Highlights from the Subtle Science shortlist
7 October 2006
They already think I’m strange, a young woman living on her own, working as a ‘brain doctor’...
God it’s hot. I’ve been trying to make that plant in my garden behave for the last hour without success. What’s it called? You know, the one with the long prickly stems. Not a bramble. This one’s actually meant to be there. It has flowers too. Big pink ones. It’s supposed to be a protective plant. Protects itself anyway, I’m scratched to bits. Whatever it is, it badly needs pruning. I’ll do it tomorrow. It’s too hot now. I’m a neuroscientist, not a gardener.
Plants were never my thing. It was my uncle who was the horticulturist. He had a little greenhouse and used to tell me and my brother stories, recite poetry to us. I thought they were fairy tales but they weren’t. He got most of his stuff from the Botanic Garden by Erasmus Darwin, grandfather to the better known Charles but maybe it was the poet Erasmus who first planted the seeds of his grandson’s genius?
Sweet blooms Genista in the myrtle shade
And ten fond brothers around the haughty maid
Two knights before thy fragrant alter bend
Adored Melissa! and two squires attend
I learnt that one by heart and much more that my uncle fed us but I didn’t mind. My uncle was educating us, my brother and I, in a way my mother never could. They were stories of creation, the beginning of things, how things work, life and death, the birds and the bees – quite literally. Gorgeous Genista of the myrtle was not some medieval temptress like I first thought. She was the flower of the Broom, a common deciduous shrub. We had one growing in our garden. In the heart of the Genista, ten stamen vie for the attention of the one female pistil. The stamens gracing Melissa, the flower of the lemon balm, are less in number but it was she, that floral queen I often wished to be, with my very own bowing noblemen in attendance.
Now why can I remember all that and not know the name of this ridiculously thorny specimen I planted so determinedly in my uncle’s memory four years ago when he died? The plant I chose because I thought it bore his name in Latin only because it happened to be sitting next to the Anthony Waterer Spiraea in the garden centre when I bought it and I’ve never been able to shake the first impression that it must have been meant for my Uncle Anthony. Now my nameless plant seems to do nothing but grow aimlessly and scratch me when I try to keep it from taking over the garden.
Coco’s coming over today with her mother. I was hoping to be able to sit outside with them in the garden. It’s far too hot to be indoors and when Coco’s here in my kitchen all she wants to do is eat. Outside is better.
Flower sex. That’s what my uncle called it. And because he was her brother my mother let him get away with it. Through Erasmus’s poetry and some illustrative stories of his own my uncle roused just about every hot blood cell in our young minds and curious bodies making us aware of what it was to be newly bloomed, open, beautiful and flamboyantly desirous of the sticky attention of others.
Coco and her mum will be here soon. I should get my notes out. I said I’d talk to her about some new tests we’re doing and she said she wanted to ask me about something too. Since Coco took part in some of the mindblindness investigations at our lab last year Coco’s mother seems keen to stay in touch. She thinks there might be a cure for Coco’s condition and she has latched on to me as her link to the world of neurology and medical science even though I’m not that kind of doctor.
I told her before that as a scientific investigation team we need to maintain a certain anonymity with the participants in our study, for all kinds of clinical and ethical reasons (I spared her the detail) but rules can change once data have been analysed. Since February Coco’s not been part of lab procedures and they’ve been coming to see me regularly at home from around then. Sometimes I still let Coco do some of the tests on paper as a game, and then I try to explain to her mother, as plainly as I can, what it might all mean. It’s not scientific I know, none of the usual controls or statistical measures are in place but then I don’t try to pass off what I learn from the time I spend with Coco as valid experimental data, although sometimes I wish I could. I think I might be on to something.
When she first came to us I remember there was one of our theory of mind tasks which frankly Coco just seemed to find a bit silly. We showed photographs, pictures of people’s eyes and asked subjects to choose from a set of multiple choice possibilities. Could they tell from the person’s eyes what they were thinking or feeling, what kind of mood they were in? A pair of man’s eyes slightly slitted, looking a little to the side. Was he a) ashamed, b) nervous, c) suspicious or d) indecisive?
Coco’s response was simple and straightforward. She said that eyes couldn’t think, the eyes we were showing her were only pictures on pieces of paper but then I remember she did stare intently into my eyes for a while, checking I think, to see if there was anything about them that was the same as those in the photograph. Nervous, suspicious? Ashamed or just indecisive? Then she got angry, Coco’s kind of angry which is more a demonstration of anger than the real thing, and she started to shout at the pictures of all the eyes and told them to ‘stop staring’.
