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Nobody said you could touch

Stalking mid-century scientists in the name of biography

Amy Charles 13 August 2009

Traces: the hidden story behind photosynthesis

He makes theoretical leaps before he measures, as if the leap were the entire reason for being. For this he does not apologize

When I was twenty or so, and living in resentful poverty on popcorn and cheese loaf ends, I was a reporter; not a very good reporter, since I understood little of what I heard and saw in the rural township and county governments I was sent to cover. I went dressed in torn jeans and neon samples from gymwear wholesalers, and in my $500 car held together with Bondo, I slid down snowy mountain roads and through woods to the meetings of boards of supervisors, sewer authorities, and school boards. And there I slouched on metal folding chairs with my little reporter’s notebook, waiting for a story.

Since I couldn’t keep the board members’ names straight and understood none of the issues, I listened for tone of voice. When things got hot, it showed in people’s voices, and then I sat up and wrote down what they said as fast as I could. Usually in the course of argument they’d spell out the story and call each other pointedly by name. After the meetings, I’d find the belligerent town lawyer, the unfocused lady with the binder full of clippings, and the board member with the biggest belly, and ask semi-questions consisting mostly of “um” and fragments of their own tense dialogue, and write down what they said, especially the parts they were very anxious for me to write down. I’d take my notebook back to the bureau and show it to my Chicago-bred editor, and he would tell me what it all meant. And then I would write the story.

These days I find myself in a similar situation, only more aware of how an ignorant writer can bury a good story deeper, and how consequential bad stories can be. About a year ago I stumbled across a surprise in American science history – an empty space on the shelf where I should’ve found the story of the Calvin cycle and the Nobel prize for (loosely speaking) figuring out how plants make sugar from carbon dioxide. There were no pop-sci books, no articles, no children’s books – not even any scholarship unless you count a stack of articles written by photosynthesis scientists for each other. But I did find a trove of primary material, interviews with the scientists – some still living -- who’d been part of Calvin’s lab. And I wanted this story. I wanted to write the layman’s book and I wanted to write a serious one, a book that started from the assumption that the science was interesting.

I’m not a scientist; for the last twenty years I’ve written stories, fiction. I have some background in chemistry, enough for me to hang on by my fingernails as I read the papers that came out of Calvin’s lab, but not enough to understand the import of what they are saying without reading them over and over, and having them explained, and reading memoir-articles and predecessor papers and summaries of other people’s work. Even so, I’d guess I miss the big story. Why? Because I know I can’t read these papers very well, and since writers eat by teaching, I’ve watched a lot of people read poorly. It’s a rare poor reader who gets the point.

So this is a real and time-consuming problem, but maybe one I can beat most of the way into submission through the terrible perseverance of the untalented. The more difficult problem – and the one more interesting to me – is that I am neither Melvin Calvin nor someone who spent years watching him. I don’t know the fellow.

Naturally, an historian writes about people she doesn’t know; but an historian’s work is very different from mine. When I write a short story or novel, the characters are, in one way or another, me, unless I’m describing them from the outside the way an artist sketches a stranger on the bus. This is not because I’m fascinating but because I must be able to understand my fictional characters’ sensibilities and desires. If I can’t, I cannot see their motivation or articulate their internal life. And when it comes right down to it, the only sensibilities and desires I can claim to understand are ones I’ve known myself. (I try to give myself, the characters, and the unfortunate reader some relief from me by using the sensibilities and desires I’ve seen in other people, but I’m sure I’ve misunderstood them and mistaken my experience for theirs.) So in my fiction – as in most fiction, I think – characters are permutations of the writer and the writer’s direct experience.

In fiction this is fine, because no one can come around saying, “That’s not really how she was,” about a character. But this is not fiction; these were (and in some cases still are) real people, doing work very different from mine, in a place and time different from any I’ve known. Western, Midwestern, and European scientists, secretaries, and wives, living in California in the early days of the Cold War, in a gold rush to biology.

Their themes aren’t mine, either. If you read a novelist’s body of work, you’ll see the same preoccupations obsessed over and handled again and again. The things that mattered to Calvin and his colleagues – to do with science, its rightful place in society, its uses and development, the making of scientists, the relationship of biology to the physical sciences – are things that have not been very important to me personally in forty years of living with people. I don’t know why, but my own stories tend to deal with the way people strike a bargain and come to some understanding on what things are worth – for some reason I find that unbearably poignant. But I must understand and appreciate the scientists’ themes if this story’s to be true.

So how does a novelist tell a real stranger’s story?

I think in writing nonfiction, writing about someone, there is probably nothing for it but to make him into a character. Real people do not sit on the page; instead the writer takes a very few elements of a human being and manufactures a character. Horace Judson did it gorgeously with Linus Pauling in The Eighth Day of Creation; I think his portrait of Pauling in his office is an overlooked classic. Even so, if the character is not immediately recognizable to his friends and family as the man to the life, the writer has failed. The character that is the man to the life is a complex creation, and writing him demands a sympathy and depth of understanding that you’d have after living with the fellow. Which I haven’t done. I do not know Calvin or his scientists as they were in 1953 (or 1943, or 1973).

