This is part of a series of posts inspired by the Royal Society’s One Culture festival of literature and the arts.
Guest post by Annabel Slater, digital volunteer
Sunetra Gupta is Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at Oxford University. This was already known to me – I remembered her lectures on the spread of various infectious diseases, during my days as a Biological Sciences undergraduate. What I hadn’t been aware of at the time, however, is that Sunetra Gupta is a fiction writer as well as a research scientist, with five published books to her name. Her most recent novel, So Good in Black, was published in 2009, in the same year that she received the Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award for her scientific research.
Speaking at the Royal Society’s One Culture literary festival, Sunetra delivered a different kind of lecture to the ones I had heard before, on the use of narratives in science and literature. While using narrative to tell a story seems an obvious tool of literature, it was unusual to think of a scientific paper as telling a story. Nonetheless, as Sunetra pointed out, we are a story-telling species. We use our in-built sense of narrative to draw connections and causality between events in fiction, and in reality. In scientific research, too, scientists strive to draw connections between different experiments. Nor does science contain only linear narratives – a hypothesis may be suggested, challenged, and modified by the end of a scientific paper, and changes in mainstream theory are a feature of scientific progress.
Sunetra said she did not feel a personal conflict between her activities in science and literature, and that they were ‘united’ in her. But she suggested one major difference between thinking for research and thinking for her books lay in the use of language. Taking words as the basic building block of language, there are clear differences in structure and word choice between a research paper and a fiction story. Science emphasises precision and conciseness, with its own preferences for punctuation and tense. Yet the literary arts can utilise ambiguity, modify meaning and the distance between a word and the real-world object it describes, and allow the author to indulge their own taste in punctuation (here, Sunetra confessed that she despises the full-stop).
Still, does a loss of ambiguity in expression equal a loss of beauty? Not at all. Sunetra compared a diagram of a haemoglobin molecule, a complex squiggle of precise drawing accompanied by neat, tiny labels, to a sample of lushly descriptive prose from So Good in Black. To her, both had their own characteristics, and their own beauty. Both are creative depictions of a kind of reality.
Besides, neither art nor science needs to discriminate against the other. She ended her talk with a quote from Mark Rothko, painter of large canvases featuring ambiguous rectangular shapes.
“I’m not an abstractionist. I’m not interested in the relationship of colour or form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.”
Following the event, I had the opportunity to question her about her approach to both fiction and science – click here to listen to our conversation (mp3).