‘Put yourself in the story’ is the advice most often given to non-fiction writers, though like all advice, it’s easier said than done. The problem is that everyone’s heard of the unreliable narrator, so the moment you start wielding the upright pronoun your readers’ suspicions are aroused. The authorial ‘I’ has made sceptics of us all, which is why I was surprised to find that scientists – for whom reliability is everything – habitually write from the first-person point of view.
In its earliest days science was communicated via personal correspondence, in which experiments and observations were described in everyday terms. One of my favourite examples is that of the 19th-century German physicist Agnes Pockels. Institutionally, she was a complete outsider; she taught herself from borrowed textbooks (German universities did not admit women), and spent most of her early adulthood at home caring for her disabled parents. She did a lot of washing up over the years, and became fascinated by the complex behaviour of soapy dishwater; she built a simple piece of apparatus (now known as the Pockels trough) with which she demonstrated that the surface tension of a liquid was greatly reduced by the presence of organic impurities: the greater the concentration of impurities, the greater the reduction in surface tension. Pockels found no mention of this in the scientific literature, but in the course of her reading she discovered that Baron Rayleigh, Professor of Natural Philosophy at Cambridge, had begun a similar line of inquiry, so she wrote him a letter in which she laid out her kitchen-sink findings, describing herself as ‘a nobody’ and trusting that she wasn’t wasting his time. To his credit, Rayleigh saw the merit of Pockels’s work, and published her letter in the journal Nature, with an introductory note pointing out that these results had been achieved by an amateur autodidact using basic home-made equipment.
I included the Pockels-Rayleigh correspondence in my recent anthology, The Art of Science, a collection of mostly first-person pieces chosen to reflect the diverse cultural situations in which scientific knowledge has been made. Many of these pieces read like ideas for short stories. Robert Wood’s account of the notorious ‘N-rays’ deception, for example, resembles a hardboiled detective yarn, complete with a skulking accomplice who watches from the shadows as our hero solves the mystery through a series of cunning ruses:
The assistant commenced to turn the wheel, and suddenly said hurriedly to Blondlot in
French, “I see nothing; there is no spectrum. I think the American has made some
dérangement.” Whereupon he immediately turned up the gas and went over and
examined the prism carefully. He glared at me, but I gave no indication of my
reactions. This ended the séance, and I caught the night train for Paris.
‘The night train for Paris’: this is science by way of Dashiell Hammett. Or take Alfred Russel Wallace’s description of his antics in pursuit of Malaysian butterflies. The image of him lunching in a jungle clearing as his hired man clambers among the rocks with a net is like something out of Saki or Somerset Maugham, with Wallace cast as a perspiring British nabob in the grip of a private mania.
‘Oh, what a fool I’ve been to neglect science all these years,’ as the French novelist Érik Orsenna recently remarked, ‘for natural history is the mother of every form of history, every sort of story, the novel of all novels.’ He’s right: observational science is an inherently narrative enterprise, a variety of story-telling that seeks to make sense of the world. Science writers are among the most creative writers there are, not least because they are obliged to invent the language as they go along. Marie Curie came up with the term ‘radioactivity’ to describe the stream of particles released by unstable atomic nuclei, and it is hard to imagine the twentieth century imagination without it. Robert Hooke coined the word ‘cell’ in 1665 while looking at a piece of cork through his home-made microscope – the honeycomb structure apparently reminded him of the rows of cells in a monastery – while Richard Owen invented the word ‘dinosaur’ to describe the long-extinct ‘terrible lizards’ that so haunted the Victorian imagination.
Scientific language is an open mine of similes and evocative turns of phrase: Coleridge attended lectures at London’s Royal Institution in order, he said, ‘to renew my stock of metaphors.’ One evening, while writing in his poet’s journal after witnessing a demonstration of phantom paralysis, he coined the term ‘psychosomatic’ as a way of making sense of what he had seen. I love the accidental poetry of empirical naming, and included a lot of examples in my anthology, although one of the pieces that I was saddest to leave out was John McPhee’s awed encounter with mineralogical nomenclature from his 1981 book Basin and Range, a taxonomic wunderkammer that opens with a delirious stream of hardcore geology-speak: ‘I used to sit in class and listen to the terms come floating down the room like paper planes . . . Metakirchheimerite, phlogopite, katzenbuckelite, mboziite, noselite, neighborite, samsonite, pigeonite, muskoxite, pabstite, aenigmatite. Joesmithite.’ A dazzling array, though McPhee’s enchantment was not with the language of science so much as the language of specialization, with the esoteric jargon used by geological initiates as a means of avoiding ambiguity.
But not all science participates in this linguistic Mardi Gras. I recently made friends with a British mathematician who spends four months of the year as a visiting professor at a prestigious American university. The rest of his time, as far as I can tell, is spent reading detective novels, listening to music and sampling preposterous cuisine (he invited me along to the opening night of a Turkish offal restaurant in Dalston, where he began by ordering a ‘sharing platter’ of sautéed lamb’s testicles, which weren’t nearly as unpleasant as they sound). His doctoral thesis, which took five years to write, caused something of a stir among his examiners, and it quickly propelled him to the highest level of theoretical mathematics. I told him I would be interested in seeing a copy of the celebrated thesis, and the next time we met (at a normal pub: my choice) he handed over a thin blue folder, in which was a stapled A4 document, 38 pages in total, including notes and bibliography. The text was mostly strings of mathematical formulae punctuated by the occasional clarification in words. ‘Is this it?’ I asked. ‘Five years’ work?’ He nodded. It was a strangely dispiriting object, improbably brief and entirely unreadable, except to the few dozen people in the world who were in any position to make sense of it.
I pointed to the title: “On Differentiable Manifolds in Negatively Curved Space.” ‘So what’s it about?’ I asked.
He shrugged. ‘It’s not really explainable,’ he said.
‘You mean I wouldn’t understand it.’
‘I mean it isn’t really explainable in words. And no, you wouldn’t understand it.’
In the end he drew me a diagram that looked like the cross-section of a bagel, and then another diagram that looked like a slightly different cross-section of a bagel. He pointed to the second one. ‘That’s what got the Riemann lot up in arms,’ he said. ‘They were absolutely furious, but in the end they had to concede.’ I nodded, having understood none of it. Suddenly I remembered a T-shirt slogan that was popular in the mid-1970s. ‘There are only 10 types of people in the world,’ it read: ‘Those who understand binary mathematics and those who don’t.’