So I find, once again, that I listen for when things get hot. I go by tone of voice, choice of words, silences, and avoided conversations, and find that I must treat the characters as I do my own, which means to be generous and to let them tell who they are on their own terms. I sit with their papers, letters, proposals, and old voice recordings, and watch the expressions of people who did know and work with them as they remember and talk about them, and wait for the characters to show themselves, in moments rehearsed and unrehearsed, and hope I get them right. And hope I can understand what they mean, because this time there is no streetwise editor to put the story together for me.

What happens: A picture emerges of a shack on the side of a bright tan California hill, busy with very young biologists, chemists, and physicists wielding this new thing, carbon-14. Under that steady sunlight they’re governed by men climbing out of war work with spoils and enterprise on their mind; within the walls of their faintly radioactive lab they’re herded together in conversation and directed by a sharp, careful little Midwestern Jew just a little older than they, a man with a digging curiosity and considerable nerve. An ebullient zealot of science who incites his students without squashing them, he makes theoretical leaps before he measures, as if the leap were the entire reason for being. For this he does not apologize.

Who is he? He is not an aristocrat of science; he’s a child of the Depression making his way in an American style, ever anxious to avoid offense. He knows how to get and keep a job. No back-slapper, he’s careful to collect friends, play bridge if bridge is the game, and keep an eye out for ladders; an immigrant’s son who wakes at 5 and goes to work and does not screw around. He has watched his famous teachers think large thoughts and learned what he could from this, and this helps, because the thing that pulls him along, like the calmest, surest emergency, is a positive horror of being caged intellectually.

Some of these things are ordinary, but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily banal. What isn’t banal in these ordinary things? I’ll have to understand.

I’m struck by the sincerely courteous tone of his letters and the deep Midwestern dismay at the harsh word. I don’t find this to be at odds with others’ accounts of him as a ruthless questioner or a man capable of cutting others out; I’m familiar with this awkwardness in the fight, the reliance on separate rules for separate arenas, and the ability to harm with the aid of bureaucracy, which spares internal conflict.

So there is the manner of the man; what lies deeper? I listen for the preoccupations and follies. I try to hear the tune in them, and try to understand what the tune means, which means understanding, somehow, the demands of the time and place that made the tune. If I can do this, it means, maybe, that not only will I put together a story, but I’ll put together the right one, more or less. It means being able to recognize when I am mistaking my experience for the characters’.

It also means being clear-eyed enough, and a talented enough judge, to avoid hagiography and advocacy and to tell less pleasant parts of their stories and characters in fair and seemly proportion. This is an extraordinarily awkward proposition because some of these people are still alive, and so are relatives of those who have died. As far as I know, none of them advertised for writers – nonscientists at that– to emerge from the plains and haunt them, let alone judge. In serious ways it isn’t nice. I don’t believe – as many scholars and biographers do – that the public has any right to the lives of famous people, dead or alive. Good work, I think, should not be rewarded by having biographers and curiosity-seekers come rummaging through your underwear drawer. And while Calvin clearly thought of his posterity (and so did his secretary, for which I’m very grateful), his colleagues’ letters are full of gaucheries and personal musings. I get no hint that they wrote to him expecting biographers to come along any minute and hold up their papers for inspection. So the stakes are high: If I get the characters substantially wrong, then I’ve invaded these people’s privacy and in some way done them violence. On the other hand, if I get them and their work right, the invasion is still not justified, to my mind, but I keep something of them and their experience alive.

There’s a question, I suppose, that hovers around these worries: Why bother? Why go this far? Most histories don’t; most don’t try to be character-driven novels. The writer sketches the players and gets on with the events, psychologizing along the way if it’s going to be that kind of history. (Or, if the writer is someone like Bob Woodward, inventing specific thoughts and dialogues and making a radio play out of history.) The first answer, which is not a very good one but is true, is that this is just the kind of writer I am. The stories most important to me are still the ones that begin, “There was a girl,” or “There was a fish,” and so on, not, “In 1599 construction began on the Globe Theatre.” The world revolves around the character and the character makes the world. But the second answer, the one specific to this book, is that I am guessing that a scientific story is much like any other – things do not happen passively. People do things, very specific things, and that specificity is what makes the story. Without characters there is no reason for those specific things to be done at that specific time, in that specific way. Anyone, as they say, might have done it. But anyone did not do it, and that is the story I am after.

How surprising it is, and disarming, to see how after twenty years of living with stories I’m a rank amateur: the story is all written down start to finish for anyone to see, and I don’t know what it is! There’s a sea of old conversation to listen to, and old scientists eyeing me with varying degrees of hope and mistrust, and still I can’t recognize this story yet to put out my hand and pick it. Maybe that’s normal, or maybe it means I’m hopeless. We’ll see; in the meantime, what can I do? I trust the instinct and the ear.