Today, we’re proud to offer an introduction to the new science department at The Offing, which will be publishing its first work this month. Why a science department? Amongst literary journals, this is may be one of the first sections of its kind—but we think it’s a perfect fit with The Offing’s mission. That mission includes publishing work that challenges, experiments, and provokes—and science certainly can do that.
Furthermore, The Offing’s core commitment to seeking out work by those who are marginalized is something we want to see in the world of science, too. Since the enlightenment era, science has functioned in many ways like an empire built out of colonies of knowledge. Historically, many new “discoveries” were in fact borrowed knowledge from colonized peoples—communities who are marginalized to this day, and to whom professional science remains closed off. As much as some may like to think otherwise, the scientific community reflects the prejudices of the societies that built it, and The Offing wants to publish work that pushes back against them.
We’ve named this department “Back of the Envelope.” Here’s what that means to us:
In science, a back-of-the-envelope (BOTE) calculation is a quick-and-dirty solution to a problem—the sort of answer you can dash off, well, on the back of an envelope. BOTE calculations are as much art as they are science. They’re imprecise and messy. But they capture the big ideas and deep truths. They also value lessons learned through experience, the ones that shed light on our world and our existence.
Here’s an example: how many librarians are in the Chicago Public School system? We know the Chicago metro area has about 10 million people—let’s guess that Chicago proper has roughly 3 million people. Then we need to know the percentage of the population currently enrolled in schools. Well, if life expectancy is, say, 80 years, and people spend 13 years of their life in public schools, and 13 divided by 80 is about 15%, let’s say maybe 15% of the population is currently enrolled in school. That gives us 450,000 students. Now let’s assume every school has one full-time librarian. How large is the average school in Chicago? We’ll guess 1,000 students, which means there should be approximately 450 schools, and 450 librarians.
How did we do? The actual number, according to the Chicago Teachers Union, is 160.
That’s not bad, actually. A BOTE calculation can be expected to be off by a multiple of 2 or 3. But it’s worth checking ourselves: where did the discrepancy come from?
The actual population of the city of Chicago is 2.7 million, the actual number of students is 435,000, and the actual number of schools is 600. Our guesses were all pretty close!
Instead, the error is in the number of librarians at each school: only one in four schools have a librarian, and this number has been falling precipitously over the past few years. Just four years ago, Chicago’s public schools did have 450 librarians, but budget cuts under Rahm Emanuel’s leadership have slashed that to the current figure of 160.
As is often the case, the real insight on the back of the envelope is not in the final result but in reflecting on our assumptions about the systems that surround us—both the systems of nature and also the systems we ourselves have constructed. The back of the envelope invites us to examine those assumptions, to look past our simplifications.
So please, share with us. Back of the Envelope seeks writing of any length which relates to, or draws on, science and the natural world. Sharing its wonder or its horrors, relating the untold stories of discovery, or toying with everyday curiosities, we are interested in hearing from those inside and outside the scientific community.