Friday, 19 December 2008

What do 'scientists' do?

I have been observing what people do at the Forum. Many people here describe themselves as social scientists. The snobby physicist part of me (and physicists can be terribly snobby about other scientists) says that any profession which feels the need to add the word ‘scientist’ to its name wants some sort of validation. Is this word used simply to add value and convey authority? What does the word ‘scientist’ actually mean?

When this word was first invented in the 1830s, it was used to express commonality between people who were groping their way towards an understanding of their surroundings. So, it could be seen as an identifying badge, to enable people to exchange information about processes as well as results.

But now it’s over-used, particularly by the media, with the result that it’s become a sort of monolithic entity that can shut out non-‘scientists’ because it conveys little understanding of the nature of the work done. For example (and these are all taken from the BBC website);

“Scientists probe matter at atomic level”

“Scientists discover the body of Copernicus”

“Scientists clone from frozen mice”

“Scientists try to track hedgehogs”

“Scientists meet for alien summit”

This overuse of the word covers up what people actually do. All these ‘scientists’ may (or may not) use a common methodology to do their job, but by lumping physicists in with economists, biologists, astronomers, archaeologists etc. we render invisible the very aspects of their jobs that are interesting and unique. And hardly anyone actually describes themselves as a ‘scientist’. The word doesn’t convey enough information.

This imprecision is irritating to me as an ex-astronomer, but also as a writer.

Fiction likes to use precise terms for its exploration. Good fiction feels more real and concrete than bad fiction. It tends to use more specific details and examples of external reality, and the reader can ‘see’ the end results better. But – there are differences in the way that ‘scientists’ and fiction writers use words. Fiction isn’t bothered about, in fact it revels in, the different pictures that different readers make with an author’s words. For all his forensically realist writing, Flaubert can only do so much to define Emma Bovary. My image of her is different to yours. The fictional process relies on the reader and is only completed in the reader’s head; an unread novel does not fully exist.

In contrast, when ‘scientists’ write, they aim to convey their experiments or theories with minimal imprecision so that anyone reading their descriptions should be able to share the same view of reality. So, is there always going to be a tension when writing about science in fiction when the processes of reading science and reading fiction are quite different?

Or does science writing always fail at some level? Does the person reading a scientific paper ever share the reality of the author? And does it even matter? Look at the debate over the meaning of the wave function in quantum mechanics. People argue over how much physical reality that function actually has. Is it real or just a mathematical device? It doesn’t stop people from solving the relevant equation and applying the results to ‘real’ life.

The uncertainty over the interpretation of quantum mechanics is cleverly exploited in ‘Copenhagen’ by Michael Frayn, a play which dramatises the (in)famous meeting between Heisenberg and Bohr in Nazi-occupied Denmark. Here the play gives multiple views of that meeting but never claims to offer the ‘truth’. It can’t. It’s a nice irony that Heisenberg and Bohr, two of the main architects of quantum mechanics, could not agree on the point of that meeting. Had Heisenberg gone there to tell Bohr about the Nazis’ plans to develop an atomic bomb? Or to get information from Bohr on the Allies’ plans?

It’s a much better fictional telling than ‘Einstein and Eddington’ (see my first blog entry) of how war and science impact on each other.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Naming things...

Why do we love words so much? Is there a gene responsible for the love of language?

There’s a lot of commentary on genes which seems to conflate the four bases with the alphabetic symbols used to describe them; A, C, G, and T. For example, I’ve read that ‘genes are made up of sequences of these four letters’. But at the risk of stating the obvious, bases are not letters, they’re acids. So are we confusing the thing with its symbol?

The statement ‘DNA behaves like a written instruction’ is a powerful analogy. But not everything is language. DNA is not a written instruction, and to say it is muddles the distinction between a thing and its name. Perhaps this is a hangover from the belief in magic, the power of the spell and the perception that to know a thing’s true or secret name was to have some power over that thing.

I think there is a related confusion over the reporting of a new gene being discovered and its role. Often we are presented with information on the name of a new gene with the implication that there is now an understanding of what that gene does. The naming of chemical elements, living organisms and genes allows us to structure and order our external world. But it does not necessarily explain it.

