Transforming science into story: Part 3

Science, literature and language

Jennifer Cryer 28 August 2012

Cutting edge: language choice in fiction

Words may take on a specific identity in a laboratory; they put on their white coats, creating an uncomfortable dissonance for the generalist

Editor’s note: We are pleased to present the third instalment of a four-part essay about science in fiction by Jennifer Cryer, biochemist and author of debut novel Breathing On Glass, reviewed here (catch up using the link above right). In this section, Cryer explores the contrasts in the use of language in the literary and scientific contexts and to highlight the difficulties in transferring ideas from one discourse to another.

Some years ago, I wrote a scientific description of the preparation of adipocytes – fat cells to the layman [1].

The samples were washed three times using Krebs-Ringer Bicarbonate Buffer containing penicillin (100ug/ml), streptomycin (100ug/ml) and fungizone (0.2ug/ml) and the connective tissue and any remaining blood vessels washed away. The remaining adipose tissue was cut into 3mm cubes and 10g of these transferred to a 50ml siliconised glass bottle (Schott, BDH) and suspended together with 10ml KRB buffer containing 4% (w/v) Bovine serum albumin (Cohn fraction V, Boehringer Corp. Lewes) and 1mg/ml collagenase. The bottle was capped and the slurry stirred gently for approximately 1hr. at 42oC using a magnetic stirrer.

At the beginning of the novel, there is a scene in which Rhea, one of my characters, carries out this same procedure [2]:

Tireless fans forced air into a cataract: an invisible wall that separated Rhea from the sample, half a gram of human fat sucked from the thigh of another young researcher who was having a cartilage repair. The flow resisted her as she pushed her hands inside the tissue culture hood but she pressed forward and breached it, her skin covered by latex gloves and the cuffs of her laboratory coat tight around her wrists.

Inside the hood, she touched the adipose tissue with her scalpel. Gently, gently she stroked it. She knew better than to risk pressing down. Any pressure and the scalpel would give way: not the steel – that was strong – but the plastic handle would snap and the thin blade fly off, lacerating whatever it touched. As she transferred the dissected tissue into the bottle, a drop fell from the lump of fat onto the stainless steel tray of the isolation cabinet. She wiped it away instantly before it had time to spread any infection, but even in those seconds, through the air curtain there was a smell of grease, soon obliterated by the disorienting edge of the alcohol she used for cleaning. She breathed it in and revelled in its contribution to the air of unreality. The enclosed space created an illusion of the culture hood as a toy theatre with its brightly-lit stage and its safety curtain. Cellular dramas, miniatures of survival, were played out there as she worked.

Britain’s Royal Society (of Science) has as its motto Nullius in Verba, which means something like, don't take anyone's word for it: in scientific writing the greatest good is that the work must stand alone as a sufficient and exact account, so that it can be repeated by any competent practitioner. Current practice includes the use of the active voice, allowing individual scientists to take responsibility for their work, but this piece was written in the passive voice, effectively understating the role of the author. Nevertheless, when I wrote this piece, I can’t have been paying attention to it because it contains a mistake: the use of the word gentle. Gentle leaves room for ambiguity and personal interpretation. One person’s gentle is another person’s rough treatment.

The same word, gentle, is used in the second example, from the novel. Here, I feel its use is entirely appropriate. It describes something about the work and implies something about the character performing the action, and it hints at the consequences of not taking care. In story, the author is present, pushing an agenda, manipulating the text in order to manipulate the reader. The record is idiosyncratic and, in the voice of an unreliable narrator, it can be inaccurate.

Francis Bacon, generally credited with being the father of the scientific method, called attention to this role of language, as both an aid, and an impediment to understanding in his philosophical work, Novum Organum, in 1620. He singles out words describing qualities as being the most problematic of all [3]:

……..the most faulty are those denoting qualities (except the immediate objects of sense) as heavy, light, rare, dense. Yet in all these there must be some notions a little better than others, in proportion as greater or less number of things come before the senses.

With this in mind I use gentle to describe the scientific treatment that finally delivers Amber’s baby. ‘”The new fertility drug is very gentle…”’ the nurse tells her patient. ‘ ”But gentle,” Amber pleaded. “It could be perfect for me.” ’ [4] In this instance I use the word as a marker of the remarkable achievements that result from combining science with humanity.

But it is not only the literary writer who has to surmount the problem of language in description. Scientists struggle to find appropriate words to describe new discoveries. For example, Levine points out that Darwin had to find the language to describe his theory of evolution because no such concept had been thoroughly described before; the facile terms that we now employ didn’t yet exist. He comments that Darwin’s usage changed the words he was obliged to adapt saying, ‘But in the very process words like “organism” and “adaptation” and “species” get re-defined by being plunged into history.’ [5].

