UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: Science writes
Sunday 15 June 1997
The explicit hostility of imaginative writers to science has a venerable history which is very well documented in Roslynn Haynes' From Faust to Strangelove - Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature (John Hopkins University). Examples from her chapter headings provide a good sense of her thesis: Arrogant and Godless: Scientists in Eighteenth-Century Satire; Inhuman Scientists: The Romantic Perception; Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know: Reality Overtakes Fiction; The Impersonal Scientist.
Jonathan Swift in Gulliver's Travels mocks the astronomers for their pretensions to secure knowledge and their preoccupation with the physical world. We also find here a view of scientists that will be repeated again and again - scientists are obsessed with their own work and totally detached from the realities of everyday life. And Sherlock Holmes, known for his scientific knowledge, is portrayed as a cold, distant observer.
Aldous Huxley is thus very unusual as his novels not only had science in them but they dealt with the scientific issues of the day. Moreover, he regarded as arrogant fools those literary men who ignored science and were ignorant of the work of Einstein or Heisenberg. He thought it the literary artist's responsibility to maintain a dialogue between literature and science. But Huxley was very influenced by the developments in physics in the Twenties and believed that relativity and quantum mechanics had completely undermined the concepts of reality and causality. A similar line is taken in Jeanette Winterson's Gut Symmetries which gives it a spurious seriousness. The predictions of quantum mechanics are, in fact, astonishingly reliable and accurate.
The image of the scientist as detached, male, middle-aged, boring, bald and bespectacled is very much with us still, no matter that most scientists are young, and many are female. A woman scientist in a novel is even harder to find though there is one in A S Byatt's Babel's Tower.
But there is an outstanding literature of science that has been written by the scientists themselves that goes back to Huxley, Darwin and Lyell. The modern representatives give the lie to the image of the illiterate scientist. Publishers are now only too well aware that popular science is a very hot area. Science is chic and exciting and it is no longer fashionable to boast of one's ignorance or indifference.
No wonder, then, that there is a considerable interest in the Rhone-Poulenc prize for the popular science book of the year which carries a pounds 10,000 award and many more sales. I must confess to a personal interest as I am a host at the dinner on the 19 June at which the winner will be announced. Ladbrokes even phoned me, among others, for advice on how to set the odds. I really do not know as the field is a strong one with Steve Jones' In the Blood, Matt Ridley's The Origins of Virtue, Richard Dawkins' Climbing Mount Improbable and Dava Sobel's Longitude. Terry Prachett is the chairman of the judges and since his view of real science is "the sort you can use to give something three legs and then blow it up", it should be an interesting evening.
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