Saturday, December 30, 2006

Fecundity out of repression

The title is from a thoroughly enjoyable essay by chemists Roald Hoffmann and Pierre Laszlo on scientific conversations:
Here is a question we believe probably one should not ask, especially a young scientist should not ask in a scientific conversation: "Do you understand?" On the face of it, what could be more honest and straightforward? The speaker, who may have just presented a difficult concept, or spoken too quickly, has sensed a nonverbal response on the part of his audience/ listener, and is stating that he or she is willing to explain things again. But the question, unless asked in just the right tone, and between people of equal status or confidence, may be just as problematic as the question "Do you love me?" If it has to be asked, it may be too late.

-"The Say of Things," Hoffmann and Laszlo, Social Research, Fall 1998

I had an interesting question put to me recently about how scientific and literary narratives differ. Since I'm unnecessarily literal and have never written scientific narrative, I went to the library and read some core works in the rhetoric of science. For those in the know, or whose idea of fun needs fine-tuning, that'd be rhetoricians of science like Charles Bazerman, Alan Gross, and Greg Myers, plus a couple of sociologists: Steven Shapin, Bruno Latour.

The reading suggests something interesting, I think, about why science doesn't show up more as an everyday part of conversation in literary fiction. All the writers focus on how scientific journal articles are argumentative, and the writers with a more historical bent look at why and how scientific journal writing developed that way.

The evolution, as these writers tell it, has 17th-c. natural philosophers beginning to argue in print with each others' remarks and suppositions about how nature works, and retreating to increasingly careful and precisely-described experiments to support their claims. Personality recedes in favor of experiment. After a few decades, the scientists leave the pedestrian world of "x works like y," the claims grow broader about the relationships between things in the natural world, and the experiments are designed to support these large statements. The arguments get fiercer, narrower, the scientists' "I" recedes far, far into the background; forms get more rigid, the audiences get more sharply defined. We land in the world of the zillion-endnotes Journal of Scientific Subfield article with heavy combat among referees, editors, and scientists on everything from punctuation to the permissable breadth of claims, given the scientists' place in scientific society.

Sounds like a reasonable enough progression to me, given a mechanistic conception of the universe. If you presume things work in some orderly, objectively explainable fashion, and you say, "It goes like____," someone else will likely argue, and you're off to the races. There can be no legitimate retreat from argument into subjectivity, no fuzzy "This is how I see it," (followed by jumble of half-baked historical references capped with assertion of the artist's absolute right to call it as he feels it). Which is what happens, I think, in worldview arguments in fiction.

So assume that's really how scientific narrative goes. Why, then, would such narratives be amenable to use in fiction? It seems to me that fiction deals mostly with public conversations that are not tightly constructed. What do you owe your mother? Who is a stranger? How is it possible to live with other people? Is there any such thing as a person? Loose ends, hardly anything but loose ends.

If the scientific story says, "X is true, supported by y, z, 3," then I wonder what the novel can do with it. (Particularly since the novelist is not placed to argue with this scientific statement.) The novel can blink and keep walking, which is, I think, what happens most of the time. Or it can say, "Oh, well, if X is true, then the social implications might be ______," which lands you in the realm of speculative fiction. Or -- if it is a more literary novel -- it can lift some aesthetically striking or resonant part of X, ignore the science, and attach social or psychological meanings to the scavenged bit -- the strange horrors of being subject to clocks, for instance. But in none of these is there really conversation between science and the novel.

I'm thinking also of scientific images that end up in mass media, which is where fiction writers generally see them. If scientific images are originally framed for use in argument, I bet it's unlikely the scientists doing external PR try to tear them down and reframe them for other kinds of conversation -- literary conversation, or loose public conversation. I would guess they try instead to repackage the images in either simplified-educational form or art-photo form -- consider Felice Frankel's work. Something that will sell, something that will be recognizeable as science. If this is how it goes, I see no reason to expect that the arguments and conversations implicit in the images -- however strange or beautiful -- would engage well with the world outside professional science's formal combat. Which may be why these images seem so curiously mute, and why they're so difficult to use in stories.

All of this brings me back to Hoffmann and Laszlo's essay, which is about kinds of conversations that go on in chemistry. They are impatient with the dispassionate journal essay, and describe with delight scientific conversations they've known as working chemists -- conversations with nature, conversations with students, conversations with other chemists. At the end they write:
Thinking about real value, if conversation is compensatory of repression—more open just because the written product of scientific work is so constrained—could it be that much more real discovery and creation takes place in conversations? We think so! It is the first place where one expresses understanding outside of the private confines of one's mind. The research group presentation is probably next, the writing of the paper the last, very important, place. The conversation—with a colleague, student to student—is where the ideas get expressed. And until they are expressed, in some way they are not real. The conversation reifies the idea; it selects in the mind of the researcher one possibility of many, it is the first existential act in science.
If these ideas are not already handmaiden to scientific argument -- if they aren't already constrained in the way of the journal article -- then maybe this is a place where novelists should talk with scientists. Maybe this would be more fecund than the novelist's seeing the carefully-produced images in the Tuesday New York Times. I wonder how that would be, and what sort of conversation might be possible.