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.
My mother was in the kitchen, fixing her tea and talking on the phone. We had replaced the cord that came in the box—one of our rabbits probably chewed through it one too many times to splice again—the coiled line stretching across the room to where she stood at the yellow counter. In my hands, blackened by old grease, was an expired roll of film. I had decided that I wanted to be serious about taking pictures, like the filmmaking teacher in school. New cameras were too expensive, so the only way that I could take pictures was with the old camera that we used on vacation. She had bought it for my father decades before, but he left it behind when he had left us.
She waved me away. She was busy and couldn’t help me anyway, as it had been years since she’d picked up the camera.
I couldn’t get the perforations aligned with the sprockets and was worried that I’d already exposed too much of the leader trying to load it. I had read somewhere that if you only loaded two perforations into the take-up spool you could expose the zero or even double-zero frames if you were careful. But the leader would fall out unless I pushed it to the third or fourth hole. The advancement lever was jammed, too, so I had to spool it with an external autowinder.
Clack – whir, clack – whir, clack – whir. I fired off three frames with the back still open, just to make sure that it would stay. I had also heard that tension was important—you wanted a flat film plane for maximum sharpness, so you should rewind the film a bit after loading. I gave the knob several full turns, pulling exposed frames back into the can, then re-cocked the shutter to have it ready for when a picture presented itself, even though I wasn’t planning on going anywhere that day.
Silver halide, a silver-halogen salt, is the chemical foundation for photographic emulsions. By itself, the celluloid base of film is not sensitive to light; it merely serves as a carrier for the emulsion. In a typical film stock, silver halide crystals are suspended in a gelatin and spread over the substrate, which can vary from glass plate negatives to sheet or roll films. When exposed to light, halide crystal undergoes a reaction where the surface is turned into metallic silver, which shows as a dark spot in the negative. The more light that the halides are exposed to, the more photons they imbibe themselves on in that fraction of a second that the shutter takes to drag across the gate, the darker the negative gets. While it seems like it would be an overly expensive process, each crystal only holds a handful of silver atoms.
Sitting atop concrete steps, mildly drunk, with a bronze Elvis looming overhead is a slightly surreal experience. Though from a Western perspective, most of Japan is slightly surreal. The traditional and ultramodern are often separated by only a few city blocks: temples sit in the alleys between highrises while in convenience stores good luck charms are sold next to premade sandwiches and hot cans of coffee.
It’s years later, several cameras apart, and half the planet away from that night in the kitchen, but I still can’t pull off that two-perforation load. Somehow, though, that doesn’t matter as much as it once had. I don’t leave the shutter cocked anymore—too much tension will wear out the mechanical spring release.
It was Me and Michael. In Osaka. JR West to Matsuyamachi. Down Shinsaibashi. Above, vents pulled the cigarette smoke away from the table. 100s burning down in the ashtray. We were waiting in line, but then I was lost down an alley. Neon lamps flaring through the fungus that scars my lens. A line cook glanced out the window, knife in hand, the fluorescents in his eyes. The okonomiyaki was gone, some sake left over. The midnight sun rose silently alongside Dotonbori, carried by the Glico Man, Don Quijote around the corner. A chill breeze coming off the canal, running strong along my chin. Time stood still, yet we could feel its countdown. Too happy with ourselves to notice that the train had come. Maybe its gears won’t turn, the lights will stay on, and the colors won’t fade. But the trains always leave, and dawn always comes.
Temperature is critical for any chemical reaction. Typically, the warmer the environment or reagents are, the quicker the reaction will occur. Film development is no different. Beginning with a warm water bath has a few benefits: it helps to wash away any dust that may be stuck to the surface of the celluloid, it brings the film up to the correct temperature, and the warmth seeps into the gelatin layer, swelling it for the imminent chemical treatments.
The first step is adding the developer, an alkaline solution that burns the latent image into the plastic, expanding the microscopic silver into the distinctive grains. Next, the stop bath halts the reaction because it is a dilute acetic acid, the chemical opposite of the developing solution. To finalize the negative, it is submerged in fixer. Unexposed halides in the thinner areas of the negative are dissolved, yielding a permanent, light-proof image. In complete darkness, the smell of sulfur permeates.
Standing among the scrub, the sun burns my skin. I had read somewhere that the desert may be both the perfect and worst environment for storing film. The lack of humidity means that fungus can’t grow or spread. But the emulsion hates heat and will spoil faster; light seals dry out and crumble away.
The sun, sinking below the canyon walls, deepens the shadows around me. Diffraction causes the rays to streak across the frame, but that’s not a concern anymore, barely even a thought. The phone, its long cord tangled behind, sits in a box somewhere. My mother’s house is filled with strangers.
Water, suddenly a curiosity, flows over the footpath. Mountain runoff, the last of the winter season. Gravel scatters as a lizard runs past. The ever-present dust, attracted by the static created by film rubbing through its felt light seals, scratches the surface of the emulsion.
I now find myself deep in the American Southwest, 2,500 miles and two years away from those that I had traveled to Japan with. The camera that had gone across the world is long sold, the money gone, no telling what it now bears witness to, whose hands hold it.
Charles Revello is a graduate student at the Wyant College of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona, where he works in designing lenses for telescopes, microscopes, and, of course, cameras.
Header photo by Charles Revello. Photo of Charles Revello by Amee Hennig.