine fail at their respective aims.”

Fallibility—an extraordinary thing to embrace in the practice of science, considering the stakes. And yet, in speaking with these three writers, you get the sense that honoring fallibility is exactly the ingredient better practice requires. If anything, it allows practitioners to see themselves as human. 

Humanizing science is the driving force of Jim Coan’s work as a comics illustrator, which he sees as a tool for bridging the gap between the public and a largely unreachable culture of specialists. His work in general, he says, is intended to shatter the veneer of detached perfectionism that, as he puts it, reinforces the sense of priesthood within the academic sciences.

“I’m very defensive of science and scientists,” he says, “and I want people to give it the respect it’s due. And I’m also very defensive of the non-specialist, and I want them to be treated with dignity and compassion and respect. And one of the ways in which you show compassion and respect is by being really clear and accessible in your communication.”

In making his case, he cites Nobel laureate Peter Medawar’s lecture “Is the Scientific Paper a Fraud?” in which Medawar calls out the performative objectivity of academic science writing. “It’s all a fictionalized account of how science happens and gets done,” Coan says. “It gives the reader the appearance of smooth methodology and deliberateness and so on. And science is nothing like that. Science is a giant mess. Science is a plate of spaghetti noodles that got dropped and is now all over the floor, and you’re trying to figure out what to do with it. And I’ve come to believe that if most people really understood more of what science is about, what it does—because scientists, God bless them and love them, they take that spilled plate of spaghetti noodles and through desperate, hard mental labor, transform it into the COVID vaccine. So I love what I do, but I hate the aesthetic culture of science that we’ve inherited over generations.”

Comics are a childhood passion for Coan, a first aspiration. Returning to them after nearly 30 years in the sciences was, in part, a way to break out of the turgid professional culture he describes and share what fascinates him about his field. And if comics aren’t readily presumed to be a platform for rigorous inquiry, all the better. “My goal in all this is, ideally, is to force the stodgy, purse-lipped performative scientists of the world to cite a comic book if they want to be taken seriously.”

This is the difference Coan seeks to split, he says: between specialization and clarity. And more than any technique or methodology, it’s his attitude as a scientist that shapes his approach to comics.

“I have a bit of a reputation among some students for being obsessive about the clarity of scientific figures,” he says, “for being hostile to the conventions of scientific writing, which is formulated to emphasize a kind of performed objectivity. It’s a subtle but important deception. I’m not standing outside of myself, with all of my biases and my background, doing the work that I do. I am all those biases and that background and those political convictions and those beliefs about the universe in a package doing this scientific work. And here’s my work, and here’s me, and now my community is who I depend upon to see what I can’t see because of who I am. And that is the miraculous community value of science: It is a communal activity.”

This is bread-breaking, then: writer and reader, specialist and non-specialist alike, meeting on the page on behalf of an idea or whim or revelation. That these three specialists of the sciences do so as seekers rather than disseminators of fixed truths speaks to how valuable humility in any practice can be. It’s also proof that even magazines can sometimes get lucky.


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