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Stories of discovery

Litmus and Lemistry

Richard P. Grant 18 March 2012

Iconic: details from the cover

That major discoveries consist of a single eureka moment is, after all, another legend

Archimedes, it is said, leapt out of his bath and, shouting Eureka!, ran naked through the streets. Scientific breakthroughs today tend not to be greeted with quite the same level of enthusiasm. Responses such as Archimedes’, somewhat sadly, are strictly the stuff of legend.

The ancient Greeks didn’t have all the fun, though. Subsequent scientific discoveries – and their discoverer’s reaction – may not be as filmic as the legend, but behind every eureka moment large or small there is a story, a tale of human creativity that in some ways is more than the sum of the journal article.

We have to be cautious, however: that major discoveries consist of a single eureka moment is, after all, another legend. But that does not make the human story any less exciting. The long and winding road leading to discovery, with its wrong turns and false starts, can be as fascinating and gripping as the destination itself.

Litmus (Comma Press) is a collection of accounts of relatively modern scientific discoveries: from the realization that time and space are but two axes of the same graph to the identification of HIV as the causative agent of AIDS. Each discovery is related by a professional writer as a fictionalized short story and is accompanied by explicative text written by a scientist familiar with the field – a brave move that in some cases added to the stories, yet in others, ran the ship of fiction aground on the rocks of science writing.

The stories themselves range from the strictly narrative to philosophical treatises. Some were familiar (which biologist isn’t sick of the story of Kary Mullis and PCR?); others we think we know about (I had no idea about the wider implications of Pavlov’s experiment); and yet others were completely new to me: the tale of Henrietta Leavitt, by Sara Maitland, is particularly luminous, and inexplicably moving. And friend of LabLit Tania Hershman takes us back to the sea and buckets of jellyfish, to tell us of the countless ordinary people who contribute to science – often without knowing it; always unrecognized.

Talking of legends and unsung heroes, Lemistry (also from Comma Press) celebrates the work of Stanisław Lem, described by Andy Sawyer as science fiction’s “least-read major author”. Lem’s error was to be Polish, and to be writing at a time when Iron Curtain authors were viewed with no little suspicion. Philip K. Dick called Lem a “total Party functionary” and suggested, in a letter to the FBI, that Lem was not even a real person, but – so varied his output – an entire committee churning out science fiction.

Nonetheless, even if you haven’t read any Lem originals, the chances are you have read a science fiction author (Brian Aldiss, perhaps; or Ursula Le Guin or Douglas Adams) who would readily acknowledge their debt to Lem. If not them, then you might have seen Red Dwarf, or played The Sims or maybe seen the George Clooney film Solaris. And in November last year, one of Google’s famous doodles, in the shape of an interactive animation, marked the 60th anniversary of the publication of his first book, The Astronauts.

Lem’s work is most accessible through translation, and the most exciting part of Lemistry is the section with previously untranslated (at least into English) original works. This is followed by a number of pastiche Lem short stories by different authors, rounded off with a few essays on Lem, his ideas and his inventions. Lemistry is an intriguing treat for those of us who enjoy – perhaps a little guiltily – a little fiction in our science, along with science in our fiction.