Litmus – a review

My review of Litmus. Short Stories from Modern Science.

The scientific process is based on the sharing of ideas and information. Behind all discoveries lie a multitude of stories. The human need for a narrative, for a hero, encourages us to ignore the reality of science in favour of the ‘Eureka’ moment. We want a name, a date, on which we can hang the story.

The creators of Litmus acknowledge this by giving us the stories, by telling us about individual scientists, illuminating in a fictionalised form the discovery or invention they are known for. This book is no paean to the greats, however. We find in this anthology tales of scientists hitherto relegated to the shadows of history, and find ourselves engrossed in stories that shed new light on familiar figures.

Each tale is accompanied by an individual afterword, explaining the science and giving historical context. These afterwords are fascinating in their own right; articulate, and knowledgeable of the literary form. Twinned with their sister stories, they make a satisfying whole.

Litmus is all about the broad sweep, taking in almost five hundred years of science, and covering the start of everything to the end of consciousness. It is an anthology that is best dipped into, rather than gulped straight down. Every tale deserves to be savoured before the next one is tasted.

Manchester’s Comma Press has given lead story status to Frank Cottrell Bryce’s ‘The Pitch’, which is set in Lancashire. I loved this story, not just because it is set close to home, or because it reminds me that greatness can happen anywhere, but because Bryce illustrates so well the desperate passion of scientific endeavour, the need to gather information and knowledge, the need to test the hypothesis.

Prudence, by Emma Unsworth, is a story about how some of the greatest breakthroughs are achieved when thinking outside the box. The story of the periodic table, one of the most beautiful documents created, is a long and fascinating one, at the heart of it is a man named Mendeleev and a moment of revelation.

We return to the elements, guided by Zoe Lambert’s Crystal Night. In the decades since Mendeleev set the challenge of absence, the game had moved on, and the new goal was the transuranic elements. Lise Meitner’s work led to a discovery that changed the war and changed the world.

Science is a whole. Mathematics, biology, astronomy, physics and chemistry are increasingly artificial divisions and the stories in Litmus range across the entire field, celebrating the multidisciplinary approach. Some stories fade from memory. Edison is famed for inventing the electric light bulb, but at the same period in time, a Yorkshire industrialist came up with the same idea. ‘Swan’ is a tale told eloquently by Sean O’Brien.

Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity shapes our understanding of the universe, and in ‘The Special Theory’ Michael Jecks obliquely tells the tale of how Einstein’s great revelation came about. It’s sister story, Stella Duffy’s ‘Everything is Moving, Everything is Joined’ is an almost poetic look at the development of the idea of space time.

Some scientists fall into obscurity, others are forced into it because of gender, class or race. Henrietta Leavitt’s contribution to the study of astronomical distances is a fundamental one, but her story is new to me. Sarah Maitland’s moving and memorable study is of a God centred scientist who was as devoted to her faith as to her scientific duty.

From astronomy we move to psychology. It’s word association time. Say ‘Pavlov’ and you’ll hear ‘Dogs’. Annie Clarkson’s tells of how tragedy led to the development of new theories from the pioneer of behavioural conditioning.

We are honoured to be living in a period in which Alan Turing’s place as a national hero is being confirmed. He is known for his work in computing, but Jane Rogers focuses on his work on morphogenesis, the idea that order can arise from disorder by the imposition of a few simple rules.

Government response to where Turing’s heart led him caused the tragedy that cost Britain one of its most brilliant minds. How does the heart work? In ‘The Heart of Denis Noble’, Alison McLeod explores the romantic question in her story of a young scientist’s investigation of the chemical question.

Genetic engineering is the subject of two very different stories. Tanya Hershman’s ‘We are all Made of Protein But Some of us Glow More than Others.’, and Christine Poulson’s ‘What If’ both tell the story of great discoveries that underlie modern genetics. Osamu Shimomura’s work with bioluminescent jellyfish led to the isolation of marker genes that are still vitally useful in genetics today. Kary Mullis’s ‘What if?’ musings two decades later, led to the invention of the polymerase chain reaction; and lit the blue touchpaper on the explosive growth in genetics that continues today.

Towards the end of the book, we get a story about the very beginning of everything. With a work of fiction reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s childhood idylls, Adam Marek plays with history and science, and gives us a marvellous tale of how evidence for the Big Bang was found whilst looking for something else.

Maggie Gee’s ‘Living With Insects’ takes us once again back to genetic and sociobiologcal themes. A young girl struggling with a family breakup learns about kin selection in school, and struggles to put it into the context of her own life. Kate Clanchy’s ‘Bride Hill’ is a life affirming story about living with Alzheimer’s. It follows naturally on the heels of ‘Living With Insects’, both are stories of love and loss, about how understanding ‘why’ can be a balm for the soul in times of need.

As we draw to the end of the anthology, we are treated to Trevor Hoyle’s brief ‘Monkey See, Monkey Do’, dealing with the fortuitous discovery of mirror neurons and the science of empathy. Appropriately enough, the topic of empathy leads to the final story in the book. ‘That is the Day’ is suffused with a sense of hopelessness mixed with dogged determination. It’s about disease and disaster. The Eureka moment for the disease is now decades in the past, and led to its discovery and identification. The story makes it clear that the world hopes now for another Eureka moment, the science that will give us the cure.

And there we have it, from seventeenth century astronomy in Much Hoole to twenty first century medicine in South Africa, Litmus is a grand mixture of a book. It’s short fiction, it’s history, it’s science. I’m sure you’ll know lots of people who will love it.

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