Science Solitaire

[Science Solitaire] A thousand pieces deep

Maria Isabel Garcia

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[Science Solitaire] A thousand pieces deep
I have written 1,000 science column pieces – most of them a week after the other, without skipping. What have I learned?

This dance of my life started with “Bougainvillea” 21 years ago. “Bougainvillea” was the title of my first column. It was about how I saw natural life and the life I shared with my husband in these patches of fuchsia-skirted blossoms and how they buoyed my soul as I coped with my husband’s passing then.

From bougainvillea, I cultivated the dance of my mind trying to understand something that the sciences had something to say about – whatever it was – and connected them to other things in larger life’s menu. That could be a new finding about outer space and inner space – cells, genes, atoms – our obsession to live forever, a new scientific process or device, a scientific scandal, a scientific triumph or failure, even a scientific comedy, and connect them with the arts – literature, music, dance, the visual arts – with our emotional lives as humans, and our relationships with other life forms. In each of my attempt to explore connections, my dance as a writer always happens in the spaces in-between the disciplines and across the established fields of thinking and knowing.

I have done that formally now for 1,000 times. That was how long ago it was when I started writing a weekly science column, first called De Rerum Natura, which appeared in the Philippine Star for 537 weeks, until it became Science Solitaire in Rappler for another 463 times, including this one. I have written 1,000 pieces – with most of them a week after the other, without skipping. What have I learned?

I’ve learned that writing is one of the deepest and definitive mind-shaping enterprises that we can embark on as humans. It is not what I do but who I am.

First of all, the dance of the written word happens long before the word marshals its presence on a keyboard. It already saunters into the different parts of our brain, with all the orchestral parts engaged long before that.

There is the part (frontal lobe) that decides what to write about – which could happen weeks or days before one starts writing – and how to “attack” it. Then there is the part (hippocampus) that is the deep well of memories to show examples in one’s own life, or the story of others, of why this is relevant. And somewhere in the left part of our frontal lobe is an area (Broca’s area) that could turn those memories and connections into a worded description. In that same left frontal lobe area sits an area (Wernicke area) that allows the back and forth with the Broca’s area to hem and hew what we want to say and what we have written and make the adjustments to match.

The visual and speech areas of the brain are also engaged in writing. Writers “see” as well as “hear” a story with their inner voice (the latter seen in experiments with experienced writers). This is how and why words are not hollowed skeletal representations of experience but living expressions of the touchpoints with both the tangible and intangibles.

How your ideas get to be passed on down to your fingers so you can press the correct letters on your keyboard also proves that the motor part of your brain is active when you write. And this is not a pure exercise on efficiency. Being a writer for a long time, there is a cadence, I think, bespoke to each writer. Anyone can tell when someone was trained in “typing,” but no one can tell when someone is writing a novel, an essay, a play, or a script just by marking the speed and correctness of where the fingers are placed. That is unique to each writer – some kind of inner tune a writer sings as she carries a thought in her mind from the beginning to its end.

Studies have also shown that for experienced writers, there is a part of the brain that gets to recruit all these other brain parts above because it has gotten used to do so with practice. It will explain in part, I think, why after maybe five years of weekly writing for the public, I had become more trusting of the process that my brain will find a way to navigate the maze of a topic I have chosen.

Writing is my way of sculpting my own character, my own understanding of my own life, and my connection with the world and everyone in it, human or otherwise. I found it so natural to write ever since I was 8 that I did it thinking that all humans did it regularly as part of life since, to me, all life was discovery, reflection, insight, and application (and repeat) – in anything, and not just in science. Also, the act of making sense of seemingly disparate things regularly restored my hope in many things, especially in these times when it is so easy to lose faith in our humanity.

Writing was NEVER a job for me – not in the sense that I ever thought I could make a living off of it or care about my performance in the sense of “What does success look like in writing?” I don’t think writers who love their work ever think of writing that way. I think it is the kind of person they become because they write that births a character that becomes more than just the words. It is most of all the understanding of people, of history, and, most of all, connections that make any writer worth her own struggles to think of the right word, phrase, or page. If one is faithful to the lessons that constant writing (and the other side of the same coin – wide reading) affords, one has better chances of knowing how to approach any journey, including any project or problem, regardless of whether or not they require words.

Writing, most of all, kept me intellectually honest – to admit to my own confusions and contradictions. It kept me rigged to my own sails in navigating calm and stormy seas in my own life, as well as life at large. I am, through my pieces, paraphrasing the dark wisdom of Leonard Cohen into life, “a thousand fathoms deep.”

Thank you, Rappler, for giving space to Science Solitaire. Thank you, readers, for reading Science Solitaire. I hope my pieces have at least nuanced some of the moments in the sunrises and moonrises in your life as they did mine as I wrote them. –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” You can reach her at

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