Actually, I’m thinking of trying to construct a new test. One which involves make-believe rather than truth. A different kind of science. Coco seems to have found her own method of working out what people might be thinking and how best to respond. It’s what people with autism are supposed to find impossible to do. In Coco’s case it’s all to do with making faces.
Even before I’ve opened the front door fully Coco asks me. Show me Hilda’s face when I spill Sprite on her shoe.
I’m a neuroscientist, not an actress but I say, Okay Coco. Were they new shoes? Was Hilda upset?
Hilda is the name of one of the receptionists who sits at the front desk at the School of Neurosciences in the building where I have my laboratory. I’m presuming it is this Hilda she means.
Very upset, Coco says with a huge grin. What does she say? Show me Hilda’s face when she’s very very upset.
Come on Coco, says Coco’s mother. Dr. Wade doesn’t have time for all this. Sorry. she says to me.
Coco’s mother looks pained. Apologetic. Coco doesn’t notice. She is fixed on her track and keen to keep going.
It’s okay, I say to Coco’s mum.
So, she’s upset? I say to Coco. Hilda’s upset?
Very very upset, and fed up, says Coco.
Because you’ve spilt Sprite on her shoe?
Yes, says Coco pleased with my willing participation.
Well … I say.
Coco wants me to go on and make the face for her but Coco’s mother is uncomfortable, self conscious. Something Coco never is or doesn’t seem to be.
It is very hot and the three of us are still standing on my front doorstep in full view of the neighbours. They already think I’m strange, a young woman living on her own, working as a ‘brain doctor’. Mrs. Einstein some of them call me even though I’m not married and I know practically nothing about the theory of relativity. Or sometimes they refer to me as ‘the brainy one at number 3’ but even so they steer well clear mostly and I’m never asked along to residents’ meetings, street parties, that sort of thing.
Coco’s mother wipes her brow and looks at her watch.
It’s okay I tell her, why don’t you both come in, through to the back. I’ve got my notes out there. I thought we could sit in the garden.
…The mass starts into a millions suns;
Earths round each sun with quick explosions burst,
And second planets issue from the first…
Erasmus had his own theory of the Big Bang, way before his grandson presented his. Every living thing linked to every other living thing, all arising from the same filament. That’s how I see it sometimes too when I think about the way our minds work. There must be something that connects us all. Something that we can decipher, if we only just knew how to do it. Which criteria to apply.
Coco wants me to make the face for her. She assumes I will know how Hilda would have felt and that I can then show her with my face. It’s up to me to decide. Would Hilda be a) playful, b) comforting, c) irritated or d) bored?
Did you spill Sprite on Hilda’s new shoes? I ask Coco.
Show me her face, says Coco, insistent. The facts in this case are not important.
Okay Coco, I say. Hilda’s face.
I pull mine into a grimace. I furrow my brow and lean forward giving Coco a hard stare. Coco, I say in a bad Scottish accent, trying as hard as I can to sound like Hilda, look what you’ve done to my shoes. They’re covered in Sprite. I’m very very upset with you.
Coco claps her hands, delighted with the results. And now my face she says. Show me my face when I’m very very shy of Hilda.
Coco, says her mother. I’m sorry, she says again to me.
No problem I say. But it is a problem for Coco’s mother. I can see it in her eyes. I remember that she has told me that there is something else she wants to discuss. Something else apart from new tests, more tests about how the brain works, theories of mind and how someone like Coco might eventually learn to pick up clues about how someone else is thinking and feeling.
You show me your face Coco, I say. You can do your own face better than I can. Coco turns away, bored. She is not interested in making faces herself that she can’t see. She wants other people to make them for her. Like a mirror. She wanders away reeling off the names of all the countries with football teams competing in the World Cup and which groups they are playing in.
Her mother tells me it is her latest obsession, not so much the football but the names of the countries. I can hear her say countries I didn’t even know existed. Where is Togo anyway? Sometimes Coco’s knowledge, however obsessive, can make me feel ignorant. It used to be cars which she knew by make and model, and recited in alphabetical order. For a moment, Coco is lost in the jungle of my garden and World Cup trivia and I am distracted by the unruly plant that I still haven’t managed to cut back and then by thoughts of my uncle and his stories until Coco’s mother says something that interrupts my thinking.
