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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research Special Issue - March 2004   
 Science and the world, art and the ego
 The enigma of knots
 The beauty of maths
 The mysteries of a mutant art
 Research in all its aspects
 Intuition and fantasy
 The seventh art
 Crossed ideas
 The paradoxes of perception
 Experiencing science through art
 Museums of the digital age
 Europe, researchers and cultural heritage

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Title  Science in fiction

In addition to science fiction, which fantasises about the future of science, there is also just fiction. A genre in which the novelist can give free rein to his imagination and – whether situating the events in the past, present or future – present the adventures of science to fascinating effect. 

© Roger-Viollet
© Roger-Viollet

The physicist Richard Feynman, when asked to sum up his research in just three minutes of radio airtime, replied that if that were possible he would not have been awarded a Nobel Prize. It is in the nature of scientific discourse to be complex and protracted. So how can novelists work with a subject matter which can be so difficult to discern? The solution lies in the fact that writers are free to treat subjects as they see fit: selecting what suits the purpose, giving it a particular slant, and presenting it in a context of his or her own creation. Novelists do not demonstrate, but simply present, reconstituting elements of reality in line with laws of their own making. Subjects are chosen according to the imagination and they are then processed or 'digested'. Did not Marcel Proust, who had a taste for metaphors taken from science, once say that 'To include theory in a novel would be like leaving the price tag on an ornament’? 

Ulterior motives
When a writer turns to the scientific world, it is usually with an ulterior motive. According to Christine Maillard, professor of German literature and civilisation at the March Bloch University (Strasbourg, FR), two principal types of motivation can be identified. A first group includes writers seeking to make a social, ideological or individual criticism of science. In their works, ecological balances, ethical choices or the mental health of individuals are analysed in terms of their social impact. The scientist is often presented as an individual suffering from serious psychological problems who is unable to form relationships with others. The novelist sounds a warning against the excesses of a certain form of scientism. Writers such Michel Houellebecq (Elemental particles), Zadie Smith (White Teeth), Bernard Werber (The Ultimate Secret) and David Lodge (Thinks…) all write of the 'dehumanising' effects of a science taken to the extreme. 

A second group includes writers who are engaged in a more philosophical approach to the nature of scientific knowledge and its limitations, its links with other types of approach – even with nature and reality itself – its unity or its 'knowability'. These writers call into question the very legitimacy of the scientific approach as well as its status in relation to other human activities. Some very major writers fall into this category, notably Robert Musil (Man Without Qualities), Tomas Mann (The Magic Mountain), Hermann Broch (The Sleepwalkers), Georges Perec (Life, user's manual), Raymond Queneau (Petite cosmogonie portative) and Umberto Eco (Foucault's Pendulum).

Freedom of association
In both approaches – critical or epistemological – the novelist brings into play knowledge taken from various sources. The same narrative space can bring together disciplines which academic organisations may keep totally separate. The English writer Percy Shelley considered the writer's task as absorbing new scientific knowledge to transform it into a new basis for human thought. 'That is to say,' continues Christine Maillard, 'that the novel is perhaps, by vocation, the transdisciplinary space which scientists need when they advance even more into specialisations.' 'Since science has grown wary of general explanations, as well as any solutions other than the sectorial or the specialised, literature must pick up the challenge and learn how to weave together various forms of knowledge and codes to create a vision of a plural and complex world,' observed Italo Calvino, a renowned Italian author.

   This is what certain contemporary novelists seek to do in major works which present a multi-faceted fresco. In Habitus, James Flint links mathematical and computing concepts to ideas from the realms of spirituality, games of chance, biology and psychology, while Harry Mulisch, in The Discovery of Heaven, mixes archaeology, astronomy, music and religion. Literature also confronts scientists with an image of themselves, providing criticism where self-criticism may be lacking and questioning scientific knowledge in the wider context of human thought rather than against its own criteria.

What is true of the various disciplines is also true of the different levels of thought. Whereas the sciences separate out, sort, rationalise and simplify in a manner which is in fact artificial, the novel remains true to the inextricable interlocking of the real. This is what Jean-François Chassay of the University of Quebec in Montreal has to say: 'The activity of scientific thought does not consist of reason alone, but also of other ingredients, often very difficult to grasp, sometimes particularly trivial. Switching from Schrödinger's equations to Yvonne's legs is no doubt not very noble. But triviality is an ingredient of the functioning of thought which cannot exist without intermingling.' In other words, the novel is sufficiently 'confused' for knowledge and emotions to be able to communicate freely within it. As such it is rather like a common trunk from which the various branches of organised knowledge shoot off, at the risk of being lost from sight.

'It is easy enough to believe there is a common root,' continues Jean-François Chassay. ‘Any scientific approach is constructed around the notion of a hypothesis which could be viewed as a fiction, until an experiment can adequately prove or disprove it. In this sense, one could say that science is the daughter of fiction. It takes specific paths to explore its intuitions, but the fact remains that a scientist without a hypothesis is as lost as a writer without an imagination.'   

Lives and adventures 
Compared with specialist publications, the novel has the advantage of being able to reach a much wider public. A good example of this is the way Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World 'popularised' philosophy. Similarly, the writer who is able to relate science in words, stories and intrigues is in a position to help overcome resistance and generate a passionate interest in the subject – be it the life of ants or the exploration of Mars – on the part of the very people who may have discarded their science books. When one looks at it closely, science can be seen as a novel, but the practices of communication and education very often go no further than to transmit anaesthetised results. Reading the works of writers such as Bertolt Brecht (The Life of Galileo), Michael Frayn (Copenhagen), Daniele Del Giudice (Western Atlas), Michael Paterniti (Driving Mr Albert) – and many others who communicate the passion of their characters, can help in the rediscovery of a passion for science – a passion without which science – as reasonable as it may claim to be – would be nothing.

Printable version

  Bouvard and Pécuchet

The uncompleted novel Bouvard and Pécuchet is Flaubert's last work. Based on a vast amount of documentation, full of scientific references, summaries of treatises and extracts from encyclopaedias, the novel presents two anti-heroes who ...

  Bouvard and Pécuchet

The uncompleted novel Bouvard and Pécuchet is Flaubert's last work. Based on a vast amount of documentation, full of scientific references, summaries of treatises and extracts from encyclopaedias, the novel presents two anti-heroes who are passionately interested in all fields of knowledge. When they suddenly inherit a house in Normandy, these Paris clerks set up a chemistry laboratory, engage in agronomic experimentation, study geology and palaeontology, and seek to acquire medical knowledge. Everything fascinates them, but not for long. As they move from failure to failure, from disaster to disaster, Flaubert is able to present, to quote his own words 'a critical encyclopaedia in the form of a farce'. In a century in which science and progress are never free of doubt, Bouvard and Pécuchet, as absurd as they are touching, overturn – without wanting to – all certainties.