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Failures aren’t mentioned in journals
Dr Christopher John McCabe (left) interacts with a student

It is universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife, wrote Jane Austin in Pride and Prejudice. “Had she been a scientist she would have put it in a different manner, and would have simply stated ‘A rich man needs a wife,’” said Dr Christopher John McCabe from the University of Birmingham while speaking on ‘Scientific and unscientific English’ at the Heritage Institute of Technology (HIT), Calcutta, on October 21. In his lecture, organised by the British Council, McCabe shared his views on the language of science and fiction with the students and faculty of the HIT.

A lecturer in medicine at Birmingham University by day and a novelist by night, McCabe quoted from English classics and translated them into scientific language to demonstrate the differences. “With its own inherent beauty, the language of science is tight, ordered, sharp, focused and straightforward,” he said. “But at the same time, it bears the risk of making science too mystified to understand.”

McCabe admitted that when he flipped through the pages of some journals he hardly understood anything. But, he pointed out, scientific writing can be an art in its own way. It is nothing but a story, so it can be well defined and rigidly structured. In a research paper, an investigator actually describes his or her journey through experiments which leads to the findings and conclusions. “You get the finished product,” commented McCabe, adding that in the standard format of a research paper, a scientist gives an account of successful experiments, well-supported conclusions, but reveals little of his or her failures.

The situation was best described by physicist Richard Feynman in his Nobel lecture in 1965. According to him, scientists have a habit of writing articles published in journals to make their work as finished as possible without worrying about the blind alleys, or describing how they got the wrong idea first. There isn’t any place to publish all that in a dignified manner.

The same situation prevails for a novel. “It doesn’t tell you how the characters develop, how many times a novelist scratches out his writing, how painstakingly he makes a search for the right word,” McCabe said. “Science and literature both rarely move in a straight line. We must take the chaos and give it order.”

McCabe began his debut in literature in 1998 with the novel Stickleback. His second novel Paper was published in 1999. He did’t rate it highly. “It is over-narrative, lacks focus and is over-burdened with too many sub-plots,” he said. “The same defects can also make science writing uninteresting.”

As a geneticist, McCabe heads a group of researchers who look for the cause and molecular mechanism of thyroid cancer. Their work focuses on two proteins ' PTTG and PBF ' which are responsible for the disease. PTTG binds with the chromosomes and regulates cell division. With a high level of PTTG, cells divide with an unequal distribution of chromosomes which ultimately leads to cancer. An excess of PTTG and PBF also enhances the chance of recurrence of the disease even after radiation or medicinal treatments. These two proteins can also induce colorectal cancer if overproduced in the respective organs.

Although he has 35 research papers to his credit, McCabe hardly leaves any room for genetics in his novels. He writes what he says “light, comedic fictions”. Paper describes the compulsive behaviour of a 30-year-old forensic scientist who is highly qualified, hard working, but incompetent and chaotic.

Commenting on the absence of science in his literary works McCabe said, “It’s a deliberate choice. The anarchy and chaos of my evening writing is a perfect antidote to a day of precise thinking.” McCabe has recently been awarded the ‘Dream Time Award’ by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) for exploring how science affects language and vice versa.

Blending science with literature is an uphill task, McCabe argues. “I want to discuss science through literature,” he comments. “But I don’t want to sacrifice the passion for a theory. As a writer I always encourage scientists and litterateurs to learn from each other.” (Srabanti Basu)

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