Scientists are real people, too!
Books like The Double Helix, by James Watson, confound me. They present scientists as “real people”, and I don’t like it. This irrational dislike stems from years and years of viewing SCIENCE as impartial, sometimes impenetrable, but always somehow clean and clear-cut (also, always in capital letters). We’re taught hard facts about science, from the time we’re learning the basic water cycle in elementary school to memorizing amino acid structures in college. Scientific papers tend to speak in a methodical, detached voice, and the scientist behind the science remains as distant as a planet in another galaxy that we can never see or touch. Even my decision to double-major in both English and Biology in undergrad reflects this; if I’m not careful, my English papers turn to method and structure over innovative and interesting language. When I write scientifically, I have to monitor the “fluffiness” of my writing to make sure I fit the scientific standard. Thankfully, the idea that science writing must be dry has deteriorated, and articles can be fun and creative now. That still hasn’t increased my ability or desire to connect the scientist with the person inside (yet). Not because I don’t realize that scientists are real people, too, but because I don’t like the consequences of believing that. To believe that scientists are real people somehow lessens the value I give their work. It’s a harsh view, I realize. But when reading Watson’s story of the discovery of DNA, it’s hard to forget his sexist ways, his deception on applications, his pompousness, his lack of understanding of many science concepts, and his partying. Really, it’s amazing that he could do any kind of science, at all. It’s sad, but I often view my heroes in science as just that: heroes, above the influence, and separate from the pettiness of competition and ineptitude.
Despite wishing to think of scientists as remote and perfect in real life, for whatever reason, I have no problem with their humanization in fiction. Margaret Atwood gives us tons of examples of imperfect scientists in her novel, Oryx and Crake. Jimmy’s father works at the morally dubious HelthWyzer, and additionally, was morally dubious himself, yet you can tell Jimmy still sees some good in him. Jimmy himself plays an ambiguous role in the science community. Moreover, Crake, especially, leaves the reader confused as to whether Crake is a hero or a villain, brilliant or misguided or evil. He’s human. They’re all human. I can’t understand, myself, why their characterization doesn’t bother me. Perhaps because I can feel a giant difference between real life and fiction when I read Oryx and Crake and other fiction books, and I can’t ignore that James Watson was living, in my world. Perhaps because I’m inherently a naive optimist: brilliant, impartial scientists must and should exist in our world. Otherwise, who will become doctors and dentists, or cure cancer, or discover the genetic basis for Alzheimer’s? It’s hard to reconcile that regular humans, with such complicated (and oftentimes negative) feelings, actions, and lives, can also produce such brilliant science. But maybe the very humanity of scientists that I try to forget actually gives their work more value, because they had to move past the competition, interpersonal relationship issues, and the temptation and fun of things outside of work to, say, discover the structure of DNA. So in a very unsatisfying conclusion, I like science, and I like books, and when the two meet, I’ll just have to figure out how I feel about their fusion as I go.