The spouse likes to lead book groups. She works very hard at it. She reads the book two or three times. I often read the book that will be discussed, and she will bounce her ideas that she might raise with the group off me. I have never participated in one of her book discussions. We have decided that my presence would make her too nervous, but I am confident that she does an excellent job.
Some find it surprising that she is so good at it. After all, she was a scientist—a research neuroimmunologist–and those who are not familiar with science, which includes all too many of us, often think scientists are generally isolated in a tiny world of esoterica.
The spouse was not always a scientist. While she took some science courses in college, she majored in English. She then went on to get a master’s in English at the University of Chicago. We came to New York, and she kicked around some publishing houses. She found her advancement there hampered by being a “girl,” but she also realized that she had always really wanted to be a biologist. Working part-time, she went to New York’s City College to get science credits, including organic chemistry, that she needed to get into graduate school. She then was accepted into Cornell Medical School, where she got a Ph.D.
The road to being a scientist is a long one—graduate school, and then years of a post-doctoral fellowship, and finally, if one is lucky, a lab of one’s own, which she got and ran until she recently retired. But during all that time, she continued to read detective stories, classic literature, bestsellers, history. She is not alone. Her best scientific friends also read.
I don’t find this surprising. Of course, many scientists such as C.P. Snow, Richard Feynman, Lewis Thomas, and E.O. Wilson have been outstanding writers. (Freud wrote some interesting books, but only under the most generous definition can he be labeled a “scientist.”) While those extraordinary scientist-writers just might be regarded as exceptional, there is actually a systemic connection between good writers and good scientists.
Successful scientists are curious about the world. They want to understand nature and the universe and set out to explore the unknown. A relative once said to me that the spouse and I led such safe, ordinary, unadventurous lives. I, not surprisingly bristled, and wanted to lash back with all the James Bondish things in my life (if I could have thought of any), but mostly I was offended on behalf of the spouse. I replied, “She is a scientist, and she goes off to work each day trying to see and understand things that have never been seen or understood before with no guarantee that that will happen. Few things could be more adventuresome or daring than that!”
Research scientists are always seeking what has not been found before, and they do it with a wonder about the world. On some level, every scientist I know thinks nature is marvelous and feels a certain glee when something new is discovered about it.
The good writer also sets out to find what has not been found before, but in the writer’s case, it is a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, a character, or a story. The writer, too, has to have a wonder about the world and observe it and learn from it. He or she must be able to see and remember what the rest of us cannot. They are part of the intelligent people that Blaise Pascal described: “The more intelligent a man is, the more originality he discovers in men. Ordinary people see no difference between men.” The good writer often sees distinctions and distinctiveness where others all see the same, not only in other people, but in many facets of the world. The good writer can describe or explain what many of us fail to see. As a result, our world expands. The scientist, who also seeks a greater understanding of the world, I think, can especially appreciate what a good writer has done.
Of course, the truths articulated by the scientist and the good writer are not the same. Perhaps this is too often a one-way street; while the scientist can understand the fresh insights or observations of the good writer, the scientist’s findings are often not understood outside the scientific community. But in their seeking of the previously unknown, both the good scientist and the good writer add to an understanding of the world. As Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd say in Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, “If you can trace the neural pathways of criminality, do you know more about criminals than Dostoyevsky knows? No, you know something different.”
We should not be surprised that scientists appreciate good literature and insightful history, or at least I am not surprised that the spouse does. You can ask her about microglia and the like, but if you want to think more deeply about The Gentleman from Moscow, The Sound and The Fury, The Children Act, Pere Goriot, or Where the Crawdads Sing, she has some questions for you.