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Transforming science into story: Part 4

Rationalism and emotion

Jennifer Cryer 29 September 2012

Unresolved: classic dilemmas in a lab setting

Art needs no defending from the forces of rationality. Rationality needs no defending from Art

Editor’s note: We are pleased to present the final 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 discusses the way she treated the interplay of rationalism and emotion in her own novel.

B a novel, even a novel about science, or perhaps especially a novel about science, can’t just be a glorified description of a series of experiments. Primarily, it’s a story. A story needs a plot; it needs a setting; it needs characters, real people to drive the action, and the development of these constitutes the challenge to the novelist.

The plot material of Breathing on Glass could probably be transposed to many settings. It’s a story of the conflict between ambition and family life, the rivalry, and the profoundly complicated love that exists between siblings (1). It is also an exploration of the position of the lieutenant, the highly competent individual who is legitimately overshadowed. There are many literary precedents for all of these situations and so I gave some thought as to what might be different about the scientific context.

A laboratory is a gothic space. It is locked; the initiated are admitted, but an electronic key can turncoat and lock you out; a card that has been swiped in the RNA preparation laboratory will bar entry to the PCR laboratory, because the process of PCR is sensitive to contamination by RNA. White coats and masks depersonalise their wearers and rob them of humanity. You can’t eat or drink in a laboratory, so life cannot be sustained in that environment. Humans must return to the natural world, and, on leaving, can’t take anything away with them, except for the knowledge in their heads. And yet, a chemical smell clings and marks them out. It’s a threatening setting, not one that everyone would feel comfortable in: good for a story.

I have tried to show the way in which science can alienate a non-specialist in this scene where Amber wants to get into the lab, but the door is barred against her (2):

There it was. Seeping through the crack in the doorway, there was that laboratory stench, the constant perfusion of chemicals. It sank into everyone who worked there, marking them out……..Lewis often came home full of the lab, only thinking about work, only talking about work, smelling like that. She filled up the house with her own defenses – perfumed oils lay in wait for him – but still the smell crept in, blotting out her own ambience. She made him shower and change his clothes, but even then it leached out of his skin in bed, and hung about, lying between them. Sometimes Amber even thought that was why she couldn’t get pregnant; that smell got in the way somehow.

Naturally, a laboratory is not a threatening environment for a scientist. Familiarity attenuates trepidation and, in other parts of the novel, I have used it as a space that provides sanctuary from the emotional stress of Rhea’s private world. As, for example, when she is returning to the city, late at night, after visiting Amber and her thoughts rest on the lab (3):

The incubators were safe; the temperatures were all running at blood heat, the carbon dioxide levels were just right, all the monitors were green, the alarm systems showing sleep mode. But she knew that Amber would be lying wide awake, goaded by her broken tooth and her empty womb.

Amber, on the other hand, inhabits a rural idyll: Snitter Heugh. Snitter is the Old English word for snow and Heugh, that for a ridge (4). It is cold in Amber’s environment. Yet in contrast to the laboratory with its air-con and its liquid nitrogen freezers, the cold is a natural phenomenon, and is controllable. Amber installs double-glazed windows. The cold in the laboratory is uncontrollable: both in the literal sense (many samples must be kept cool) and in the metaphysical sense (the work in the laboratory takes precedence over the workers). But Amber’s Snitter Heugh is a fantasy world in which she lives without understanding its deceptions. This illusion is indicated in the novel by the passage in which Rhea notices that time seems to have a different frame of reference away from the city. ‘Her car climbed out of the city, away from the coastal plain, up towards the hills….. The journey between the two worlds had an unearthly aspect, the reversal of time.’ (5)

Some of the characters in the novel are scientists. Does this make a difference? Primo Levi, the holder of Nobel prizes for both chemistry and literature, says that it does. In Other People’s Trades he talks about his own profession (6):

The bond between a man and his profession is similar to that which ties him to his country; it is just as complex, often ambivalent…….. I left the trade of chemist several years ago, but only now do I feel that I have the necessary detachment to see it in its entirety and understand how much it pervades me and how much I owe it.

In Breathing on Glass, I made a conscious decision to show a difference between the characters who are scientists and those who are not.

