Science Stories: The Art of Scientific Storytelling
Series Introduction by Alison Hawthorne Deming
Science Stories showcases the impressive literary work done by graduate students who participated in the first run of “The Art of Scientific Storytelling,” a new course I taught in Spring 2020 at the University of Arizona. The course, developed in collaboration with my Creative Writing program colleague Christopher Cokinos, was eligible for credit in the new Graduate Certificate in Science Communications offered by the College of Science. Its aim was to inspire creative works that were science-smart, works that might enhance science literacy among readers. The class read contemporary writers who covet the perspectives of science and the personal stories of scientists who write for non-technical audiences. We read memoirs, essays, op-eds, and poetry. We read works inspired by chemistry, astronomy, paleobiology, traditional indigenous knowledge: Primo Levi, Hope Jahren, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Kathleen Jamie, Alan Lightman, Gary Paul Nabhan, and Maggie Nelson, among others. The students came from a range of disciplines including optical science, astronomy, geography, climate adaptation, hydrology, mathematics, speech pathology, and creative writing. The conversations were rich and the talent abundant. They surprised me each week with their inventive and insightful takes on writing assignments. We offer this showcase of our experiment in the meeting of art and science.
Living in the shadow of Volcán de Fuego, in central Guatemala, some days begin under a thin blanket of ashfall. The impossibly soft gray powder shrouds everything downwind of it about once a month. This ash, farmers tell me, is what gives Guatemalan coffee its rich taste and makes it one of just a few viable export crops for locals in the market. Locals here also host hiking tours for sightseers to marvel at Fuego’s novelties up close: the rotten smell of sulfur; even roasting marshmallows in its glowing cracks. During the years I lived nearby, I often scaled its sister summit, Acatenango, to take in the view beyond the smoking cone: villages tumbling across lush valleys in every direction, without considering that some of them could soon be leveled by landslides and buried in earth.
Some days, like June 3rd of 2018, the ash overwhelms, spewing from a massive eruption and curdling into pyroclastic flows. It melts tires to the ground and destroys any vestige of a coffee plant, or a milpa crop, or a shelter.
Vexing images of the 2018 eruption diffused widely through news and social media, presented with the mixture of human empathy and fascination often characteristic of such disasters when they make headlines. Hundreds of people were killed and a few towns razed completely that day. Briefly, the world turned its attention, and in a few cases aid, to Guatemala.
In addition to swift and horrific destruction on the ground, eruptions like Fuego can release hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic sulfur dioxide gas, SO2, into the atmosphere. Historically, volcanic aerosols have long disrupted atmospheric and climactic patterns. They’ve proven capable of causing prolonged winters and global famines by obstructing the sun. Until recent decades, these dramatic events were the most prolific force on the planet doing so. Today, they make up for less than 1 percent of aerosol emissions. Without fanfare, the world over, human-designed chemical combustions leach sulfur dioxide to the same and worsening effects.
Brimstone, sulfur, like that which gave Fuego its characteristic odor, is an omen older than the bible—evoking inferno in our lexicon long before uranium or plutonium. Though like the other most infamous elements, we hadn’t known its full destructive power until we tried to domesticate it. When combined with ubiquitous hydrogen and oxygen, sulfur excels at extracting other minerals from their casings. We repeat this process to make sulfuric acid, lifeblood of late capitalism; over 180 million tons of it a year. Production of the stuff is a “reliable indicator” of a nation’s industrial strength, according to economists. The U.S. produces more sulfuric acid than any other chemical, using it to manufacture pharmaceuticals and insecticides and antifreeze. To refine oil and reduce aluminum. To create the substances that give us domain over other elements and mediums to make our mark on this world—paints, inks, explosives, cement, gunpowder. Sulfur is a primary ingredient in the fertilizers that enable modern agriculture.
Distinct from those of volcanoes, the consequences of these industries go largely unnoticed at the time they are produced. But they have even more substantial ramifications for humans and their ecosystems over time. There’s a crucial difference between destruction by natural causes and destruction by human-made causes: the byproducts of the latter generate wealth—for some.
These, instead, are tragedies that require our active participation. The government-subsidized industrial farms in the U.S. powered by sulfur-based fertilizers and agrochemicals that provide access to cheap produce from anywhere in the world, regardless of the season, have their thumbs on the scales of the global food system. Guatemala is now forced to import most basic food items at a high premium, despite the region’s long history of subsistence farming, fertile growing conditions, and the fact that over a third of its workforce is employed in the agricultural sector. Driven away from autonomous food production in order to compete through more fickle export crops, farmers are left vulnerable to market and policy shifts, often losing their land to larger operations.
Climate change effects caused by related trends toward industrialization are making the rainy season come much later in Guatemala, decimating the harvests of subsistence crops that do remain. The sulfur dioxide gases emitted by largely foreign-owned megaprojects, livestock operations, and factories here eventually fall somewhere as acid rain, which can create eerie dead zones out of entire ecological communities. Maquiladoras and mines throughout Mexico and Central America introduce alarming amounts of pollution into local water sources while extracting vital resources from the land and its inhabitants for export goods. Many of these mines in fact profit from collecting the very sulfur found in the region’s volcanic deposits.
There are no aid campaigns like the 2018 relief effort to support the staggering number of Guatemalans whose lands and livelihoods have been eradicated in these more gradual ways. They are unable to produce an exact record of their losses, nor pinpoint a particular moment of catastrophe like an eruption to which we might respond. Because it is much more difficult to publicize the complicated and tedious disasters unfolding every day, and because they are often the same processes providing our modern conveniences, we usually don’t respond.
Locals have grappled with living alongside volcanos for thousands of years. What’s new are outsider interventions and extractive industries that do not present a rotten sulfur scent, nor a regular shower of ash for warning. But like the magma in Fuego’s lower chambers, these processes are building deadly pressure. There are other crucial differences between destruction by natural causes and destruction by human-made causes. The latter can be prevented, if we choose to act in response to current and coming catastrophes.
Patricia Schwartz is a graduate student of geography at the University of Arizona studying water policy and environmental justice. They have previously written for the EntreMundos bilingual magazine out of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.