To speak of Southern culture and science at the same moment seems satirical. If anything, we have the tendency to view the South, those parts of the States below the Mason Dixon line, as anti-science. A war is on throughout much of the deep South, from Louisiana to Virginia, on whether evolution should be taught in the classroom. The North Carolina house and senate have repeatedly ignored science on a range of topics including sea level rise and abortion. Is the South anti-science? Many of my scientist colleagues think so. One friend, in response to whether he applied for science faculty positions at Southern universities, just laughed at me.
With SCIENCE OF THE SOUTH, I strive to present a different view of Southern culture; one firmly shaped by science and the natural world. The chemistry of baking and the evolution of nut trees yields the sweet glory of a pecan pie. The perfume of Magnolia blossoms in the summer echoes a 20 million year history of plants attracting pollinators. The sandy coastal soils of North Carolina produce vast pine forests yielding tar, pitch, and turpentine and the inevitable nickname of Tarheels. These distinctly Southern attributes have equally distinct explanations rooted in science.
In SCIENCE OF THE SOUTH, I adopt a personal tone shaped by my experiences as both a ‘Southern Boy’ and a scientist, a background that translates into a unique perspective. The book and blog will be a blend of Southern culture and the science behind its icons. As a faculty member at Duke University, an expert in marine biology, assistant director of a national evolutionary research center, science writer with a popular blog, I am well versed in the ways of the South, the power of scientific phenomenon to shape culture, and the importance of making science come to live through lively stories and engaging prose.
The posts and book are organized around a particular icon of Southern culture, weaving together science, history, and narrative to bring to life a larger point about how, at core, the lives of those in the South in particular – and how all of our lives, in general – are influenced by those forces of geology, chemistry, biology, and physics. For each narrative, I hope to weave the story around a central character, or several, each representing a specific Southern archetype, e.g. a rural Southern farmer descended from generations of farmers. Using a wide variety of these scientific disciplines, I hope to demonstrate how the roots of these distinctly Southern traits lie in very vital scientific facts. I will always right first person, as I personally engages with the stories and characters and entwine personal anecdotes from my own experiences. Yet I will incorporate into this personal perspective the science and information behind the topics, gathered from the natural and social science literature as well as interviews with experts in the form of scientists, historians, and those whose lives intersect with the topic. These sketches are but just a part of larger narrative, where readers can gain a new understanding of Southern life as a whole. I ultimately want readers to be left not only with the sense that the South owes itself to science, but that each of them and their worlds are equally in debt to the scientific processes that influenced the cultures in which they were raised. This is a narrative about the science of the South.