Lewis, the most experienced of the scientists, is a consummate rationalist. He plans his career moves and his life as projects. There are elements of life games: the testing of hypotheses for their possibilities, the development of effective strategies. He is a man who understands the persistence and power of hierarchies – he feels his name, Norham, has an aristocratic ring to it – and plans his moves within the power structure of the University, coveting office space, an increased salary and a chair: the traditional badges of formal academic advancement (7). In this extract he analyses the characteristics of a group of managers he encounters, evaluating the effect of their behaviour (8):

They were claiming their boasting rights: that was all it was. Natural and necessary. Figures were being bandied around, gross exaggerations, surely. Lewis could hear them inflating at every telling, and at the same time, the morale of the romancers rising to ever greater heights. The same was true of the rivalry between them: the grosser the achievement, the more exaggerated the performance of those tell-tale gestures. Gimlet glances and the squaring-up postures ballooned as the glasses emptied.

Here, I am drawing an implicit parallel with the masculine environment of the Anglo-Saxon Mead Hall (9), with its ritual boasting and emphasis on authority, a hierarchical system that Lewis finds surprisingly alive and well in his world of work (for example, in the executive boasting of the Head of Department (10) and the Vice Chancellor [11]). He feels secure within its structural certainty.

When he is under emotional strain, Lewis is less comfortable and he comprehends devastation in biological rather than psychological terms. In this piece, he is in the hospital and his medical colleagues have just lost a child in theatre (12).

The grieving parents stood close together. In a slow wash of understanding Lewis recalled that these two people, between them, still contained every one of their dead boy’s genes. He had been the child of their bodies and he would never really be gone from this world until the two people who still held the root of his life were dead too. For now, the most important thing for them now might be to stay close, to stay alive, so that their son would too.

Here, I wanted to develop a sense that Lewis has touched on something elemental. Something that was present long before humans developed sophisticated forms of consciousness and came before our articulate emotional responses, but holds a solid, empirical power. His scientific habit of looking beyond the visible towards the forces beneath is the beginning of Lewis’s appreciation of what it is to be a parent.

His wife, Amber, is anything but a scientist and distrusts everything about the system. Warm and full of life, she is emotionally intuitive and her empathy allows her a great power to sympathise with and love the people around her. The corollary is that she is able to manipulate them, effortlessly. She makes her decisions on the basis of her feelings, linking with human experience, looking out from her home and thinking, ‘Vikings had come up that river once, looking for people like her.’ (13), in a way that Rhea and Lewis would not. Although Amber is by far the highest earner in the novel, her world is centred on her life, not her work. She makes sure she shakes the colourless scientists up, rooting her attitude in her earthy approach to life (14).

She reckoned she was safe behind the fire of her dress, her lippy, the intriguing smear of dark vulnerability she smudged beneath her eyes every morning. ……..Then she shook him off with the most inconsequential shrug of her shoulders. She looked around at the researchers as though she was seeking out support.

“Actually,” she answered, “I sleep with the boss. What were you planning to do to improve your career prospects?”

Amber finds there is a freedom in not being inhibited by academic constraints and while this license gives her liveliness and warmth, it provides a convenient weapon when she wants one: a fact resented by her husband, who doesn’t like being upstaged in his own laboratory (15).

“It’s the red dress.” She explained it away as though it was nothing to her. “Hot colours are full of energy.” But Lewis had to have the last word.

“Strictly speaking,” he said, “that’s not true. It’s the cold-looking blue light that has the most energy.”

This exchange exemplifies the essential difference between Amber and Lewis, and the allure of their tense and tantalizing marriage. But Amber eventually embraces science and becomes pregnant.

This change in position reflects the pragmatism in Amber’s nature: a willingness to adapt if it is to her advantage. I have tried to indicate, through the use of flashback, key moments in Rhea and Amber’s shared childhood when they might have developed their characteristics. When Amber is faced with the hurdle of meat-eating, she remembers the way that she has always been able to rely on Rhea, for example on her first day at school (16):

She’d thought she was going to cry, but then she saw Rhea leaning on the gate. She was talking to her friends and without ever looking, held out her hand.

