Literature = art + science

In the second of our articles examining the relationship between factual and fictional writing, non-fiction writer, and now novelist, Rebecca Abrams, considers attitudes to science and literature


February 12, 2009
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Rebecca Abrams

Rebecca Abrams

Late in life, Benjamin Disraeli was asked to account for his transformation from young dandy-about-town to sombre Victorian politician. He replied: “The English prefer their statesmen like their weather — cold and grey.” Until very recently, the same could be said of how the English like their scientists. No emotion, please, we’re British.

Unlike artists, who are positively encouraged to be colourful mavericks, possessed of unstable sanity, dubious dress sense, multiple wives and countless offspring, we like our scientists to be models of unsullied intellectual pursuit. A century of American scientists, the majority of them Jewish immigrants to the States, many of them flamboyant characters to say the least, went a long way to overturning that stereotype, but what has persisted is the curiously robust assumption that science is the preserve of truth, fiction is mere invention, and never the twain shall meet.

It will be no surprise that, among the contributors to this year’s Jewish Book Week, scientific writers are fairly thin on the ground. Jonathan Miller, Susan Greenfield, David Goldstein, Moacyr Scliar, Dannie Abse, Vivienne Parry, and that’s it. Clearly the scarcity of scientists in the JBW line-up is not a reflection of the contribution of Jewish scientists to contemporary society, in Britain or abroad. Close to half the Nobel Prize winners for science have been Jews and the 20th-century roll-call of famous scientists is dominated by Jewish names. Equally clearly, many Jewish scientists are also wonderful writers. Think of Robert Winston, Lawrence Krauss, Brian Greene, the late Stephen Jay Gould, or the incomparable Richard Feynman.

Furthermore, of the many writers appearing at JBW 2009, only a tiny minority have chosen science as their theme. Considering the rich metaphorical pickings to be found in science, and the rich tradition of Jewish scientists, you’d expect far more Jewish writers to have been inspired by science and its infinite ambiguities. Yet, with a few notable exceptions, such as Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, Jewish literature has tended to steer clear of scientific subjects. Though doctors crop up regularly, hard-core science does so very rarely.

Maybe science is not thought suited to exploring the subjects that preoccupy Jewish writers today. If so, I hope the stunning Omega Minor, by Belgian novelist and psychologist Paul Verhaeghen, will induce them to reconsider.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said that the world stands on three pillars: justice, truth and peace. As a novelist, I found a powerful vehicle for exploring at least two of these abidingly Jewish themes, in the true story of Alexander Gordon, an 18th-century Scottish physician.

An unsung medical hero, who discovered germ theory a century before Lister and the cause of postpartum sepsis a half-century before Semmelweiss, Gordon was a brilliant scientist tragically ahead of his time. Despite his discoveries, or rather because of them, Gordon was forced to make hard choices: to remain true to his professional beliefs and integrity, or to protect the lives of loved ones and ensure his own survival.

In anatomising a disease, he was forced to anatomise the nature and cost of truth itself. Quite apart from the fascinating and fast-changing world of 18th-century science, the parallels between Gordon’s situation and that of Jews throughout history who have faced persecution for their beliefs fascinated me. And, in the story of Gordon’s wife, Elizabeth, the child of Caribbean slave owners, I saw parallels with the children of Nazis, forced to own a terrible legacy that was not of their own making. Touching Distance, to my mind, is a novel about science suffused with Jewish concerns set in a non-Jewish context.

It is over 200 years since the philosopher David Hume framed his famous dictum, “reason is the slave of the passions”. His words articulated a tension that lay at the heart of Enlightenment thinking and which has plagued us ever since. As scientific discovery gathered pace from the late 18th century on, the Age of Enlightenment tipped into 19th-century Romanticism, and passion and reason moved steadily apart, the now-familiar stereotypes emerged: the rational, detached scientist, coolly gathering data on the one hand; the passionate artist, wandering lonely as a cloud, all heart and little sense, on the other.

Never mind that history is full of marvellously impassioned scientists, driven as much by fanatical impulse as cool-headed curiosity. Never mind that to write a novel such as War and Peace takes phenomenal emotional discipline and intellectual stamina. A mistrust still persists of anything that looks like fact in forms of writing that are not easily recognisable as factual.

Yet science is as vulnerable to error as any other human enterprise, and the long path to scientific progress is mired with false reasoning, political cover-ups and interpersonal intrigues. Anyone in any doubt about this should read Longitude by Dava Sobel, or better still, E= Mc2 by David Bodanis. And isn’t this precisely what makes science such a great subject for fiction?

It’s really all the fault of Hippocrates who declared: “Science and opinion are twain; the one makes for knowledge, the other for ignorance,” an assertion that put literary scribblers firmly in their place for centuries before, and long after, Hume. Albert Einstein eventually set the record straight with his provocative assertion: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Another Nobel prize-winning scientist, Linus Pauling, finally nailed this heart/mind split into its coffin when he wrote, “Satisfaction of one’s curiosity is one of the greatest sources of happiness in life.” In science and literature, both.

‘Touching Distance’ by Rebecca Abrams is published by Macmillan. Rebecca Abrams’s talk at JBW 2009, ‘Passion for Science’, is on February 24. She will also be in conversation with Suzanne Franks about ‘the mysterious world of teenagers’ on March 1. Paul Verhaeghen will speak about his novel ‘Omega Minor’ on March 1

    Last updated: 11:57am, March 31 2009