Video, podcast, and summary: Science in Fiction



Hanya Yanagihara’s first book, the widely celebrated The People In The Trees, is loosely based on the life and work of Nobel Prize-winner physician and researcher D. Carleton Gajdusek. She joined author and physicist Alan Lightman, the first professor at MIT to receive a joint appointment in the sciences and the humanities, to discuss the unique challenges of respecting the exacting standards of science in fictional texts. Forum Co-Director Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus, moderated.


Hanya Yanagihara. Photo by Greg Peverill-Conti.

Hanya Yanagihara. Photo by Greg Peverill-Conti.

Hanya Yanagihara began this Communications Forum event by summarizing her critically acclaimed first novel, The People in the Trees. Based in part on the life of the infamous Nobel Prize-winning scientist, D. Carleton Gajdusek, the novel tells the story of a scientist who travels to a remote island in the South Pacific, where he finds a mysterious tribe of indigenous people who live for hundreds of years. Like Gajdusek, Yanagihara’s protagonist becomes an instant star for his discovery. Several decades later, he is charged with the abuse of an indigenous child that he had adopted. One of the questions the book poses, Yanagihara said, deals with “the line between a great scientist and a great man.”

Alan Lightman. Photo by Greg Peverill-Conti.

Alan Lightman. Photo by Greg Peverill-Conti.

Seth Mnookin, Associate Director of the Communications Forum, next introduced Alan Lightman. Lightman, the first professor at MIT to hold a joint appointment in the sciences and humanities, has written award-winning novels as well as numerous non-fiction books. His bestselling book Einstein’s Dreams describes a series of imaginary worlds, each of which represents a different conception of time. One of Lightman’s inspirations, he said, was Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, in which each chapter describes a different city. “I wanted to do for time what Calvino had done for space” Lightman said.

After these introductions, Mnookin asked the writers whether they felt a “responsibility for accurately describing scientific details” in fiction. Yanagihara, whose father was a research physician at the National Institute of Health when she was growing up, said that she wanted to pay homage to the bureaucratic, status-oriented culture she witnessed as a child. Yanagihara said that she wanted to recreate a very particular scientific culture, and in this way to pay homage to the bureaucratic, status-oriented culture of her childhood. Although People in the Trees is a work of fiction, the novel describes in realistic terms the culture of science in this period. Yanagihara said she thought it was necessary to include accurate scientific descriptions of, for instance, telomeres, because such details added plausibility to the story. She contrasted this approach to the genre of science fiction, which creates fantastic worlds. While People in the Trees has strong elements of fantasy, Yanagihara contends that truth and fact are important for “giving the reader something to hold on to.”

Lightman agreed with Yanagihara that accuracy in the depiction of scientific facts helps bolster believability in a fantastic world. He observed that when you’re basing a piece of fiction on a real scientist, the writer needs to take into account the fact that readers will possess biographical knowledge of the scientist. But, Lightman added, “when you’re creating art, you don’t have any obligations to anything.” To him, literature does not need to be a place to teach science; its purpose is to create an emotional response in the reader.

Seth Mnookin. Photo by Greg Peverill-Conti.

Seth Mnookin. Photo by Greg Peverill-Conti.

Mnookin asked about scientific illiteracy in general and the writer’s responsibility to communicate scientific ideas clearly to the public. Yanagihara agreed that scientific illiteracy is an enormous problem. One cause of this, she said, is the decline of “core curriculums” at liberal arts colleges. For instance, she said, despite attending a top school — Smith College in Northampton, MA — she had not received any math or science education since she was sixteen. Learning science is not only incredibly important in itself, she said, but it is important because it gives people different ways of looking at the world around them. Lightman elaborated on Yanagihara’s point, arguing that ways of thinking in the arts and humanities were fundamentally different from those in the sciences. To Lightman, the sciences are solutions-oriented, with research into “the well-posed problem.” The humanities and arts, on the other hand, pose questions that don’t have easy answers, and gravitate toward enduring questions of importance.

With respect to Lightman’s point about disciplinary differences, Yanagihara observed that there is a huge diversity of approaches even within the scientific community. In her childhood, she said, she saw a stark transition in her father when he switched from research to clinical work. As a research scientist, Yanagihara said, her father would talk about the “beauty” of a virus. But as a physician, he couldn’t focus on a virus and its structure; he had to attend to the patient. To Yanagihara, the difference between a research scientist and a clinician is like the difference between a philosopher and a priest: the philosopher is interested in knowledge for its own sake, whereas the priest is interested in helping people in the real world.

Q & A

Angela Harring, a science writer at Northeastern University, said she was writing a story about a fictional scientist who wins a Nobel Prize. She asked about the appropriate amount of real science to include in her story and wondered how to create the impression of scientific plausibility in a fictional world.

Yanagihara replied that a story about a Nobel Prize-winning discovery doesn’t necessarily need to be peopled by real scientists. She said that one narrative strategy that has proven productive for her is to imagine the life a minor character in a major discovery (i.e. Rosalind Franklin and her role in the discovery of DNA). Scientific discoveries are frequently accompanied by these interesting “footnotes,” Yanagihara noted, which can provide rich material for fiction writing about science.

Lightman suggested one way to create the impression of scientific plausibility is to interview real researchers in the field. If, for instance, one was writing about a prize-winning chemist, the writer should talk to chemists to learn what problems are currently regarded as most important and exciting in the field.

Mary Fuller, Professor and Head of Literature at MIT, challenged Lightman’s notion that scientists are interested in solving problems and humanists are interested in tackling unanswerable questions. Some humanists, she said, are interested in solving problems, just as some scientists may be interested in vast and potentially unanswerable questions.

Lightman responded by clarifying his distinction between the two kinds of thought. He said that in the sciences, researchers break big problems down into smaller ones, which can then yield well-defined answers. While a cosmologist like Alan Guth might be interested in large scale, fundamental questions as the nature of the universe, Lightman pointed out that his theories are founded on answers to smaller problems that can be quantified and measured.

While the humanities may use evidence to address problems, Lightman said, humanists do not “solve” problems in the same ways scientists do. He pointed to William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience as exemplary of research in the humanities. The evidence James presents in the book, Lightman said, is meant to articulate the human experience of God rather than to provide an answer to the question, “What is the nature of God?”

David Thorburn, Director of the Communications Forum, asked about other contemporary fiction that incorporates scientific material. Were there other books the panelists thought particularly compelling?

Lightman replied that Richard Powers, Rebecca Goldstein, and Andrea Barrett were good examples. Yanagihara said that she admired Margaret Atwood for the way that she was able to take the germ of the real in the present and extrapolate its consequences into the near future. Mnookin said he admired Allegra Goodman.

Yanagihara returned to an earlier distinction between science fiction and science in fiction. She argued that science fiction is fundamentally more interested in world-building, whereas most literary fiction is more character-based, grounded in observation of how people think and act. Lightman agreed that some science fiction focuses more on technology and science than on character, although he noted that many science fiction writers have produced rich, character-driven work, citing Ursula Le Guin as one notable example.

Jason Lipshin

About Jason Lipshin

Jason is an interaction designer and user experience researcher focused on mobiles and ubiquitous computing. He is a graduate student in MIT's Comparative Media Studies program and has worked with both the MIT Imagination, Computation, and Expression Lab and the MIT Mobile Experience Lab. Through his work with the Mobile Experience Lab, Jason has helped develop new concepts and prototypes for clients including Marriott Hotels, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, and RAI - Italy's national broadcasting company. This summer, he will be working for Disney Interactive Group in Tokyo. Thesis: Network Design: A Theory of Scale for Ubiquitous Computing