Under stress, Amber trusts Rhea and models her behaviour on her sister’s strength of character. But there are later influences that modulate childhood experience and contribute to the formation of character. As Amber gains confidence in her pregnancy, she abandons the unrealistic idea of protecting her child by turning Snitter Heugh into a (metaphorical) fortress and moves back to the city with Lewis. She learns pragmatism from her ambitious husband.

The third protagonist, Rhea, Amber’s sister and Lewis’s lieutenant, is burdened by the task of bridging the gap between these two worlds. Like the mustard in salad dressing she is the amphoteric molecule that emulsifies disparate phases. I have demonstrated this by linking her to both Lewis and Amber, in separate incidents.

For example, when she challenges Lewis to a race, she finds it difficult to distinguish herself from him. In this I have tried to show something of the way that joint endeavour can dissolve the boundaries that separate human beings (17).

Her breath grated, his breath grated, his foot punched, her foot punched. She grabbed at a moment and turned to see where he was and he was staring right back into her face. His eyes locked straight into her eyes. Her heart thumped, or was it his heart? She couldn’t tell. She couldn’t even count separately from him. Everything about them both pounded together up that track: leg, foot, leg, foot. Neither of them could break free of the bond.

Rhea has Lewis’s understanding of science. In fact she is the more dedicated scientist, taking pleasure in the work for its own sake, but she doesn’t possess Lewis’s understanding of her place in the scientific hierarchy. She feels herself interleaved with Lewis (18).

When they reached the end of the course Rhea wrenched herself away from him and leaned against the railings, putting her head back so the rain could wash down her. She tasted salt and she had no idea which of them had won.

She cannot accept that her efforts are on his behalf and not on her own: the dilemma of the lieutenant in, for example, the traditional story of Tristan and his love for his King’s bride, Isolde. Wagner’s musical interpretation of the story involves ‘the Tristan chord’: an unresolved chord that represents the impossibility of resolution in Tristan’s situation. It is with this lack of opportunity for personal fulfilment in mind that I wrote of Rhea’s life.

Throughout most of the novel, she denies her own emotions, regarding them as selfish or a sign of weakness, so that they are often ignored. Rhea has accepted so much responsibility for Amber’s happiness that she privileges Amber’s well-being over own feelings (19):

Now, Rhea couldn’t even remember the visit to the hospital; the very last time she ever saw her father slipped from her memory, but she hadn’t forgotten the walk across the flat, grassy park towards the beach and the long distance from which she saw Amber.

When Rhea begins to draw close to Lewis, she remembers how much Amber depends on her (20).

(Amber) opened her arms, as wide as they could stretch, and she ran and ran over the scrubby turf towards her sister, as though her entire world had been set to rights. …..(Rhea) knew that no-one would ever be so pleased to see her again.’

Eventually, this loyalty is stretched beyond its limit by Amber’s demand for her sister’s services as a surrogate mother. Rhea uses her scientific ability in analysis as a coping mechanism. ‘She swallowed once, twice, hard rolls of effort to free the muscles. They must have been constricting the internal carotid artery because she felt faint.’ (21) This time the ploy fails; Rhea is overcome. She has already begun the process of separating herself from Amber.

When Lewis and Rhea touch the elements of life and their work succeeds, the energy that this generates means that they also touch a Jungian archetype: the sleeping princess. Rhea showered with her eyes closed because she had become disengaged from her own body. But the body is still there. It saves her, when her mind wants to destroy her sister (22), and she feels it again through Lewis’s agency. ‘Now she felt her own body through Lewis’ fingertips. Her thoughts were Lewis’s thoughts.’ (23) She is awoken by another person and, initially, there is a feeling of rightness rather than guilt when she begins an affair with her sister’s husband.

In describing these developments, I wanted to say something about human bonds that are hard to break. And in explaining my purpose, I have used bonds as a metaphor for an emotional state that is difficult to define. Every year cognitive neuroscience produces startling new insights into the way that we think. Limitations on thought processes are mirrored in language, especially in the development of novel metaphors. Charles Fernyhough suggested that novelists should be especially aware of current developments in cognitive neuroscience when they write about their character’s thoughts (24).

