Joshua Roebke: “On Writing Science”

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Can science be the theme of literature?

There are few if any barriers to literature. Good writers should be able to trespass on any imaginable topic. So the question of whether science writing can be a literary art is an easy one to answer: of course it can. Science is a human endeavor like any other, so it is undoubtedly fodder for literature. But the reason why this question has been so frequently asked, I think, is because of the barrier originally perceived by one man, Charles Percy Snow.

On May 7, 1959, C. P. Snow delivered his famous speech, “The Two Cultures,” as part of a quartet of lectures at Cambridge University. He observed that, although he and his friends were living in an atomic age, they had segregated themselves into distinct castes: those who understood the era’s science and those who did not. His ignorant friends were novelists, although he was a scribbler himself, and Snow blamed the divide on them rather than on his other companions, the scientists.

What most people do not realize when they discuss “The Two Cultures” is that C. P. Snow began his career as a researcher in physical chemistry. During the 1930s, in Cambridge, he had a forward position near the Cavendish Laboratory for what Ernest Rutherford, the lab’s director, called “the heroic age of science.” At Cambridge, in and around 1932, James Chadwick discovered the neutron, Paul Dirac envisaged the positron, and John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton built one of the first particle accelerators in the world.

That year, C. P. Snow was also primped for success. He and his colleague, F. P. Bowden, published three eminent papers outlining the structures of common vitamins, and Snow completed his first novel, a detective story called Death Under Sail. But Snow and Bowden later disavowed one of their most important findings, after it was found to be in error. And though Snow continued to pursue his boyhood dream of becoming a scientist, he published a second novel to greater acclaim in 1934. That novel, which transformed him into a writer, was a roman à clef about his pursuit of the mistaken truth, called The Search.

What is fascinating about Snow’s novel is where it fails and where it succeeds. The Search is one of the finest accounts that I have read about the trials of a young scientist, and most of the characters speak and act like real scientists. But the book is not enduring literature. It is so earnest, trite, and didactic that it is often hard to read. C. P. Snow would not write about scientists again for twenty years, after he had managed them for the British government during WWII. Although his later novels about science were more robust than his juvenilia, he would not succeed where he originally failed. In an article published in the Kenyon Review in 1961, he lamented that it was impossible to write fiction in the stream of consciousness of a scientist. If C. P. Snow, the scientist-turned-novelist who generated the complaint about the two cultures, could not imagine or write vivid fiction about science, what hope is there for anyone?

There are few literate tales of science that are also literary. So few writers know much about science, and so few scientists write very well, that there is not enough literature that satisfies either clique. The skillful union of science and writing is rare, in part, because of the increasing specialization by everyone. Most of the writing that actually leavens science appears in journals and textbooks, where it communicates only to fellow scientists or those aspiring to join them. Much of this writing is woeful and inaccessible, in other words, for the same reason that all academic writing is. The authors are either using a specialized language or bestowing one that is intended for the initiated or the already motivated. The problem with academic writing is thus the narrowing audience for expanding knowledge. [1] This constriction unfortunately afflicts scientists even when they are trying to write for a general audience. They have spoken their stiff idiom for so long that they are no longer able to communicate what they do in vernacular.

The argot of science is hard even for scientists to understand, and many of them could improve the dissemination of knowledge by subscribing to Strunk & White. But jargon is not intended to segregate; it often serves a useful purpose. It is shorthand for complex ideas. Jargon is the concision of a writer who is considerate to his or her intended audience.

Specialization is too facile an account for the deficit of literary science writing. Academic writing is almost indistinguishably bad across the disciplines, yet there are dozens of wonderful campus novels written by tenured professors (even by C. P. Snow). A better explanation for the absence of literary science writing can be found in the distinctive goals of science and literature. But these are harder to explain.

In college, I studied nuclear physics and Spanish literature. In graduate school, I specialized in theoretical high-energy physics before I quit to become a writer. I moved to New York and toiled as an editor at a popular science magazine, which won a few awards in the few years before it went defunct. I commissioned pieces on the latest findings from the scientists who had made them, or I asked professional writers to expound on a scientific topic. Neither culture turned in faulty prose every time; in fact, I was often surprised by the quality of the writing. But the results were usually just what you would expect. The scientists fretted the particulars and got lost in the thickets of narrative. The writers blithely tramped the desired paths of a story and ignored the scenery of the science. Even when the scientists and writers were cognizant of where they were, their descriptions were so florid that what they described was unrecognizable.

Science writing suffers from the duality of its name. Either the science is bad or the writing is, and many times they both are. So my job as an editor became that of a translator. I rendered academese into fine English prose, and I spun fluff into accurate descriptions of science. I was raised to understand the two languages pretty well, so I knew enough to preserve the meanings of the formulas in English.

