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Transforming science into story: Part 1

On melding science and literary discourses

Jennifer Cryer 6 July 2012

Source material: stem cells as narrative hook

Science is a matter for everyone; its effects on the way we live are too far reaching for it to be the preserve of scientists alone

Editor’s note: We are pleased to present the first instalment of a four-part essay about science in fiction by Jennifer Cryer, biochemist and author of debut novel Breathing On Glass, reviewed here. In this opening section, Cryer introduces her argument.

The cutting edge of research’ is an apt term. Freshly honed knowledge is sharp and it can lacerate both the discoverer and the society which must grasp its implications. Contemporary science has provided much for society to assimilate. Modern reproductive technologies, with their emphasis on cloning, the repetition of the individual and the displacement of the biological parent have provided unprecedented attacks on our understanding of biological inheritance. The recent confirmation of gene imprinting, the process whereby certain life events of the parent (for example, nutritional status [1]) have been shown to influence the health of subsequent generations by means of alterations in their genetic inheritance, has given a new twist to the atavistic fear that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children. Organ transplantation and stem cell therapies have provoked disagreements as to the ownership of bodies and our concepts of individuality. At the same time, these same medical advances have brought profound benefits.

‘Stories are medicine’ [2] claims Estes, a Jungian psychoanalyst. She describes the telling of powerful stories as ‘handling archetypal energy’ [3] Vetlesen, on the other hand, discusses the use of story to sustain ethnic hatred and so encourage the perpetration of the horrific war crimes that have marred the twentieth century [4], suggesting that narrative cannot be considered to possess an intrinsic morality; ethical position is a reflection of that of the human operator. I would suggest the same for science. Fiction has often been exploited to reconcile the differences between science and society, sometimes increasing the anxieties raised by science’s apparent confrontation with nature and religion – Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein [5] has become a byword for all that is fearful about unfettered knowledge – and sometimes allaying these same anxieties, as in Ian McEwan’s Saturday [6], where Henry Perowne uses his knowledge of neurophysiology both to alleviate and understand aberrant behaviour.

Science is a matter for everyone; its effects on the way we live are too far reaching for it to be the preserve of scientists alone. My story, Breathing on Glass, is an attempt to show scientists as ordinary human beings in action and to demystify the scientific process.

Breathing on Glass has three major protagonists: each of them wants something. Lewis, a research leader, desperately needs more funding to continue his work. Rhea, his senior lieutenant, wants independence, a team of her own. Amber, Rhea’s sister and Lewis’s wife, wants a baby.

Inside almost every human cell is a blueprint of the entire body: a complete person lurks, dormant. A liver cell, for example, ‘knows’ how to be an eye, or a nerve or the tip of a tongue. A great deal is becoming known about the way in which the pluripotent cells of the early embryo become differentiated, the chemical instructions that turn a fertilised egg into a baby, but there is a still-unclaimed prize for the scientist who can return an adult cell to its early embryonic state. While Amber would move heaven and earth to create a baby, her husband and sister would move heaven and earth to reverse engineer the same process. The tension between these states forms the basis for the plot of Breathing on Glass.

The creation of a baby has all the joy, anguish and interpersonal manipulation associated with human sexuality. The creation of a stem cell line has all the excitement, disappointments, and exultation associated with the mastery of the very elements of life. These two processes are normally approached by distinct courses of action. Amber, in attempting to create her family, uses the same biological tools that a scientist such as Darwin would have employed. She can see, touch and hear and therefore try to understand what is happening around her through her own senses. Lewis and Amber, post-Darwinian scientists, cannot experience their work at first hand. They will never be able to see, touch, or hear what they do. They experience their work through the agency of equipment. Microscopes, radioactive markers, analysers and electrophoresis systems extend their natural senses, so that they can detect things beyond their physical limits and exert control over things that are outside of their direct experience.

Daniel Smail [7] suggests disparate experiences may produce disparate brain patterns, saying:

….The Neolithic transformation ….brought about the conditions necessary for a rapid increase in the range of economic, political, and social devices that serve to modulate the body states of self and others……These devices range from religious liturgies, sports, education, novel reading and military training…

I am adding the pursuit of science to Smail’s list. Different ways of looking at things produce antipathies and these provide narrative drive. While Amber is manoeuvring closer and closer contact between the protagonists, Lewis and Rhea need more and more space around themselves. While the scientists feel an increasing power over nature, Amber is held in deeper thrall to her own unfulfilled biological imperatives. Amber’s body proves insufficient for her purposes; it is through reproductive science that she achieves her heart’s desire. Lewis and Rhea’s science proves insufficient to fulfil their ambitions. Lewis needs humanity to keep his team around him. Rhea must find a way to blend the two sides of life, and to survive with her own individuality intact. The strands of their lives, like DNA are entwined. For progress to be made they must disentangle; the bonds must be broken and be reassembled in new patterns that will reflect their different natures and experiences but still remain whole and viable.

I chose the field of stem cell research for my novel because I did some early work in cellular differentiation myself and it is a sample of my own methodologies that I describe in the novel. But in using my scientific work as the basis for a novel and to explore the human dimension of the scientific process, I have attempted to meld scientific and literary discourses that have been subject to separate development. This essay will consider the historical separation of literature and science, the approaches of some contemporary writers to using science in their work and the ways in which I have blended my scientific experience into my own novel.

Next section, coming soon: Aspects of literature as a mediator of science


1. G. Kaati et al. ‘Cardiovascular and diabetes mortality determined by nutrition during parents' and grandparents' slow growth period’, Eur J Hum Genet, 10 (2002) pp. 682-8.
2. C.P. Estes, Women who Run with the Wolves (London: Random House, 1992) p. 466.
3. C.P. Estes, Women who Run with the Wolves (London: Random House, 1992) p. 470.
4. A.J. Vetlesen, Evil and Human Agency (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) pp. 131-133.
5. M. Shelley, Frankenstein (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Co. 1996).
6. I. McEwan, Saturday (London: Jonathan Cape, 2005).
7. D.L. Smail, On Deep History and the Brain (Berkley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press , 2008) pp. 117-118.