Life, #1: Science and Sensibility

In her recent column ‘On Science, Emotions, and Culture (Part 1)’ at Strange Horizons, Vandana Singh offers the following quotation from Albert Einstein:

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.

This seems to me as good a place as any to begin our discussion of Life (2004) by Gwyneth Jones, the Future Classics book of the month for August (I know, I know). Because whatever else happens – and it really does all happen – to the novel’s protagonist, Anna Senoz, one of her touchstones remains her passion for science:

[W]hy do I work so hard? Why do I dream of doing something important, even if it’s something only another nerd would understand? It was inexplicable.

[…] They call me Mr Spock and think I’m unemotional: but I like marvels. I have a taste for extraordinary things. That’s why I’m here at the Forest University of Bournemouth, instead of in Manchester: why I’m doing Biology Foundation instead of specializing. I wanted to do something different, to see another world. And to know. I want to know my subject, not just get a job. She returned to her reading, thrilled by a romance and a magic that was invisible to Ramone. (33-34)

It’s a presentation of science – of the why of science, of the compulsion and fascination that keeps someone in the lab until anti-social-o’clock every evening – that perhaps isn’t communicated to the non-scientist world enough. For perfectly understandable reasons – on which I’d be very interested to get the input of Torque Control readers – science is so often thought of as the cold fish, the antidote to wonder. One of the things Life does so well, I think, is reminding us that this is not so: that there is an awe to be found in explanation, in understanding. (And also, of course, that such understanding may not always be comforting, or welcome.)

As an academic, albeit within a non-science field, I also found Jones’ exploration of how intellectual passions come into conflict with egos and institutions both telling and familiar. I’m not just talking about smug Charles Craft, Anna’s contemporary and rival at undergraduate level, whose insecure, destructive posturing Jones manages to draw with some sympathy and nuance even while making me want to kick him for every word that comes out of his mouth. It’s also there in the dynamics of every single one of the labs Anna works in later in her life: the hierarchies that must be maintained, the obstructive nonsense that must be obeyed; the supportive camaraderie and the petty backstabbing that both come with trying to pursue the objective among the hopelessly subjective. And let’s just say that the comment on the woeful inability of her doctoral supervisor, KM Nirmal, to provide anything approaching actual, well, supervision, rung far too many bells (“The better you are what you do, the more time you’re doomed to spend doing things you’re no good at” (98)). Not about my own (entirely splendid) supervisor, though, thankfully…

Being a woman in this environment carries its own set of challenges. Most obviously, during her doctorate Anna is sidelined for her pregnancy, which is taken – by Nirmal and others in the lab – to indicate a lack of dedication to Science on her part, a signal that she is on the “Mommy track” and will thus not put in the hours and never become a serious intellectual force. But the impact upon Anna of, as Ramone puts it, “being born female” (109) is felt in all manner of subtler ways. Charles Craft’s overwhelming and frankly undeserving sense of entitlement may make him deeply unpleasant – and unable to deal with competition from lesser beings without belittling mockery or brittle aggression, to boot – but it is hard to imagine him deciding not to defend his corner, and demand respect, when faced with someone else plagiarising his work (as he does to Anna), or the reflection of low status that is Anna’s below-minimum-wage stipend during her doctorate. Yet Anna has been trained not to call attention to herself; she knows, from everything she sees around her, that unlike men, women who rock the boat get remembered not as go-getters but as trouble-makers.

“No one likes a whistleblower, Simon. Not in any business. I’ve been thinking about it, while I walked. The cheating’s trivial, not worth worrying about. If I make a fuss the story might stick with me. I might never live it down; I’d be an awkward bugger.” (79)

It probably doesn’t help that on the occasions she tries to assert herself, and take control of and credit for her own work, she is slapped down; what is Charles’ rape of her, after all, but a reminder of her status – as an attractive object, so beautiful when she’s angry, not an intellectual equal (or superior) whose objections are to be taken seriously. I’ll discuss this, and how Anna’s reaction to such episodes contrast with Ramone’s, in the next post.

This setting of the science fictional – Anna’s personal mission to understand the phenomenon that she comes to call Transferred Y – within its social, human context, is of course central to the book’s purpose. Science does not stand alone, either in the way it is conceptualised and investigated, or in how it is understood and how its effects are felt; not just because there are limits to human rationality but no limits to the human capacity for denial (as the reaction to Transferred Y shows), but also because society is itself a complex organism. I’ll discuss the sfnal specifics of Anna’s discoveries, and the book’s examination of gender, in the last of these posts on Life. But I think there is room to start that discussion rolling now, in outline: how well do these twin aspects of the novel’s concerns mesh? In what ways do the ups and downs of the lives of Anna, Spence, Ramone and the rest reflect and comment upon the Big Ideas that the book sets out to broach?

Above all, does Life offer some answers to the questions that Singh poses at the end of her column?

Are only some emotions permissible in the culture of science[?] […] What is the connection, if any, between the paucity of female scientists and the culture of science? Is the content of science ever affected by the culture of scientific practice?

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