Most of the writers who contributed the best copy to the magazine were proficient in both languages, too. A few had a background in science, but others had simply picked up the language by listening to its native speakers. An author does not need to be a physicist to write about physics. But like professional translators, those who communicate science best speak the two languages fluently, abstractions and all. C. P. Snow improved as a novelist once he mastered the patterns of literature. Still, he never wrote a magisterial novel about science.

Even when science writing is good, it can be oblivious to the humanity of the subject or to its allure because the author speaks to the already charmed. While in New York, I realized that my ability to translate between science and prose could help me write about the subject myself. I eventually realized that my background might also help me write about physics in a better way. I had studied literature and knew what devices propelled its success. I had studied physics and knew the language and culture of its community. I could use the conventions of narrative to communicate science and its allure to everyone, not merely the charmed.

I am currently writing my first book, the story of particle physics throughout the twentieth century. To interest a general audience in abstruse ideas and obscure physicists, I must use the devices of literature, even though I am writing nonfiction. The physicists are just my characters, and I am narrating their motives, achievements, and foibles. I use metaphors and irony, and I foreshadow their dramas as any biographer might. But I am wary not to push these devices too far. The lives and ideas of my characters have enough space for me to imagine and interpret them, so I restrict myself to what these characters actually achieved.

I want my reader to inhabit other worlds, but a life of science is so foreign to most people that it can already read as fiction. [2] In fact, I wrote two of the stories from my book originally as fiction, before I realized there was no need. Now, I refuse to fudge the lives or distort the science. I am thus attempting to please three prudish masters, science, history, and literature, who are each rarely pleased. But I feel liberated by the constraints. In fact, I no longer believe that I can explain physics in a way that edifies except as the story of the human endeavor that made the science.

Science should be easy to narrate. Scientists struggle against themselves and argue with one another, usually in set pieces such as colloquia or conferences. They love, hate, envy, connive, trust, care, and obey. In fact, they are very similar to fictional detectives, in both their manner and their plodding, which may have inspired C. P. Snow’s first novel.

Science is a process, rather than a collection of facts. It is the acquisition of knowledge, rather than knowledge itself. Scientists rarely know what they are doing, despite their expertise, and they are so often blind to everything else, that they are often tragic or comic characters (this may also be why they are so frequently the butt of nebbish jokes, even when they are the stars of television shows). To get such characters right, a writer must immerse herself in the science and then extricate herself, to see the humanity behind the scientists’ quest to know about the greater world. An author must understand why scientists claim to resolve big ideas through minutiae, but she must also understand their drive to do so. For writers, the stakes of science are incomprehensible, so the subject is hard to dramatize. For working scientists, there is usually too much at stake to fictionalize the work. C. P. Snow was still too implicated by his experiments to improve The Search. I was not yet disinterested enough about science to fictionalize it well.

Science is clarifying, as most science writing strives to be. Literature has other motives. C. P. Snow could not reconcile the two. But that does not mean that good literature cannot be about science. My fiction about real scientists was crude, yet it should be possible to write about fictional scientists well.

It is. This past spring at the University of Texas, I taught a seminar called The Literature of Science. The students were all majoring in one of the natural sciences, but most were also enrolled in an honors program that trained them in the humanities. They were bright, eager, and thoughtful students who were passionate about science, and they wanted to learn how to communicate it. I wanted to show them that it was possible through novels, comics, plays, poems, and essays.

I did not know of many exemplars of science in literature, so I searched for specimens from each genre. The first novel I assigned was The Search by C. P. Snow. I was surprised by just how many other, better texts I found, however, many of which are listed on the website LabLit. There are indeed many authors who write about science using the devices of literature, despite the difficulty of the task. My students were surprised, too.

So here is a quick list, in no particular order, of some of the authors whose writing was such a surprise: Andrea Barrett, Richard Powers, Thomas McMahon, Primo Levi, Rebecca Goldstein, J. M. Ledgard, Rebecca Elson, Tom Stoppard, Michael Frayn, Rivka Galchen, Leslie Jamison, Stephen Jay Gould, Atul Gawande, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Lewis Thomas, Rebecca Skloot, Eula Biss, Carl Djerassi, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Lisa Randall, G. H. Hardy, James Gleick, Elizabeth Kolbert, James Watson, Jeremy Bernstein, Freeman Dyson, Richard Feynman, Richard Rhodes, Richard Holmes, Hope Jahren, Karl Iagnemma, Janna Levin, E. O Wilson, Sean Carroll (both of them), Helen MacDonald, and Ed Yong.