Stephen Pinker points to the use of metaphor as necessary for our ability to engage in abstract thought, suggesting that metaphor is a system that the mind can use to encompass the unfamiliar, citing examples such as ‘The atom is a solar system’ and ‘An antibody is a lock for a key’ as material to our understanding of these concepts (25). He also uses examples from literature, for instance, Ian McEwan’s description of composing music in Amsterdam (26) to illuminate the power of metaphor to enable the understanding of a complex mental process, thus demonstrating the value of metaphor to both science and literature.

Solution is a word that we use both in science and in everyday conversation to describe two separate things. Lakoff and Johnsson describe a particularly elegant metaphor developed by a student who, on hearing the phrase ‘the solution of my problems’ (27), imagined the mind to contain a seething, chemical solution of problems which, under differing conditions, sometimes precipitated out, and at other times, were reabsorbed into the solution. It is a wonderful example of the fruitfulness of cross-fertilisation between art and science, one well worth striving for.

Scientists are no strangers to metaphor. It has been suggested by Steven Mithin in his work The Prehistory of the Brain that science only became possible following the development of hypothesis testing, tool making and the mastery of metaphor and analogy by humans (28). In Breathing on Glass the scientific project is analogous with the plot. An overarching trope in the story is the study of cells and the environmental factors that determine which parts of their genetic potential are actually expressed. As the researchers manipulate the cellular environment, they are manipulated themselves by factors within and without their control.

In the same way that I couldn’t stop saying gentle when I wanted to describe the handling of something that is both living and fragile, my scientists can’t stop being human beings, with all their intrinsic complications and complexities, and that makes them part of their experiments. The cell cultures are strictly biologically determined; they don’t choose their responses. They respond to environmental stimuli in a genetically fixed manner. And yet my characters, conglomerates of these programmed cells, apparently exhibit free will and self-consciousness (29). Porter notes that some theorists consider that without these attributes, there is no meaningful story (30). To consolidate the links in my metaphor I used the theories of philosophers who are interested in addressing these problems in the light of current developments in science.

Emotions are mediated by biochemicals. For example, Weitz provides a medical view of the neurophysical events underlying the plot of Tristan and Isolde (31). But, while these phenomena provide an explanation for physical reactions such as blurred vision or death, they do not provide a sufficient one for the responses of the lovers to their feelings of love and despair. Our understanding of the mechanics of human biological heritage sits uneasily with our belief that our feelings are real and that we have the freedom to respond to them. A current hypothesis in this area is yet another aspect of evolution. Daniel Dennett postulates that freedom of action is compatible with a physically and biologically determined world saying that it is ‘an evolved creation of human activity and beliefs, and it is just as real as such other human creations as music and money.’ (32) He claims that ‘if we accept Darwin’s “strange inversion of reasoning” we can build up to the best and deepest human thought on questions of morality and meaning, ethics and freedom.’ (33).

While recognising that our knowledge of ourselves is now so extensive that it can be overwhelming, he exhorts us to face our realities bravely, saying ‘Look around at those who are participating in this quest for further scientific knowledge and eagerly digesting the new discoveries; they are manifestly not short on optimism, moral conviction, engagement in life, commitment to society.’ (34)

My characters are youthful and full of this sort of hope. To a scientist it is heartening to be allocated such a position, rather than being placed under a constant pressure to defend science against the claim that it is invariably transgressive. In associating the Gothic with the breaking of boundaries, Botting states that: ‘Gothic excess…..the fascination with transgression and the anxiety over cultural limits and boundaries continue to produce ambivalent emotions and meanings in their tales of darkness, desire and power.” (35) In this literary arena, the terrors of un-natural knowing are scrutinised. The un-Gothic science and the philosophy that tries to make sense of our new knowledge are not explicit in my novel – it is meant to be a story and not a treatise – but they are implicit: they informed me; they informed the world of the story and provide a basis for the individual self-determinism of each of my characters.

