Science: How fiction can help science tell the truth

EUROPEAN LITERATURE and plays have, with rare exceptions, not been kind to science; they certainly have made no contribution to science. So it comes as a surprise to find, in a recent issue of the prestigious American journal Science, that several pages of a play, An Immaculate Misconception, are reproduced.

This is a play written by Carl Djerassi, the distinguished chemist who first synthesised the birth control pill. It deals with ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection) a technical advance on in vitro fertilisation; instead of adding millions - and it requires many millions - of sperm to an egg in a dish in order to fertilise it, a single sperm is injected direct into the egg. ICSI is thus a powerful tool to counteract male infertility and more than 10,000 babies have been born using the technique since it was introduced in 1992.

Djerassi's play, which contains beautiful video footage of ICSI taking place, is about a woman reproductive biologist who thinks she may have left it too late to have a baby. She decides to use herself for the first ICSI experiment but instead of obtaining sperm from an anonymous donor, secretly plans to take some sperm, without his knowing it, from her lover, Menachem. Unfortunately, she does not know that he is infertile and that the sperm, unknown to her, comes from her colleague. Clearly there are lots of ethical issues, not least as to what to tell her son, who believes Menachem to be his father. The play thus provides an understanding of an important new means of assisted reproduction as well as a valuable means of raising ethical issues. What is so important is that the play is written by someone who really understands the science.

But then, Djerassi is unusual in having turned to literature, possibly owing to his love-affair with a professor of literature. He found that it gave him a chance to do something completely different, for fiction is the antithesis of science. Scientists are not allowed to say "I made it up", but a writer can brag about it. Also, unlike scientific papers, which are ephemeral, literature can be read again and again. In his first novel, Cantor's Dilemma, the main character is less interested in science than in personal success. Thus in this and his other novels, which he calls "science-in-fiction", he explores the world of science and the way scientists behave. They certainly long for recognition, for otherwise they would publish anonymously, thus whose name goes on a paper, and whose goes first, is a matter for quite bitter debate.

Djerassi has become increasingly concerned by what he sees as corruption within science - fraud, plagiarism, exploitation of the young. Not that these are all that common, but there is no really satisfactory way of dealing with such problems and bringing them out into the open. He has thus tried to use his science-in-fiction skills to help. At Stanford University, where he works, he is experimenting with a quite new way of opening up these issues and making it possible for young scientists to express their views. In traditional science the laboratory is rather hierarchical, and to express complaints about your seniors is not easy.

Initially Djerassi suggested that an anonymous evaluation of lab leaders by all the members of the lab might be a way forward, but that is so tricky that it is unlikely to work. The new idea is to use fiction.

He writes a story of a scientist whose lab is in trouble as information is being leaked to a rival lab and a crucial experiment is proving difficult to repeat, so a young worker's name is removed from a paper. The students then discuss this story, which can also include sex among the test-tubes. He asks the students to write their own fictional accounts, which are then submitted anonymously for discussion by the group. For some this was the only way they could express their problems.

Other universities are using similar ways of discussing ethical issues, such as honest reporting of results without leaving out uncomfortable data. This sort of literature could really help young scientists, and even older ones.

The writer is professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College London

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform