You don't need to understand the science bits, says Philip Ball, just what they represent

Can science work in literature? Even if you take the elitist view that science fiction of the space opera variety isn’t ‘real’ fiction, the list of serious writers who have drawn on scientific ideas seems to leave no room for doubt: Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, A S Byatt, Jeanette Winterson, to name a few of the most recent, in a tradition that stretches back at least to Aldous Huxley and H G Wells. Even chemistry, woefully neglected in this tradition, finds a literary champion in Primo Levi, and has been commandeered by the likes of Thomas Pynchon and Richard Powers.

But the real question is not whether some writers have dabbled with science, but whether the marriage works. On the one hand, scientists sometimes feel that literary writers simply seize on a few half-digested ideas and buzz words and bend them to their own ends with scant regard for accuracy. On the other hand, it is a rare author who can seamlessly blend their background reading in science into the narrative. All too often, even the best writers create ‘scientists’ who speak as though quoting from New Scientist. How does one incorporate scientific ideas without being obliged to give readers a mini-lecture on the subject? 

This touches on an old debate. ‘When science arrives’, said the English historian Goldworthy Lowes Dickinson in 1931, ‘it expels literature.’ The biologist Peter Medawar, one of the few scientists whose writings possessed genuine literary merit, concluded in 1968 that ‘science and imaginative writing are utterly incongruous, and the effect of combining them is merely absurd.’ 

What Medawar meant is that the ‘imaginative writing’ of poetry and literature necessarily involves a certain ambiguity of meaning. It delights, as Samuel Johnson said of the poet John Dryden, in treading ‘upon the brink of meaning, where light and darkness begin to mingle’. In science, that sort of thing is intolerable. One must make the meaning as clear as possible, even if the result is as dry as dust.  

Don’t panic 

But this is something of a false dichotomy. You don’t expect poetry in the pages of chemistry journals (not that sort, anyway), and neither do you expect footnotes and descriptions of methods in a novel or a poem. (Such things have happened nonetheless). I think part of the real difficulty with bringing science into literature stems from a mismatch of expectations. If the science is there for a reason, it needs to be explained. But once you start explaining, readers enter a non-literary mode of reading, and many panic, fearing they won’t understand. 

Can one get around this problem? The ideal solution is for the writing to be good enough that it doesn’t seem to be explaining anything at all. A central character in Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Gate of Angels is a physicist working in the Cavendish Laboratory around 1912, when Rutherford was there. The science is handled accurately but lightly: we are never ‘told’ about nuclear physics. But even so perceptive a writer as Julian Barnes confesses to being baffled by how Fitzgerald achieves this. When asked how she made similarly light work of the eighteenth-century German salt-mining industry in The Blue Flower, a novel about the scientist-turned-poet Novalis, Fitzgerald answered that she simply sat down and read the mining records (in German). 

Science v literature 

The alternative is an almost Brechtian ploy: to openly acknowledge the distinctions between scientific and literary discourse. Richard Powers does this in his novel Gain, which includes the equations of the Leblanc process for making soda in all their stoichiometric glory. Thomas Pynchon does it in Gravity’s Rainbow with casual talk of ‘aromatic heterocyclic polymers’. The point is not the science itself, but what it represents.  

I have taken this approach in my novel The Sun and Moon Corrupted, where I include equations and quotes from Einstein’s 1905 paper on special relativity that I’d never dream of putting into a popular-science exposition. Yet in my experience, no amount of heavy signposting will prevent some readers from still worrying that they ‘don’t understand the science bits’. It seems we are conditioned to look at anything scientific as though we were back at school anticipating an exam, even if we find it between the covers of a novel. 

Science is not alone in suffering from these anxieties - many people are deterred from contemporary art and music too because they fear there is something they are ‘supposed to understand’ but don’t. The problem surely lies somewhere in our education systems, made worse (in the UK, at least) by an obsession with tests. Unless that changes, science will continue to be seen as isolated from the rest of culture, and it will remain hard to fit it into fiction.