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Transforming science into story: Part 2

Aspects of literature as a mediator of science

Jennifer Cryer 22 July 2012

The publication of Charles Darwin’s theory about the origin of species set science against religious authority and the Victorian certainty of man’s natural supremacy in nature

Editor’s note: We are pleased to present the second instalment of a four-part essay (catch up using the links above right) about science in fiction by Jennifer Cryer, biochemist and author of debut novel Breathing On Glass, reviewed here. In this section, Cryer explores the impact of science on literature and society from a historical and contemporary perspective.

Although patentable science is invariably novel, novels are not. A discussion in Breathing on Glass is couched in modernist, scientific terms, describing the current state of knowledge about the beginning of an individual human life. It uses the concept that the egg contains two sets of maternal DNA [1], one of which will become joined with the paternal DNA to form the new individual and the other of which will disintegrate, as an allegory for the tensions between the two sisters in the novel [2]:

You have to wonder how it is for that spare set of maternal DNA, falling apart in the zona pellucida. It’s the other one of you.

The oldest written story that we have, Gilgamesh[3], is just such a tale of the struggle between the two natures of one individual. Science may constantly launch assaults upon the assumptions we make about ourselves, but literature has long reflected, and therefore, either contained or unleashed, human hopes and fears.

The publication of Charles Darwin’s theory about the origin of species set science against religious authority and the Victorian certainty of man’s natural supremacy in nature. Its ideas were widely disseminated and rapidly absorbed into contemporary fiction. Victorian novelists considered the issues; they incorporated the principles of evolutionary development in their work [4]. George Eliot, herself an amateur zoologist, reflected these concepts in her novels and, notably, the reasoning of characters such as Dr Lydgate who embraced the scientific ethos [5].

The Zeitgeist has a way of inveigling itself into the most unlikely places. It is absorbed consciously, or unconsciously, and makes itself felt in unexpected ways. In a climate of rationalism and order, Emily Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights, that saga of uninhibited chaos. Yet Stevie Davies has identified the ideas of genetic inheritance as being a ‘governing principle of the novel’ [6] and points to the contrasting of the human and canine life histories as evidence of the author’s understanding of the shared nature of human and animal development.

Science has moved inexorably onward and the offence to our earlier self-aggrandizement has largely been overcome. Our self-perceptions are now being informed by an unprecedented awareness of what it is to be a biological human.

Tess Cosslett [7] notes Tennyson’s Two Greetings, a poem to his newborn son, in which he describes the period between conception and birth as ‘nine long months of antenatal gloom.’ No contemporary poet who has seen the tender and wonder-filled films of pre-natal life could speak of antenatal gloom as the prelude to birth. We have now seen what, hitherto, nature had concealed from us. In this transgressive glimpsing of the unborn we have perhaps seen the future and a contemporary writer – and contemporary characters [8] – must work within this expanding frame of reference.

During the nineteenth century scientists and poets were in close companionship. Tess Cosslett indicates that Tennyson’s association with Tyndall and Huxley may explain the influence of contemporary scientific thinking on his poetry [9], but it is less likely that poets and scientists would be closely linked in the present world, although they sometimes are in story [10]. The segregated nature of education and the unmitigated absorption in career structures have separated the two professions so thoroughly that in 1959 CP Snow delivered his famous lecture “The Two Cultures” [11] in which he asserted that the humanities and science no longer understood one another.

The debate continues to this day and it is true that separate discourses have arisen: The cultural landscape is obstructed by swathes of language that are intimidating and prohibitive, making it difficult to maintain relationships across the gap. This is a significant insult to a coherent society. We need both our scientists and our humanitarians because it is essential that we should achieve a consensus in the application of technology. The recent enquiry into the retention of the organs of dead children in National Health Service hospitals in Britain laid bare the risks of leaving scientists to make decisions without the fully informed consent of both patients and the general public. Professor Brazier, the Chair of the NHS Retained Organs Commission, makes her position plain. Her work with the families affected by this situation has informed her arguments in favour of greater consideration being given to the view of the individual and their families, saying [12]:

The dead infant, the wife succumbing to breast cancer at 35, the elderly father dying suddenly of a heart attack do not change their nature for their mother, husband or daughter. They remain Susannah, Lucy and Dad……..Mutilation of that body becomes a mutilation of that image. Reason may tell the family that a dead child could not suffer when organs were removed. Grief coupled with imagination may overpower reason.