And I love the fact that there appears to be no order or structure in the way that genes are named. It seems that anarchy rules, and there are no naming conventions. By contrast, in astronomy only solar system objects get names, and now everything else just gets a rather prosaic mixture of letters and numbers, usually based on their coordinates and the catalogue in which they are listed. This wasn’t always so. Stars which are visible to the naked eye, and which therefore were identified and named before the invention of the telescope kickstarted astronomy in the West, tend to show the influence of medieval Arabic civilisations. There is a sort of palimpsest on the night sky, we look through a web of names and their associated civilisations when we look up at the stars.

So in the future, people will look at genes’ names and get a sense of the civilisation that produced them. They may ask themselves what on earth was meant by ‘radical fringe’, ‘mindbomb’, or ‘zinc finger’. They may try and infer something about the processes which produced these names. They may suggest that geneticists in the 21st century were using these names to convey secret messages to one another, to rebel against the authoritarian times in which they lived, or to provide an amusing counterpoint to the way that science was normally described at that time. I wonder what they’ll think…

Thursday, 4 December 2008

I've started work at the Genomics Forum

I’ve been at the Genomics Forum for a couple of weeks now, and I’ve spent some of that time trying to figure out what happens here. That may sound rude, but it’s not. According to its website, the Forum has been set up to ‘integrate the diverse strands of social science research…, develop links between social scientists and scientists working across the entire range of genomic science and technology, and connect research in this area to policy makers, the media and civil society in the UK and abroad.’

That’s a long shopping list, and I want to understand how the people here actually do join up all this… stuff. But first I need to figure out what the ‘stuff’ is. What is the science and what is the social science? Is the latter a sort of commentary on the former, to analyse its impact upon society etc?

Before I make any headway on that, I need to find out more about the science. I’m a scientist by training, but I know nothing about biology or genetics. I also know that I don’t want to read too much commentary on this science without first having a basic understanding of the science itself.

So I’ve been reading a dummy’s guide to genetics. For some reason I picture the twin strands of DNA as a zipper that is capable of being unzipped and zipped. I know that this is not a very good analogy, as all the teeth of a zipper are identical whereas it seems that the four types of “teeth” on a strand of DNA can only be matched so that A meshes with T and C with G. Perhaps I can come up with a more scientifically accurate and yet also nicely ‘literary’ analogy in the future.

And how do I think that the Forum will impact on my writing? I’m excited about working here because much of my writing looks at the same issues that people here are interested in. For example, I’m writing a series of short stories about people who migrate from one country to another. I want to explore how this experience changes them, their children and subsequent generations. How does someone ‘become’ British? Is it a consciously learned process? How do people adapt their behaviour? How is our identity affected by our genes? My family is Jewish and I’ve learnt that some ‘groupings’ of Jews (such as the Cohens) are more likely to share genes than others, and non-Jews. But there’s no straightforward link between being Jewish and one’s genetic make-up.

More generally, I’m keen to see if fiction can convey not only information about science itself, but also open up the process of doing science. There’s such a tension between the way that end results of (successful) science are portrayed, and the often messy and problematic route taken there.

For example (I chose this because it’s just been dramatised on TV with David Tennant), in 1915 Einstein published the general theory of relativity which immediately transformed our understanding of gravity and superseded Newtonian physics. But it was a theory, not proven. Sir Arthur Eddington was very keen to ‘prove’ that Einstein’s theory was ‘correct’, not only because of the aesthetics of this theory, but also because Einstein was German. Eddington, who was a Quaker and a pacifist, could see how this could be used to build bridges with Germany during and after the First World War.

He set up an experiment to distinguish between Einstein’s and Newton’s theories. But this was an extraordinarily difficult experiment to carry out, and much of the data are not convincing. Eddington discarded the data which corroborated Newton, managed to persuade the rest of the scientific community that the experiment was a success and proved Einstein correct.

But would the outcome of this experiment have been different if Eddington had not been a pacifist? Would it even have been carried out at all? It’s not clear how a strictly ‘scientific’ analysis of the problem could admit the influence of Eddington’s beliefs. But a fictional telling of the story could explore them.