Filling in the blanks

Why novels excel at bringing scientific practice to life

Pippa Goldschmidt 24 August 2018

Mind the gap: don't forget the humans

The novels can inhabit real characters, invent new characters, and fill in the holes of imperfectly documented lives, so the reader feels they can understand the reasons behind the discoveries

Editor's note: Recently we celebrated ten years of Fiction Lab, the world's first book group dedicated to lab lit novels. This essay is adapted from a speech given on the night by astronomer and writer Pippa Goldschmidt, one of the panelists, and is the third in a small series from the same event (see the previous piece by using the navigation bar on the top right).

I’m fascinated by the way that scientists write about their own work, both in the popular media and also in academic papers. I used to be an academic scientist myself (I was a post-doc in the astrophysics group at Imperial College London for a few years) and I remember the tortuous process of converting the messy and complex process of actually doing an experiment into something a good deal more streamlined on the page.

It was my experience both as a writer and reader of academic papers that they never really conveyed what actually happened. The mistakes. The arguments between collaborators. The uncertainty over how to interpret a marginal result. The many (many!) changes of opinion.

Neither do academic papers really convey the inner life of the scientist actually doing the experiment. You could argue that that’s not their function; the purpose of the paper instead is to communicate the results of the work in the most efficient and effective way to the writer’s peers.

But if you read an academic paper you sometimes get the impression that the narrator is absent. It feels like there is a ghost in this machine. This impression is reinforced through the common use of the passive voice, and the reader is faced with a curious inevitability to the whole affair, as if events have unfurled like clockwork without any human agency.

This tradition of using the passive voice may have developed to encourage a belief in the universality and objectivity of the actions and results being reported. If the individual is not present in the work, then there can be nothing subjective in the findings, nor anything specific or unique in the doing of this piece of work by these particular people.

In other papers, the collective first person plural voice is used. ‘We’ did this, ‘we’ did that. This usage also denies the full complexity of what actually happened. If Dr. Nobody or Dr. Us is reporting this work, then which individuals made the decisions? It means we can’t fully understand the choices made by the narrators because they can’t discuss themselves. And if the choices are not scientific, they become invisible in the traditional scientific narrative.

Why is this important? It means there are gaps in the narrative, and these gaps are human-sized. As an extreme example, a purely scientific account of Galileo’s observations of the moons of Jupiter cannot show one of the most revolutionary aspects of this discovery: what the destruction of the Earth-centred model of the Universe implied for the all-powerful religious authorities of the time.

This is where literature can step in to save the game! Literature can investigate science, and this investigation can uniquely add to our understanding. For example, John Banville’s two novels about Copernicus and Kepler (Doctor Copernicus and Kepler – both reviewed on attempt to position these astronomers’ discoveries in the full messy unscientific complexity of their lives and explain where their discoveries came from. They imagine an answer to the question ‘what was it about these men’s characters and lives that made them see the universe in such revolutionary ways?’

The novels can inhabit real characters, invent new characters, and fill in the holes of imperfectly documented lives, so the reader feels they can understand the reasons behind the discoveries. Literature’s liberty to explore lives without being tied to documented facts may mean the end results are not historically true.

And this is why we read novels. We know that what we’re reading might not be historically true or factually correct, that even historical characters are essentially made up by the author in the way they construct speech and thoughts. But literature teaches us empathy and reveals psychological truths.

We’ll never know if Banville’s account of how Kepler came up with his laws of planetary motion is the way it actually happened, but thanks to Banville’s ability as a writer, when we read his account we believe it might have happened in this way, and that allows us to think about Kepler and his work in a more concrete way. Literature makes science human-sized, shows us how and why humans engage in science and what their concerns are with it, and how it impacts on them.

One of the most powerful tools that literature uses to make concepts tangible is metaphor. For example, here is Banville’s Kepler musing on Copernicus’ heliocentric model, and its inadequacies in its reliance on epicycles and equants:

It was as if the master [Copernicus] had let fall from trembling hands his marvellous model of the world’s working, and on the ground it had picked up in its spokes and the fine-spun wire of its frame bits of dirt and dead leaves and the dried husks of worn-out concepts.

And here is Kepler shown to be spurred on by the desire to find harmony in the seemingly chaotic observations bequeathed to him by Tycho Brahe:

Troubled by an inelegance in the Ptolemaic system, Copernicus had erected his great monument to the sun, in which there was embedded the flaw, the pearl, for Johannes Kepler to find… Harmony was all. And harmony as Pythagoras had shown was the product of mathematics, therefore the harmony of the spheres must conform to a mathematical pattern.

Here the flaw in the Copernican model is compared to a pearl; and not only is this biologically accurate, it’s also a powerful way of illustrating the value to Kepler of finding this flaw.

Banville’s Kepler is motivated by a desire for symmetry and simplicity in the same way that a modern astronomer might be, but what gives us pause for thought is the fact that this desire is expressed in very different ways. For example, Kepler is desperate to link the relative distances between planets to other patterns found in nature, such as musical harmonics, or the relative sizes of Platonic shapes.

Having this brought to life by Banville beautifully illustrates the rather unsettling fact that even though the initial premise behind Kepler’s work looks misguided to our modern eyes, the outcome is correct. Kepler’s laws are empirically valid. And this type of literature explores these scientific concepts in a way that opens them up to new audiences.