Tribune Heartland Winner, Rebecca Skloot, Brings Science to Eye Level

November 15th, 2010

Tribune Heartland winners bring science to eye level with engaging storytelling

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By Mark Caro, Tribune reporter
9:52 a.m. CST, November 14, 2010

Rebecca Skloot, winner of the Chicago Tribune’s 2010 non-fiction Heartland Prize for “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” told a packed Thorne Auditorium on Saturday afternoon that her favorite book-tour compliment came from a 9-year-old who exclaimed, “You’re not a geek! I thought all scientists had to be geeks!”

Not only do Skloot’s warmth and polish dispel that stereotype, but her bestselling, widely acclaimed book — along with fiction Heartland winner E.O. Wilson’s “Anthill” — blows away the notion that science writing must be the literary equivalent of Ambien. If society has placed science on a pedestal that many folks regard as beyond their grasp, Skloot and Wilson are keen to return it to eye level.

“Science is not some esoteric branch of activity,” Wilson said during his lively Chicago Humanities Festival discussion with Skloot and Tribune literary editor Elizabeth Taylor. “Rather, science is what we know.”

Wilson, 81, described himself and Skloot, 38, as “kind of bookends.” She’s at the beginning of her career with her massively successful debut book about a Southern black woman whose cancer cells lived on to foster countless scientific advances, all while her family remained in the dark. Biologist/naturalist Wilson already had written 40 books, won two Pulitzer Prizes and been named one of Time magazine’s 25 Most Influential People in America when he decided to tackle fiction—for the challenge, he told the crowd, as well as the desire to incorporate nature into a Southern novel.

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Skloot called Wilson her longtime scientist/writer hero. Wilson, appreciating her ability to turn a scientific tale into compelling storytelling, told Skloot, “We need more writers like you.”

That need is acute when science is so commonly disputed and distrusted. When Taylor asked why science is spurring so much fighting, Wilson matter-of-factly replied, “Ignorance and lack of common sense,” prompting an eruption of applause.

Wilson also referred to Creationism as an offshoot of “tribalism,” the desire of people to unite around a belief — so abandoning that belief would be tantamount to giving up their identity. Skloot said she tries to get beyond points of religious-scientific disagreement in her public discussions.

Predicted Wilson: “I think it will be resolved. Give it two or three generations.”

Skloot mentioned that during her research, she spoke with people who said they wouldn’t vote for Al Gore because he favored chopping up babies and injecting them into people—their impression of stem cell research. Taylor asked Wilson if he had taught Gore at Harvard University.

“He wasn’t in my class,” Wilson said. “I think he would have done so much better had he been.”

The authors also discussed the importance of activism, which Wilson equated with letting people know what’s coming. For instance, he drily noted, a scientist who discovers that a meteor has an 80 percent chance of hitting Chicago ought not to wait to publish those findings.

Wilson was keen to shoot down one more stereotype: that great scientists have the highest IQ’s. His own, he said, is 123. What do people with 160-plus IQ’s do?

“They join Mensa societies and work for the Internal Revenue Service,” he said to much laughter.

The discussion had a local bent as well. Skloot, who grew up in Springfield, mentioned that she’d moved to Chicago over the summer and looked forward to participating in the city’s cultural life. Wilson, who lives in the Boston area, plugged the Field Museum of Natural History as “a wonderful place to go” and also called the nature-protecting project Chicago Wilderness “a model for the country.”