Actor Harrison Ford pays an answer to Palo Alto
There was no bullwhip and no rakish fedora when Hollywood icon Harrison Ford came to Palo Alto Friday. Instead the actor and conservationist joined Pulitzer-prize-winning environmentalist Edward (E.O.) Wilson at the Garden Court Hotel to announce a new literary award.
The first $10,000 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award, with funding by Ford and Wilson, will be given next year by the PEN American Center, a branch of the world’s oldest international literary and human-rights organization.
“We recognize that scientists and fiction writers have a common starting point — the imagination, the wild surmise of what might be,” said Wilson, a Harvard University professor who is considered the founding father of the fields of sociobiology and biodiversity.
The award isn’t just a literary one, both Ford and Wilson said. Its intent is to effect change in the world by marrying the power of literature with scientific information.
The main problem in modern society is that the challenges people face are so complicated and systems have become increasingly complex, Wilson said.
Literary science writing can foster an understanding of how systems work, which in turn could spur problem solving, he said.
Ford met Wilson when both served on the board of the nonprofit Conservation International, where Ford is currently a vice chair of the board.
“I was always very impressed — and more importantly, entertained — by Ed’s perspective and way of presenting information,” Ford said. “He has the capacity of a poet and the clarity of a scientist.”
“I was engaged and moved by … ‘The Creation,’ which is a beautiful book that argues for science to religion and engages both fields in a warm and wonderful way.”
Ford said he was glad to provide initial funding for the award.
“I’m happy to do whatever Ed tells me to do. So to that end, I found a clean shirt and a way to get here,” said Ford, dressed in a dark blue suit and maroon tie.
“I thought Indiana Jones doesn’t take orders from anyone,” Wilson quipped.
The two were joined by Rebecca Costa, a former Silicon Valley marketing executive who later bought a butterfly conservation area in Big Sur and has penned the book “The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction,” for which Wilson wrote the forward.
Wilson helped promote Costa’s book Thursday night at Kepler’s in Menlo Park and was also in town for a Friday fundraiser for his organization, the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation.
The idea for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award first surfaced in March in a discussion with Steven Isenberg of PEN, said Neil Patterson, chairman and president of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. One call to Ford, a Foundation board member, was all it took to gain funding for the first three years.
Ford spoke about the need for people to understand the humanity behind science, rather than equating science with jargon and dry language. Topics like global warming need to be communicated about “with passion and certitude.”
He likened good science writing to storytelling and referred to his own craft of acting.
“Everyone understands that the principal engine is the story. Many in my profession believe the character is primary, then the story. I believe the other way around,” he said.
“People want a story,” Wilson said. “They respect nonfiction, but they read novels.”
International PEN (poets, playwrights, essayists, editors and novelists) was founded in 1921 in direct response to the ethnic and national divisions that contributed to the First World War. The organization gives annual awards, including the PEN/Nabokov Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the Ernest Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for First Fiction.