I’m wondering what to do if she doesn’t get better. You know, about boys and things. She’s only seventeen, says Coco’s mother, I wouldn’t want her to get pregnant or anything. Do you think we should think about – would you recommend – you know – having her done?
She’s not a dog I think to myself but I don’t say it. Besides, what would constitute getting better? Instead I say, Yes, that’s young. Only I don’t know what I mean really. Maybe that seventeen is young to be pregnant or maybe that I feel suddenly much older than both of them. In fact I am closer in age to Coco than her mother and wonder why my Neuroscience degree makes her look up to me so.
I also start thinking about how lovely the pink flowers on the wild plant in my garden are and wishing for the life of me that I could remember what it might be called.
Uncle Anthony started to forget things too, before he died. He forgot the names of things and people and towards the end he forgot people’s faces as well. Sometimes when I went to visit him he thought I was his sister, my mother, or someone he’d never met before and other times he talked to me as if I was one of the plants in his greenhouse urging me to have some bonemeal to make my roots strong and praising my glossy leaves and beautiful petals and sometimes pressing his nose into the top of my head, inhaling deeply and telling me how sweet I smelled. I used to bring him flowers and little plants in pots he could look after and tend in his room at the nursing home. The nurses said that after I left he’d wrap the plants in towels or blankets and put them away inside his cupboard or in his drawers where there wasn’t any light or air for them to breathe, and most of the plants I brought for him died before he did. Maybe she’ll never even have a boyfriend her mother said looking wistfully at the broad back of her daughter loping around happily in her floral print summer dress with her long brown hair curling down like wild vines around her shoulders. Maybe she’ll never fall in love and no one will ever love her.
I stopped myself saying the obvious but thought about those fMRI studies everyone got so excited about last year. Those studies that claimed to have cracked the secret of romantic love, locating its source in subcortical reward regions rich with dopamine, a neurotransmitter that’s often lacking in people with autism. But is this enough to say that someone like Coco won’t ever fall in love or can’t know the love that is felt by others?
Coco’s dress had snagged, caught fast on my wayward plant where it spilled out over the pathway. I watched her stiffen and put both hands in the air in a gesture of surrender as though she thought there might be a chance of further attack. She pulled her mouth into a tight ‘O’ and began blinking, furiously. A reflexive defense. I went towards her, slowly because she seemed to have frozen in a kind of panic and I didn’t want to startle her further. Her eyes, between blinks, focused blankly in front of her unaware of the look of reassurance I was trying to give her with my eyes. I should have pruned that plant.
Beside me Coco’s mother was holding her breath. She’s afraid of tearing her dress she whispered. I wasn’t convinced that was what Coco was afraid of but I couldn’t quite say what else.
Stay still Coco, I said looking for my secateurs, thinking maybe I could cut her free.
Bad dog, said Coco and at first I didn’t know what she was talking about. But then all of a sudden I did. I remembered the shrub in my uncle’s garden with the same thorny branches and the same pink flowers. Which is why, of course, when I saw it I would have thought this one was right for him. Rosa Canina, Dog-Rose. Bad dog, the rose with the nose. My uncle said the sharper the thorn, the sweeter the rose.
Later when I’d made the tea and Coco was having her second piece of lemon madeira I asked her if she knew the names of any of the other plants in my garden.
She knows lots of things, Coco’s mother volunteered, as though that might explain everything. And perhaps it does.
Recently, SciTalk held the Subtle Science Short Story Competition, in conjunction with NESTA and The Dana Centre. Participants, after meeting a few scientists and having the chance to visit their labs, were asked to write a short story inspired by these encounters, featuring science as an unobtrusive element of the narrative. The winner and top two runners-up were published on GuardianUnlimited. LabLit.com (who helped in the judging) is pleased to have been permitted to publish a few more of our favorite top submissions (see also Baiting Michael).
Novelist Ann Lackie of SciTalk says of Making Faces: Autism is a topic that seems to have fired the imagination of many writers recently, and several of the entries for SciTalk’s Subtle Science competition took up the subject. Cheryl Moskowitz treats it in a different and interesting manner, in that we see a female scientist at home, meeting a mother and her autistic daughter socially rather than as part of her research. The woman is pottering in her garden and is a convincing and sympathetic character who is prepared to help the girl in her attempts to understand people’s expressions – by ‘making faces’ that portray their feelings. It is the mother who introduces a surprising and somewhat shocking question, which forces the reader to confront a major ethical issue.