27 Nov 2011

Science, My Father and Me

Posted by Vivien Bowers

As a child I spent summers in the BC Okanagan, where my physicist/astronomer father worked at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory while we kids swam in the lake. On weekends when nobody else was around he’d let us climb the ladder high up to the gigantic dish antenna, where we’d perch while Dad in the control room slowly turned the dish to listen to another part of the mysterious universe.

You’d think I might have developed an affinity for science from my father, but no. My
degree was in English literature, and science was a bit of a foreign land.

Yet these days I often write about science. I contribute to a school publication called “What in the World?” and often get handed the monthly science and technology story. Nuclear meltdown in Japan. Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Internet bandwidth hogs. Space trash.

I find joy in nailing these science stories, though they are a stretch for me. I peer into pockets of scientific knowledge and challenge my brain to grasp the unfamiliar concepts. Then I write about them, and why they matter, in a way that I hope captures the attention of a Grade 8 audience.

Recently my topic was dendritic cells and their role in our body’s immune system. Canadian-born medical researcher Ralph Steinman won the Nobel prize for discovering these cells. And I learned about them too, one morning, and was almost as thrilled.

The hardest story? The Large Hadron Collider at the CERN Institute in Switzerland. My research took me into the heart of dark matter, anti-matter, string theory… my father’s familiar haunts. Fortunately CERN has a very helpful website. That story has become my benchmark – if I can write about particle physics, I can write about anything.

My father died more than a decade ago, but I feel closer to him as I tackle these stories. I’m no scientist but I’ve realized that I share his intellectual curiosity, rational mind and enthusiasm for new discoveries. I remember the day he told us about black holes – hands gesturing wildly and blue eyes shining. And how, after visiting a neurologist who told him he had an inoperable brain tumour, he demonstrated to us with real fascination how the changes in brain functioning were affecting his body’s movements.

Being a scientist – someone passionate about the how and why of this mysterious universe – gave my father a sense of perspective on his impending death, and some comfort. As for me, I’m grateful to have inherited more than just his blue eyes.

1 comment:

Adrienne * Tough City Writer said...

Lovely post, Vivien. Thank you.