Storytelling scientist finds meaning in writing, passing truth to readers

Monday, April 23, 2012
By Grace Soong,The China Post

God gave me a mission of taking a snail out for a stroll.

I cannot walk too fast; the snail is crawling as fast as it could,

But only moving so little every step.

I urge it, I threaten it, I scold it,

It looks at me apologetically,

As if saying,

“I have put in my best!”

I pull it, I drag it, I even want to kick it,

The snail is injured; it is sweating, panting, and moving forward.

How ridiculous, why does God ask me to drag a snail for a stroll?

“God! Why?”

The sky is silent.

“Humph! Perhaps God went snail-hunting!”

All right! Time to let go!

Since God does not care anymore, why do I care?

Leaving the snail to crawl in the front,

I follow, sulking.

Hmm? I smell flowers; so there is a garden here.

I feel the air flowing; so this is how gentle the night breeze is.

Hold on!

I hear birds chirping, I hear bugs singing,

I see radiant stars fill up the night sky.

Hmm? How come I have never before had these realizations?

Then it dawned on me: I might have gotten it wrong!

So God asked the snail to drag me out for a stroll.

- “Dragging a Snail for a Stroll” (牽一隻蝸牛去散步), by Chang Wen-lian (張文亮)

Internet search results for this poem reveal readers and bloggers who have drawn strength from it all across the Chinese-speaking community.

Chang Wen-lian's book, “Dragging a Snail for a Stroll,” published in 2001, is not only typical of his writing, but is also a precise reflection of his character. Written in easy-to-follow prose, the book talks about the simple science in nature too frequently dismissed by the modern education system.

Candid and genuine, Chang bears an intelligent resemblance to Forrest Gump. Please don't get this wrong; Gump is most highly revered — a man of great diligence and honesty? Unlike Gump, however, Chang yields aspiration instead of pity of any sort. Not only does he possess a nature of assiduity, but he also is equipped with the intellect and storytelling skills that fascinate thousands.

With a Ph.D. degree in Land, Air, and Water Resources from the University of California, Davis, Chang has remained one of the most popular professors at Taiwan's most prestigious higher education institute, National Taiwan University (NTU), since he began teaching there in 1991.

He is known as the “wise man” sort of teacher who, in addition to his expertise in the natural sciences, has the capability to resolve students' philosophical questions with intelligence collected and adopted from centuries back — Chang's immense pool of knowledge is actually, according to himself, derived from his vast interest in history and literature.

Under the Taiwanese education system, students must to focus on humanities or science from grade 11. Knowledge, in Chang's view, is just like calculus: humanities subjects are integral calculus, while sciences are differential calculus. While science is microscopic, always dissecting and delving into microns invisible to human eyes, humanities has the capacity to impact and mold culture from a macroscopic perspective, and lasts ages.

Chang enjoys acquiring knowledge and sharing it, through teaching and writing. For the NTU professor, writing is his way of freeing the sorrows accumulated inside. Because he was never a literature major, his words are straightforward and candid. Since he majored in science, the water of worries he spills out tastes quite “sciencey,” and to his astonishment, the “sciencey” water is sweet and favorable to many.

For example, Chang believes that a man is “successful” if his schooling and dating days, as well as his beliefs formed along the way, are righteous and well centered. Chang published “Biographies of Great Scientists” (科學大師的求學、戀愛與理念), a compilation about a wide array of scientists whose lives are more than just their famous discoveries listed in science textbooks.

The book, published in 1996 — his first of over 30 — has become widely popular among Taiwanese students for bringing the boring ancient scholars to life by describing the hardships and romance they experienced. The behind-the-scenes, “making of a scientist” story-telling aspect is what Chang finds captivating.

Books, for Chang, are art projects rather than merchandise. Good books are more than bestsellers that sweep the world off its feet as soon as they are published. They should be long lasting and sell over time. Writing, for Chang, is not just compilations of reflections on life; it is a method of communicating with readers, of passing on information — from knowledge to the truth.

As a devout Christian, Chang sees writing as a process of walking with God. What inspires him is the hope of translating how God has touched him. He does not write for the market or for whatever fame that might follow.

The only prize he hopes for, till the very end of life, is that, “On the day I meet Jesus, I hope to also shake hands with all the great scientists and characters I have written about: Nightingale, Faraday, Livingston, Wilberforce, etc. I look forward to singing with them.”

The Dream Catcher series is published every Monday

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