When the professional group holds command of the decision-making there is always the risk that this coterie will become self-referential and that its interests will be accorded precedence. This prospect informs the title of my novel, Breathing on Glass, and is illustrated in the scene where, as the scientists congratulate themselves on their success, their own condensed breath obscures their view of the outside world [13]. Knowledge must be a servant of humanity rather than a master and reason is not the only human factor that should influence its application. Here literature can take a view that science, medicine, political thought and the law have found paradoxical. It can provide a human dimension to the unfamiliar and remind the professional that valid opinion is not a prerogative of the initiate. It is with these divisions in mind that I searched for scientific and emotional consensus in my novel.

Other contemporary writers have used science as a seed crystal in their work. Ian McEwan’s A Child in Time [14] explores the concepts of memory and the mutability of time, particularly in relation to childhood. Ostensibly this novel is a story of a lost child. As the protagonist, Stephen, a children’s author, searches for his lost daughter, he encounters his own past. Language and imagery are strongly linked to the theme of the mutability of time, the persistence of the past in all of us. As Stephen leaves the station to visit his estranged wife, he watches the train ‘slip through the frail proscenium of signals and, foreshortened, click slowly out of sight round a curve’ [15], an image strongly associated with the Theory of Relativity. Some of Stephen’s past is lost. Destroyed by the loss of the child, his marriage seems over and he can’t remember the names of the friends whose wedding gift was the marriage bed [16], but some of his history is still in existence. As he travels to visit his estranged wife, he walks into his own origins: his mother telling his father that she is pregnant. The novel explores a human dimension of the way we live in time, informed by science. The characters live in a relativistic world, struggling to integrate their pasts and presents and confused about their futures.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go [17], like A Child in Time, is set in the not-too-distant future. The currently emerging technologies of cloning and transplantation are commonplace and the novel is a particularly haunting exploration of the loss of humanity made possible in the application of technology. Incrementally, as the children themselves realise it, the reader is edged towards the knowledge that the human and engaging characters are clones, created to serve as transplant donors, and not considered by society to be human at all. Without ever mentioning the laboratory, Ishiguro leads us into science’s worst excesses, presented to the reader and the characters as normality.

Allegra Goodman’s novel, Intuition [18], however, like Breathing on Glass, uses a laboratory setting and deals explicitly with scientific fraud. This work describes the relationships between ambitious scientists working in a team, headed by a reticent female scientist, Marion, and an exuberant medical practitioner, Sandy. A cancer-related project, pursued by one of the laboratory’s postdoctoral workers, becomes dramatically and unexpectedly successful. This leads to an accusation of scientific fraud: that the scientist concerned secretly disposed of some mice which were not cured of cancer by his R-7 virus, in order to improve the apparent efficacy of the treatment. The plot examines the effect of the ensuing investigation on the team members and the relationships between them.

The novel is realistic and accurate about laboratory life; the characters are eminently believable. These colleagues are rarely seen honestly to interact in the novel; their thoughts are private and revealed only to the reader by an omniscient narrator – a literary contribution to the ambiguity of the situation. The reader, like the characters, is uncertain whether a fraud has been committed at all. In fact, the transgressor himself appears unaware of any problem. He appears to be hopeful, but not sure of his results [19]:

There were times, as well, when Cliff imagined all his good fortune evaporating; the remission of the mice nothing more than a freak occurrence; the idea of using R-7 only a beautiful dream.

These are hardly the thoughts of a man who has engineered his results dishonestly. The language of the novel is direct. The impressions and feelings of the researchers are shown in detail, but at the same time, the entire novel reflects the difficulties of the interpretation of reportage, its central theme. It is a focused novel about focused individuals, reflected in its prose style. Rarely figurative, the language reflects the seriousness with which the characters approach their lives. At the same time, there are hints of uncertainty and ambiguity that indicate the difficulty of deciding whether a fraud has been committed or not [20]:

Marion cared enormously about her postdocs. They were her academic children, and she only wanted to give the best advice. But she said something just then that devastated Robin. “It sounds as though what you’d really like to do is teach.”

