Do experiences outside the lab influence the way you do science? Could scientists, and science, benefit from looking outside their traditional sphere? The creating SPARKS festival held in London last month aimed to bring science and the arts together, and an evening discussion asked novelists and scientists: 'Can science and literature cross-fertilise?' The initial response was an emphatic 'yes'. However, finding specific examples of cross-fertilisation proved to be trickier than expected.
Maggie Gee, a Booker Prize judge and author of seven novels, recounted many examples of science's influence upon literature. It was uncontested that science has added value, in the form of rich plot lines, to fictional writing. But science tends to be portrayed as evil, and Gee hypothesised that this negative image arises from the secretive nature of scientific experimentation. Research has generally been carried out in laboratories and institutions, away from the gaze of the general public, generating an air of mystery and fear.
Booker-shortlisted novelist Jim Crace attempted to explain why the influence of literature upon science has been far less significant. Crace argued that because the training involved in science relies on facts alone and excludes the essential skills required by the writer--expression and storytelling--there is little room for integration.
One area where Crace felt the two fields could begin, and have begun, to mesh is in their style of presentation. Scientists (for example, Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene) have taken to using a more narrative style to relay scientific material. This style has been embraced by the general public, because it is a much more palatable way for the layperson to absorb science. Science has traditionally been presented in a very strict, factual manner, but a more literary approach to scientific writing attracts a wider audience and builds better understanding by the general public.
What do scientists think? Helen Haste, a psychologist at the University of Bath, suggested that the scientist and the writer actually have something fundamental in common: Regardless of the final product, be it experimental data or a novel, the root of both fields is the individual's ability to wonder. Lewis Wolpert, a professor of biology at University College, London, who has written six books and has recently become a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, was unfortunately not able to make it on that night. However, in a recent interview Wolpert said, "If you want to bring poets and novelists and playwrights together with scientists, I am very keen on that, because I really do feel they can contribute to understanding."
So it appears that greater interaction between the literary and the scientific worlds could be mutually beneficial. Based on a shared sense of wonder, writers could have access to fuel for their fantasies. By getting to know scientists, understanding their motivation, and seeing how science is done, writers might find laboratories less secretive places and, where science appears in novels, portray it in a better light. And scientists could learn from the writers how to present their work in the form of stories that capture the public imagination.