Litmus: Short Stories from Modern Science
Edited by Ra Page

Comma Press

"Scientists are often taught to be and are often temperamentally inclined to be wary of metaphor; that way magic lies; or poetry. But the human imagination can hardly be its own enemy. I immersed myself in poetry from childhood and would quote it throughout my life when the occasion arose."
From: Swan, 1914 By Sean O'Brien

Reviewed by Sue Haigh

Whew! As a test of writerly talent, the commissions which produced Litmus, published by Comma Press, could hardly have been tougher.

Question: why is fiction like science? Answer: because each starts with a dream, an imagined place beyond our horizon. Something that begins as an impossibility grows and progresses, step by crucial step, beyond any Eureka moment, in the mind of its – what? – creator? - until it becomes a telescope through which we see with new eyes the universe and the worlds within.

Question: how, though, do you create a literary narrative, often heartbreaking, sometimes funny, out of Einstein's Special Theory; or out of the mystery of weight loss during nuclear fusion; or out of the invisible and almost incomprehensible human genome; or the precise measurement of the movements of the planets; or Turing's theory of morphogenesis - how the universe got its shape and the elephant got his trunk (apologies to Kipling, who hadn't a clue); or Mendeleev's periodic table; or how fluorescent jellyfish became Nobel Prize winning material; or the sclerotic state of the hippocampus in Alzheimer's; or Hamilton's Rule of Inclusive Fitness; or Swan's electric light bulb; or the effects of extreme stress in dogs?

Comma Press's experiment has produced some truly great literature here, beautifully crafted, meticulously researched. At first daunted by the task I, a non-scientist, had undertaken, I was encouraged by my enjoyment, a couple of years ago, of Tania Hershman's The White Road and Other Stories. I plunged into Litmus - cheating, I confess, by reading the explanatory postscript provided by a scientist to each story before I read the story itself. Written by a star-studded line-up of authors, unflinching in their attention to scientific authenticity, Litmus required a bit of brain-stretching and a couple of false starts (I didn't read the stories in order) before I got into the swing of it. Then I couldn't put it down.

I wept at Annie Clarkson's story of Pavlov's brave rescue of his laboratory dogs from the St Petersburg floods in What Kind of Dog and at the death of Alan Turing in Jane Rogers's Morphogenesis; I was surprised and moved by the poetry and spirituality of Joseph Swan, inventor of the electric light bulb in Sean O'Brien's Swan, 1914; I laughed uncomfortably at Trevor Hoyle's monkey narrator in Monkey See, Monkey Do; I was profoundly moved by the exiled Austrian-Jewish scientist, Lise Meitner, in Zoe Lambert's Crystal Night and by the relationship between Jeff, the Alzheimer's sufferer, and his daughter in Kate Clanchy's Bridie Hill. Then I shuddered; Pavlov's work with traumatized, near-drowned dogs led to the development of water-boarding techniques in the Bush administration; Henrietta Leavitt, in Sara Maitland's The Woman Who Measured the Heavens with a Span, another sidelined female scientist, whose measurements of luminosity of stars in the Magellanic Clouds underlies modern understanding of the universe, died alone and in pain; Yet I was fascinated by the effect of increased activity of mirror or "empathy" neurons in female monkey brains and I began to understand the effect of radium traces in barium crystals.

Maggie Gee tackles the subject of William Hamilton's horribly difficult mathematical proofs in his Rule of Inclusive Fitness (a sort of familial Utilitarianism) in Living with Insects. With fine artistry and confidence she uses the personal story of the marriage break-down of scientific historian, Simon Smith, who described Hamilton's work with insects such as ants and bees, to illustrate the theory itself. Read and learn!

From Osamu Shimomura's dream and the discovery of Green Fluorescent Protein in Hershman's beautifully measured story, We're All Made of Protein But Some of Us Glow More Than Others to the brilliantly cinematic The Pitch, by Frank Cottrell Boyce, where eighteenth century astronomer Jeremiah Horrox worships the perfection of the universe he measures before dying tragically young, there is no talking-down to us non-scientists. We are obliged to engage with scientific theories as well as with the often troubled, struggling personalities behind them. This is the real stuff, but often so cleverly and intelligently presented that almost anyone can understand how the narrative of theory and discovery impinges on the narrative of everyday life; though I have yet to resolve, even after long discussion with my mathematician partner, a residual problem with Minkovski's theory of the fourth dimension in space-time and its relevance to part of Einstein's Special Theory. This made Stella Duffy's story Everything is Moving, Everything is Joined a difficult read for me. More accessible was Michael Jecks's The Special Theory, with its delightful characters; the sympathetic waitress and the bereaved and dishevelled scientist who comes to Switzerland visit the spot which inspired the similarly bereaved Einstein, before taking himself off to an assisted suicide clinic.

I loved the atmosphere created by Sarah Hall in That is the Day, set in modern AIDS-ridden sub-Saharan Africa and focused on an antiretroviral therapy centre for sufferers, most of whom trek many miles through the bush for testing and treatment. For many, including babies, death will even now be the only possible outcome. Equally delightful is Alison MacLeod's warmly personal story of the mathematical model of the heart cell in The Heart of Denis Noble, with a postscript by the heart specialist himself.

Adam Marek's In Search of Silence is a masterly and entertaining insight into the work of a teenager in the 1960's who heard what turned out to be cosmic microwaves in his head. So crystal clear in its scientific detail and the very human story of two young men, Nobel laureates Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias, whose work began in Wilson's bedroom, Marek's story stands out for its literary as well as for its scientific merit. (Tim O'Brien's explanation of their work on light waves from the time of the Big Bang is eminently readable, too.)

To have brought on board so many academic consultants, whether to write the explanatory postscripts or as advisors is an achievement in itself. The book which came out of this unprecedented collaboration – a book I will undoubtedly re-read many times - is an even greater achievement.


Sue Haigh is a freelance writer, editor and reviewer. Widely published in the UK and America, she has written a novel, Missing Words, a Scottish story collection, The Snow Lazarus (funded by the Scottish Book Trust) and a children’s book, Stories from a Cave. She lives in France.
Sue's other Short Reviews: "Women Aloud" audiobook

Paul Kane "The Butterfly Man"

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Authors Kate Clanchy, Annie Clarkson, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Stella Duffy, Sarah Hall, Tania Hershman, Trevor Hoyle, Maggie Gee, Michael Jecks, Zoe Lambert, Alison MacLeod, Sara Maitland, Adam Marek, Sean O'Brien, Christine Poulson and Jane Rogers. (Seventeen consultant scientists also took part in the project. )

Editor Ra Page is the founder and editorial manager of Comma Press.