Unfortunately, the disparity between discourses has continued to be a problem to the current day and a lack of understanding about the separate discourses of science and, for example, politics can lead to misconstruction. Dr. Vanderplank, Director of the Oxford University Language Centre, identified this as the root of the problem, in 2009, between the British Home Secretary and Professor David Nutt, the then Chair of the Drugs Advisory Committee, who was fired after the Government disagreed with his scientific advice about relaxing drug laws – a position that did not jibe with policy at that time. In a letter to The Times, Dr. Vanderplank said [6]:

The furore over the sacking of Professor David Nutt is an excellent example of how language and discourse may be perceived differently by the various parties to a debate and the confusion that this can cause……Scientific discourse doesn’t work in the same way as political discourse.

Words may take on a specific identity in a laboratory; they put on their white coats, creating an uncomfortable dissonance for the generalist. Resolve carries no connotation of decidedness or settling; it means, explicitly and absolutely, to separate a mixture into its constituent parts. Precision and accuracy have separate and specific meanings to the immunochemist [7], while other words, for example, transcription and translation, have been plucked from the vocabulary surrounding language to describe the cellular processes of replicating DNA and turning the genetic code into one that can be read as a protein sequence, respectively.

My novel has been an attempt to encompass both these discourses. The theme of this essay is the transformation of science into story. Immediately this highlights the difficulty. The word transform means, in general usage, ‘to change significantly’: caterpillars into butterflies, fertile land into desert. In science, however, particularly in the context of cell culture, the word transform means something more specific. It means to become immortal. Transformed cells will multiply forever. And they will do this because they have become malignant: a cancer, in fact. So the progression of words: transform, immortal, malignant, cancer, covers a very wide spectrum in human terms, although a narrow one, the regulation of a particular set of genes, in scientific ones.

With this in mind, I used the word transformed in a scene when Rhea is feeling guilty about the way she has treated her sister and imagines her face in a frozen suspension containing Amber’s cells [8]:

The vapour thickened and thinned. The evanescent shimmer faded, but the thought remained sharp. Amber, transformed from warm and soft to hard and cold.

In this extract, I use the word transform in each of the senses I have mentioned. Amber’s life has been transformed twice through her cell line: her financial situation has been changed, she has also become immortal. For Rhea, suffering from remorse, Amber has become a malignant presence, a cancer of guilt to eat her away.

This piece is from the end of the novel, when Amber and Rhea have ‘changed places’, so the scientific terminology is attached to the non-scientist sister and the ‘natural’ terminology to the scientist. In this way I have attempted to add meaning to the language of my novel and to integrate the separate dialogues.

In The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, Porter Abbott points out that for any narrative there exists a variety of possible tellings. At one end of the gradation there is the unadulterated description of the events that actually took place, unmediated by the telling: the Aristotelian muthos, which we might describe as the series of plot events. At the other extreme of narrative modes is the fabula, the story-telling discourse: an approach where the events are heavily freighted to suggest particular interpretations and strongly mediated by point of view [9]. Scientific methodological writing and the highly individualistic narration of the novel that affects the telling of the plot material stand at opposite ends of this scale.

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf describes what she sees as a difference between the conditions necessary for work in science and literature [10]:

......for fiction, imaginative work that is, is not dropped like a pebble upon the ground, as science may be; fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.

Breathing on Glass places scientific work in the human context: health, money and the houses they live in are crucially important to my characters. They are an integral part of the fabula of their scientific lives. But, the scientific work has its narrative too [11]. Rhea and Lewis, both scientists, approach their work differently and this colours their separate stories.

In the description of the cell preparation, the two extracts that I present at the beginning of this essay describe the same procedure, and it is important that both should prove true, both in the literal and in the literary sense. For example, in the scene where Rhea prepares adipocytes, she knows that the handle of the scalpel might break if she presses on it too firmly and that she might be cut by it. In the literal sense, it is true – disposable scalpels need a light hand – but it is also true in a literary sense. Because it is a scene at the very beginning of the novel I wanted to give my reader a hint about the story to come – the idea that knowledge is lacerating – and I am saying that although the cutting edge of the science is strong, the people handling it are vulnerable: they may prove weak links and in fact by the end of the novel, one of the scientists has committed a fraud. In writing this novel, one of my greatest challenges has been to negotiate a parallel honesty between the two discourses.

Final section, coming soon: On rationalism and emotion


1. J. Cryer, ‘Studies on Ovine Adipocyte Precursor Cells in vitro (Ph.D. thesis, University of Wales (Cardiff), 1993), p. 49.
2. Breathing on Glass p. 2-3.
3. F. Bacon, Novum Organum 1620, this edition ed. J. Devey (New York: P.F Collier and Son, MCMI, p 33.
4. Breathing on Glass p. 173.
5. G. Levine, Darwin and the Novelists (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988) p. 84.
6. R. Vanderplank, ‘Politicians, scientific advisors and the perception of discourse’, The Times [of London, UK], 12 November 2009, p. 37.
7. C. Davies, ‘Concepts’ in The Immunoassay Handbook, ed. by D.Wilde (Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press, 1994), pp. 83-84.
8. Breathing on Glass pp. 299.
9. H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) p. 18.
10. V. Woolf, A Room of one’s Own, this edition (London: Penguin Books, 2004) p. 48.
11. H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2008) p. 19.