The voice of the scientist
Researchers as novelists and characters
14 May 2006
One reviewer declared there was little science in the novel – which made me think that I had perhaps disguised it too well
Editor’s note: Dr. Clare Dudman is a former chemist and now a novelist interested in historical science. Here, she shares with us how her career path changed and what is important to her as a writer of fiction.
How I became a novelist: the transition from research scientist to teaching to writer
I wanted to write from the age of about eight; it was the first thing I remember deciding to do by myself and by the time I was a teenager I was reading and writing fairly obsessively, sneaking out of bed to continue by torchlight, and probably ruining my eyesight. For work experience at school I went to newspaper offices, and for a long time I wanted to be a journalist, but I come from a scientific family and my parents thought that I stood more chance of getting gainful employment if I studied science rather than the arts. So after bitter protests and ignoring all my teachers’ advice that I was taking the wrong subjects, I studied Chemistry, Biology, Maths and Geography from the age of sixteen with a view to taking a scientific degree – and then maybe becoming a journalist.
The journalism never happened but having become entranced with the idea of plate tectonics – which at the time was still a fairly new theory – I did go to the university of Durham to study Geology where one of my heroes, Arthur Holmes, once taught. However since plate tectonics was little mentioned in the course during the first year I swapped to Chemistry partly because I liked the smells. As my degree progressed I became more and more interested in the mechanics of chemical reactions – and so I decided to specialise in physical organic chemistry.
I decided to do my PhD at King’s College London because it seemed to have a lot of expertise in that field (and it did – now sadly gone after a long proud history). I met my husband in the nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) room, then had my first son a few weeks after I had finished my thesis (on the chemistry and properties of cryptands, which are chemical molecules used to help build other compounds). By this time we had moved to a small village outside Chester with my husband’s work so I took a job as a post-doc at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) researching surface acoustic wave gas sensors, which was very interesting.
However, Manchester is a long way way from Chester, and in the end the three hours a day of commuting took its toll and I took a series of jobs in industry as a research and development scientist – looking at ways of generating minute amounts of pollutant gases to test mass spectrometers, developing a glucose sensor, and briefly, working on a DNA probe assay.
I then had my second son, and turned again to writing, although really I had never stopped – I was always writing something – diaries, stories, thoughts. But now I took evening classes and soon was writing as much as I could. I allowed it to consume me again, as it had done when I was at school. I was always scribbling – waiting at the poolside as my sons had their swimming lesson, in the car while I waited for them to complete music lessons, whenever they were off my hands and I had some time to myself. After a couple of years I wrote a novel for my son – a chapter every day which I read to him at night – and entered it for a competition and it was short-listed. I wrote another and it won the Kathleen Fidler award; part of the prize was publication by Penguin.
But by that time I was half-way through my training with the Open University to become a teacher. This was a very bad move. Workaholics should never become teachers. There is an infinite amount of work to do and it will take over your life if you let it – and I did. Within three years I was on my last legs so I gave up teaching full-time to teach part-time A-level Chemistry in a Further Education college and creative writing for the Workers’ Educational Organisation for ludicrously low rates of pay. But it meant that I could write again and it was through looking for competitions for my students to enter and then finding I could enter them myself that I won an Arts Council of England Writers’ award with a 10,000 word proposal for a novel on Alfred Wegener, a pioneer of plate techtonics.
I had already acquired an agent (more or less by accident) who had tried and failed to sell my proposed novel to publishers. After the award though there was immediate interest and I was taken on by Sceptre in a two-book deal to write my Wegener book and then a book on another scientist Dr Heinrich Hoffmann – an early psychiatrist and the writer of Shockheaded Peter, a disturbing book of cautionary tales for children which used to be very famous. Both books (Wegener’s Jigsaw, alternatively titled One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead in the US; and 98 Reasons For Being) were also bought by Viking in the US and 98 Reasons For Being is being translated into Dutch by the publishers Ambo Anthos which has thrilled me as much as anything else.
The scientist as novelist and the scientist as character: establishing a voice
Sometimes I wish I had defied my parents and studied English from the start – but more often I am glad I was, and still consider myself to be, a scientist. I think it gives me an unusual point of view. Chemistry trained me to think logically and has given me the confidence that I might be able to understand other disciplines. Chemistry encompasses all other sciences to some degree and is essential to a full understanding of biology, physics, geology, even psychiatry and medicine.
Even though the characters in my novels are not chemists, I found that chemistry came into their lives: Alfred Wegener, for instance, studied atomic emission spectroscopy; and his important concept of a liquid-solid mantle is, I believe, basically a chemical concept. Hoffmann’s concerns were mainly to do with the mind but his ideas of what caused illness and how drugs worked were related to chemical ideas. The way I approached describing all these concepts were to visualise them in very simple terms and then describe what I saw as vividly as I could and without using highly technical words.
In Wegener’s Jigsaw the voice I used was derived from the voice Wegener used in his diaries, but not in his scientific papers. In his diaries and journals he was romantic; for instance he delighted in the colours he could see reflected in the ice, and relished the feeling of being swept along the ice on a sledge driven by a pack of dogs. These small snatches of lyricism I extended so that it became the voice of the whole book – thereby, I hope, showing the poetry of scientific ideas and thought.