One of the postdocs keeps a lexicon of alternate meanings for commonly used laboratory phrases, highlighting the ambiguity of seemingly precise scientific vocabulary [21]:

Successful grant proposal (idiom): “major disaster. Long-term”
Analyze (verb): “to flounder”
Hypothesis (noun): “highly flawed thinking”
Conference (noun): “cancer junket”
Government Appropriations for Cancer Research: GAC (acronym): “sick tax”
Breakthrough (noun): “artifact”

The scientists fail to notice themselves and sensory impressions are rare. For Goodman’s characters are analytical about their feelings, balancing them with their work demands. The characters and the plot reflect very little about the world outside the laboratory. In a claustrophobic environment, – ‘like cooks crammed into a restaurant kitchen’ [22] – multiple viewpoints distribute blame and responsibility differently, implying a lack of control, even in the most senior researchers. The scientists swing from over-confidence to self-doubt. None of them displays a realistic level of confidence in his or her abilities.

In Breathing on Glass the prose style is more personal. Essentially a story about people, it is mediated by three point-of-view characters, who because of their intimate personal relationships are more revealing of themselves to one another, and more careless of each other’s feelings, than the characters in Intuition. They are tentative and arrogant by turns. The prose reflects this instability with a more discursive style in the passages describing their interactions with authority, when, essentially, they role-play. A more intimate and personal style is used to describe their private lives.

The imagery in Breathing on Glass is sometimes scientific. Lewis sees the brain processes of his research team in physiological terms – ‘he could sense the crackle of their synapses as the connections were made’ [23]. It would have been easy for me to turn the novel into a pastiche of scientific writing. Scientific images are readily available to a scientist; phrases such as energy of activation, supersaturated solution, the catastrophic effect of a point mutation, provide the metaphors of everyday life (and conversation). I have been at pains to avoid this and the concomitant alienation of non-scientific readers. Alongside this consideration has been the explanation of the science on which the story is based. Treatises are boring. I sought an appropriate balance here because not-knowing feels dangerous to a scientist. It is in the gaps between knowledge and understanding that superstition and fear make their homes. In Breathing on Glass this is exemplified when Rhea realises that she has been working on a mislabelled source of cells and sees the seagulls roosting on the University buildings, believing them to be cliff faces [24].

Next section, coming soon: On science, literature and language


1. Wilmot, K. Campbell and C. Tudge, The Second Creation (London: Headline Book Publishing, 2001) pp. 118-119.
2. Breathing on Glass p101.
3. The Epic of Gilgamesh, ed. A. George, (London: Penguin Classics, Penguin Group, 2003).
4. G. Beer, Darwin's Plots: Evolutionary narrative in Darwin, George Eliot, and Nineteenth Century Fiction (London, Boston, Melbourne and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983) p. 8.
5. T. Cosslett, The Scientific Movement and Victorian Literature (Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1982) pp. 74-100.
6. S. Davies, Emily Brontë: Heretic (London: The Women’s Press Ltd. 1994) p. 114.
7. T. Cosslett, The Scientific Movement and Victorian Literature (Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1982) p. 41.
8. See Breathing on Glass p. 272.
9. T. Cosslett, The Scientific Movement and Victorian Literature (Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1982) pp. 39-73.
10. See, for example, I. McEwan, Enduring Love this edition (London: Vintage Books, 1997) and A. Goodman, Intuition this edition (London: Atlantic Books, 2010).
11. C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures this edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
12. M. Brazier, ‘Retained Organs: Ethics and Humanity’, HeinOnline Legal Stud. 22 (2002), 550-569 (pp. 561-562).
13. Breathing on Glass p. 247.
14. I. McEwan, A Child In Time this edition (London: Vintage Books, 1987)
15. I. McEwan, A Child In Time this edition (London: Vintage Books, 1987) p. 51.
16. I. McEwan, A Child in Time this edition (London: Vintage Books, 1987) p. 63.
17. K. Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go this edition (London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 2005).
18. A. Goodman, Intuition this edition (London: Atlantic Books, 2010).
19. A. Goodman, Intuition this edition (London: Atlantic Books, 2010) p. 48.
20. A. Goodman, Intuition this edition (London: Atlantic Books, 2010) p. 101.
21. A. Goodman, Intuition this edition (London Atlantic Books, 2010) pp. 24-25.
22. A. Goodman, Intuition this edition (London Atlantic Books, 2010) p. 3.
23. Breathing on Glass p. 241.
24. Breathing on Glass p. 286.