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Conspiracy at the bench

Nature volume 456, pages 575576 (04 December 2008) | Download Citation

Experimental Heart: A Novel


Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press: 2008. 364 pp. $13.99, £7.99 9780879698768

The scene in The Day of the Jackal, in which the lone assassin carefully assembles his rifle, each step and component carefully described, is one of the most memorable in literature. Such detail tells us that the author, former serviceman and war correspondent Frederick Forsyth, really knew his stuff. More importantly, it increases the tension to an almost unbearable pitch, just before the climax when the assassin will take a shot at his target. Here is another climax:

“The answer clicked into place with an almost physical impact. Gina had inadvertently inserted the wrong gene into her herpes virus vectors, having been led to believe that it was in fact FRIP. Clearly, Rouyle had never had any intention of using FRIP in combination with her gene therapy vectors at all.

I slammed my fist onto the opened notebook. The conclusion was inescapable. And there were now two key questions remaining. One, what was the mystery gene that had been swapped in FRIP's place? And, two, was this substitution a secret only of Rouyle's, or was Pfeiffer-DeVries in on it as well? Or even Boyd? My mind reeled at the possible layers of conspiracy.”

This scene, told by a lone researcher in his laboratory, late at night, is from cell biologist Jennifer Rohn's first novel, Experimental Heart. It takes place in a cancer-research centre in London, in which a biotech company called Geniaxis has inveigled itself like a tumour. Cell-cyclist Andy O'Hara, a postdoc who has hitherto sublimated all romantic instincts into work, sees Geniaxis virologist Gina Keyser through her lit lab window late one night, and is smitten. O'Hara, ensnared, becomes involved in Keyser's work and sinks into a quagmire of intrigue, only to be resolved when he is forced to carry out some risky detective work.

At the heart of the story, which Rohn tells well for the most part, is a mystery that turns on a question of science, based on a fictional, if realistic, cell-signalling pathway. Along the way we witness the shifting, nomadic international fellowship of scientists, and especially of postdocs. If I have one criticism, it is that the character of O'Hara does not ring true. Modest and self-effacing, he is surrounded by beautiful, talented, wise and tolerant women who care for him even after he repeatedly spurns their advances. Like the butler Stevens in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, he remains singularly dedicated to duty.

Rohn aims to change the way in which the reading public thinks about scientists. Novels that portray scientists as protagonists, doing science in a realistic way, are scarce. This is surprising, given that there are enough detective novels to derail the Orient Express, and airport bookstalls groan with fiction featuring the detailed work of forensic scientists, doctors, lawyers, soldiers, sailors and, in all likelihood, candlestick makers. Why?

Two forces conspire to shut science out in the cold. The first is snobbery, in which the literary establishment has never shaken off the idea that scientists are unfit to join the high table of culture. The second is that scientists are viewed as modern-day wizards whose occult works are unintelligible and probably dangerous. People cannot make up their minds whether scientists are sources of unbelievable good ('miracle cures') or chthonic evil ('frankenfoods'); so the breed is best left alone. Were scientists to show signs of literacy, intelligibility or humanity, both constituencies would ignore them, the first by braying more loudly, the second for fear of puncturing cherished prejudices. Occasionally, both forces come together — for example, in the oft-expressed confessions of media types that they are very poor at maths or science, as if this admission were a badge of honour rather than of shame. In most circles, to confess any mathematical or scientific ability risks ostracism.

Because of these prejudices, prospective readers of Experimental Heart have to muster the activation energy required to surmount the barriers that society has put in the way of understanding scientists as people. The worry is that when they hear the dreaded 's' word, many won't even bother. In the same way that female scientists notoriously have to accumulate a far more stellar publication record than their male peers to achieve tenure, novels about scientists have to work twice as hard as detective stories to reach the same place in the best-seller lists.

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  1. Henry Gee is a senior editor at Nature. His latest novel is By The Sea.

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