I can illustrate this using one of Wegener’s lesser known innovative theories: how raindrops form in clouds in temperate latitudes (a theory which is still accepted today). In Atmosphere by Vincent J Shaefer and John A Day, Wegener’s theory is described scientifically as follows:
As noted, water vapour pressure is slightly greater over water than over ice at the same temperature; this was noticed by the German meteorologist AL Wegener in 1911. He pointed out that the coexistence of ice and super cooled water in a cloud would establish a varying field of vapour pressure between droplet and crystal, and he hypothesised that condensation would take place continually on the ice at the expense of the evaporating droplet... .
I decided that an interesting way to make this explanation exciting and more accessible for my novel was to become much smaller, imagine it was possible to walk on a water droplet and see the molecules inside – it is a combination of imagination and also my knowledge as a chemist of how molecules behave:
So we enter the clouds together. We climb to the top of the anvil-shaped cumulonimbus where it is so cold that there are just minute ice crystals and minute droplets of super cooled water, both of them swirling around, too small to fall. We become smaller still. We step on the surface of the ice and onto the surface of the water. We are not so small that we fall through, but we can see molecules of water holding hands beneath us. In the ice they are dancing a slow jig, barely moving, but in the water they move a little more, and from time to time one of them escapes into the air above. We watch one of these molecules as it is swept away, and follow it to see where it will go. For a time it vacillates, as if it is considering, but then, suddenly, it seems to be drawn towards the ice. Now, as if this one molecule has shown the way, others follow, surging from the water droplet onto the ice, and the ice grows until it is a massive flake, too large to be held.
Wegener’s most famous work was on continental drift, which is slightly more involved than the raindrop theory described above, so I used several methods to decribe the various aspects and arguments involved in this. I imagined scientists with plumb lines in the Himalyas; I used Wegener’s experiences in climbing the Alps to describe the folds; I imagined the continent of Australia moving north and the animals evolving in isolation; and I made extensive use of that great chemical tradition of using metaphors. For instance, I used Wegener’s experience as an arctic explorer (something I too experienced a little of, when I followed in his footsteps to a remote part of north-west Greenland in a small boat) and the way ice bends and yet is solid to describe the plasticity of the mantle; and I had conjurers and magicians perform chemical magic tricks with wax.
In an attempt to bring the whole thing together, I used another metaphor as a repeating motif. My Wegener calls all his memories ‘beads’, so his most important memory – when he first realises that the coastlines of the continents fit together as if they were once just one big super-continent – he calls his ‘biggest brightest bead’.
I combined these explanations with other parts of Wegener’s life in the hope of making them more interesting to the lay reader. In the following section he is a new father talking to his baby daughter, trying to make her go back to sleep:
There is a time, I tell her, that takes so long that only the land can understand. It is the land’s time, with land-seconds, land-minutes and land-hours. In this time there are different rules; substances change character, even the most brittle solid can become liquid enough to flow. A land-second is long enough for an icicle to bend, and for a glacier to creep downwards to the sea. In a land-minute rocks can be pushed into mountains and they can curve and fold like baker’s dough. But during a land-hour the solid-liquid continents have time to float by in the liquid-solid mantle; they fracture, they rift, they form valleys and then they float away.
I have used methods similar to these to describe concepts such as entropy. I believe there is quite a bit of science in Wegener’s Jigsaw– but it is sometimes difficult to spot. In fact one reviewer (an arts graduate writing for a scientific publication) declared there was little science in the book – which made me think that I had perhaps disguised it too well.
In 98 Reasons For Being the ideas are no more simple but because they are rather more philosophical they lend themselves more readily to the novelistic form. Unlike Wegener’s Jigsaw, which was written in first person, and is a kind of fictionalised autobiography, 98 Reasons For Being is written in a combination of third person and the first person voice of one of his patients. In this book my main problem was how to put these scientific ideas in the context of the time. In order to do this I spent much time trying to become acquainted with the nineteenth-century mind. Ideas in medicine were on the cusp of changing quickly – the old heroic medical ideas of balancing fluids were largely discounted and the body as machine (partly from the recent Romantic era) had begun to hold sway. Yet in these days shortly before Pasteur, the doctor had little in his bag to help mend this machine – all he could do was to use the old methods of bleeding, blistering and purging, and attempt to justify what he was doing using as much nineteenth century science as he could.
Then, for Hoffmann the psychiatrist, there was the more perplexing problem of what was the cause of madness. His scientific view that madness was due to bodily illness clashed with the idea that it was a moral affliction – which is one problem that science has not really convincingly solved even today.
The novel that I have just finished, my third one for adults, has no scientist whatsoever, and yet there are sections which I am told betray the scientist in me – when I deal with landforms and climate. Even though I am now officially a novelist on my tax form it seems that the scientist in me will not go away. Like a Catholic who no longer goes to Mass is still a Catholic, the scientist who no longer enters a laboratory is still a scientist.
Encounter Dudman in the blogosphere here.
Dudman has a website here.