Some of these authors were raised in the culture of science. Others were nurtured by the culture of literature. But each of these writers was fluent enough in the language of both to be a sensitive translator of science.


[1] And that is why it is unsurprising that neither Jamie Zvirdin nor her former physics professor performed much better than a monkey when picking the titles of papers in the game arXiv vs. snarXiv. Those titles are largely taken from papers about theoretical high-energy physics, a niche specialty. When I played the game for the first time, I answered 20 out of 25 correctly, good for 80%, which was just a little better than a monkey, according to the game because, according to the game, it was the level of a second-year grad student. But that is exactly the level that I would have expected to reach. I was indeed a graduate student in theoretical high-energy physics. In other words, I was once the audience for such titles, so they held meaning for me. Even those I mistook, most times, could have easily been actual titles.
[2] And science ideas themselves are often employed as metaphors, for instance by Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, John Updike, and Ian McEwan.

Comments from other contributors to the Poetics of Science online discussion:

L. Shapley Bassen: So much to quote! “I moved to New York and toiled as an editor at a popular science magazine, which won a few awards in the few years before it went defunct.” (Was that the superb The Sciences?) “An author does not need to be a physicist to write about physics.” This reminded me of when a poem of mine (“Physicists at the Beach”) prompted a journal editor to ask if I were a physicist. (Not.) “But like professional translators, those who communicate science best speak the two languages fluently, abstractions and all.” (True:) “. . . a life of science is so foreign to most people that it can already read as fiction.” “This past spring at the University of Texas, I taught a seminar called The Literature of Science . . . I was surprised by just how many . . . texts I found . . . listed on the website LabLit.” I’d add Iain Pears (whose Arcadia I reviewed earlier this year). Though not “a magisterial novel about science,” and otherwise teased as partially sci fi, Pears’s collage of forms treats science as mainstream rather than genre. “I am currently writing my first book, the story of particle physics throughout the twentieth century . . . I no longer believe that I can explain physics in a way that edifies except as the story of the human endeavor that made the science.” Really looking forward to this . . . title?

Joshua Roebke: I have been teaching every day this summer, so I have not followed these conversations as closely as I would have liked. But I submitted the final grades for my course earlier today and hurried over to join the discussion.

I grew up reading The Sciences, but I am too young to have worked there. I would also add Iain Pears to the list of authors who surprised me, but I read his novel “An Instance of the Fingerpost” so long ago that the science in it slipped my mind. As for my own book, the title will be The Invisible World. It will be published by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux as soon as I can finish it. Hopefully, that will be pretty soon.

Alice Major: I particularly like the idea of science writing as a process of translation. As a poet using science as a source of inspiration, I feel as though I’m part of vast translation effort to make human discoveries meaningful to human beings. (Though I’m certainly not a native speaker of science and really need the physicists or biologists who can take the highly technical and turn it into something I can grasp.)

We often talk condescendingly about how translation is inherently flawed. Something is always lost, we say—the disappeared music of a poem’s original language. The misrepresentation of scientific data by bumbling amateurs.

But this obscures the fact that a great deal is found in translation, too. The translator’s starting question is “What does this mean?” Fundamentally, a translator has to believe there is something comprehensible that underlies widely different kinds of language, and that it can be conveyed across the gap. We’re all trying to identify the necessary, comprehensible concepts that make sense of the the world and put them in appropriate context.

Scientists work to understand things like the nature of physical matter or the tangle of genetic history. Artists try to apply such findings to the central human experiences—birth and death, the natural world, the social environment—in order to translate concepts like an expanding universe or evolution into meaning for individual lives. In the process, much more is found than lost.

Joshua Roebke: Alice, I am very glad that you like the idea of science writing as translation. You are right; people do speak condescendingly about the flaws inherent to translation, but I never would. I worked for a short time as a translator and, as you say, I found as much meaning and resonance and poetry as I ever lost when translating words. In fact, I don’t believe that I ever failed to find a reasonable approximation in English to what was originally said in another language. People make too much of words and cultural artifacts that are impossible to translate. They also make to much of scientific concepts that can never be understood. The book about theoretical physics that I am writing now feels very much like the work that I did as a translator. I am just hunting for the best words to approximate the meaning and the beauty of the original text.

L. Shapley Bassen: Josh and Alice . . . Glad someone also remembers The Sciences . . . I’ll be watching for The Invisible World. Good gift for my scientific brother & nieces (Shapley surname)—ditto literary me & husband who wrote a Y/A novel about metasapiens: This Poetics of Science conversation is going well, I think . . . hope KR eventually puts it together, possibly w/the Sept issue, as a book of some sort. I’d love to keep everyone’s comments together in one place to revisit.