Lewis and Rhea, the characters most closely associated with the determined cells, are the least open to change. Lewis is deeply embedded in the University hierarchy and sees his developmental path as a steady progression along this traditional route, already identifying strongly with his professional role. Rhea is less committed, but she resists influences outside of her work and harbours prejudices about other people, for example, Stephen Goodwin, not seeing him as he is, but through a paradigm that suits her purpose (36). Education and experience has made these characters somewhat inflexible. Amber, on the other hand, retains her plasticity. She changes her environment, she leaves her job, and, crucially, she changes her mind, accepting both fertility treatment and a move back to the city. It is her cells that produce the stem line, literally and metaphorically.

Perhaps this determinism is the reason that scientists are still objects of dislike in literature. In Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk, one of her characters, a teacher of literature, harbours a marked antipathy towards scientists. She is setting up the library for the literature club where the students are going to discuss Wuthering Heights (37).

There was always a sixth former at a table in the corner who looked as though she had been there for a year, slumped over in an irremediable swamp of paper and chemistry books. ……….It was always the scientists who were the worst. They had a sort of maleness about them, an aura of election.

As she makes these interlopers leave, ‘She felt she was, in a sense, on the front line, defending art from the barbarian forces of rationality.’ (38)

Art needs no defending from the forces of rationality. Rationality needs no defending from Art.

In Breathing on Glass I have sought to place science and literature side by side in the “realm created by the light box’ and to show that they work comfortably together.


1. D. Rowe, My Dearest Enemy, My Dangerous Friend: Making and Breaking Sibling Bonds (Hove: Routledge, 2007).
2. R. Cusk, Arlington Park, (London: Faber and Faber, 2006) p. 153.
3. Breathing on Glass p. 180.
4. Breathing on Glass pp.8-9.
5. Breathing on Glass p. 189.
6. S. Beckensall, Northumberland Place Names (Rothbury: Butler Publishing, 1992) p. 43 and p. 34.
7. Breathing on Glass p. 131.
8. P. Levi, Other People’s Trades translated by R. Rosenthal (London: Abacus, 1991) p. 174.
9. D.L. Smail, On Deep History and the Brain (Berkley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2008) p. 164.
10. Breathing on Glass p. 96.
11. J.M. Hill, ‘Social Milieu’ in A Beowulf Handbook ed. by R.E. Bjork and J.D. Niles (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1998), pp. 262-3.
12. Breathing on Glass pp 243-244.
13. Breathing on Glass p. 190.
14. Breathing on Glass pp 48-49.
15. Breathing on Glass p. 206.
16. Breathing on Glass pp. 15.
17. Breathing on Glass p. 16.
18. Breathing on Glass p. 178.
19. Breathing on Glass pp. 75-76.
20. Breathing on Glass p. 76.
21. Breathing on Glass p. 65.
22. Breathing on Glass p. 65.
23. Breathing on Glass p. 222.
24. Breathing on Glass p. 220.
25. Breathing on Glass p. 227.
26. C. Fernyhough, ‘What’s on Your Mind?’, The Guardian, 15 October 2005, Review Section p. 22.
27. S. Pinker, The Stuff of Thought (London: Alan Lane, 2007) p. 241.
28. S. Pinker, The Stuff of Thought (London: Alan Lane, 2007) pp. 277-278.
29. G. Lakoff and M. Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1980) pp. 143-144.
30. S. Mithin, The Prehistory of the Brain this edition (London: Phoenix Orion Books Ltd., 2005) pp. 244-246.
31. D. C. Dennett, Freedom Evolves (London: Penguin, 2003) pp. 2-3.
32. H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) p. 19.
33. G. Weitz, ‘Love and Death in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde – an epic anticholinergic crisis’, BMJ, 327 (2003), 1469-1471.
34. D. C. Dennet, Freedom Evolves (London: Penguin, 2003) p. 13.
35. D. C. Dennet, Freedom Evolves (London: Penguin, 2003) p. 307.
36. D. C. Dennet, Freedom Evolves (London: Penguin, 2003) p. 5.
37. F. Botting, in Gothic:The New Critical Idiom, ed. J. Drakakis (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 2.
38. Breathing on Glass p. 115.
39. R. Cusk, Arlington Park, (London: Faber and Faber, 2006) p. 153.