Fiction: New moral arbiters

Jennifer Rohn enjoys an epic novel about scientists, the media, ethics and society.

The Heart Broke In

Canongate/Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2012. 551 pp./416 pp. £17.99/$28 9780857862907 | ISBN: 978-0-8578-6290-7
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James Meek's novel about scientists and society, The Heart Broke In, tackles a big question: what does the rise of secularism in much of the West mean for ethical codes?

Some stories might suggest that rationalism should provide some kind of model. But Meek uses nuanced debate to build towards a very different climax. His mouthpieces are Bec, a malaria researcher; her computational-biologist lover, Alex; Bec's misbehaving ex-rock-star brother, Ritchie; and their friends, family and lovers. Meek, a former science correspondent for The Guardian newspaper, deftly handles the complex, day-to-day issues that scientists grapple with: the ethics of research; interaction with society; lab politics; and the struggle to make a mark in a difficult profession. The Heart Broke In is a realistic slice of life at the bench, reflecting both the admirable and the unflattering qualities of scientists.

Meek uses Alex's Uncle Harry, a militant atheist and famous cancer researcher, to explore whether science can replace God. Harry boasts of besting God by saving lives with his niche cure for one rare form of cancer, but develops a different type of tumour himself. Science can neither save him nor help him to accept the end of his existence.

In another plot strand, Bec romantically spurns Val, a militant Christian and the editor of a prominent newspaper. Val labels her an intellectual obsessive cut off from ordinary life, and tries to exact revenge by destroying her public reputation using the media weapons at his disposal.

“In the absence of a viable moral code, good and bad are enforced by naming and shaming in the press.”

Somewhere in the middle, Bec and Alex flounder. Bec is so devoted to her science that she allows herself to be parasitized by an African worm to study its protective effects against malaria. Alex is a dreamer whose hyped Nature paper on a 'treatment' for ageing (“SCIENTIST FINDS FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH!”, shrills the headline in Val's paper) transforms him into an unproductive media darling. In danger of becoming a one-hit wonder like Harry, Alex starts to realize that this might be the normal progression of a 'successful' scientific career — a suspicion confirmed when he interviews the brightest minds in his field for a documentary. All typecast by one big breakthrough, they have spent the rest of their lives trying to recapture the glory, to little avail.

As their personal problems mount, the scientists emerge as refreshingly three-dimensional in a way rarely seen in fiction. Yet Meek also plays with the one-dimensional view of scientists so often taken by the media.

Val, for instance, sees scientists as arrogant, atheistic meddlers. Ritchie is conflicted: expressing surprise that scientists could actually be well dressed or have friends, while also holding up Bec and Alex as the paragons he will never be. Then, when the pair grow more famous than he is, he describes them sarcastically as white-coated secular saints. Bec's mother, meanwhile, fears her daughter's disapproval of her bizarre diets, and marvels that scientists get anywhere when they are “closed to new ideas”.

Even the scientists flirt with stereotypes. Bec, for instance, berates herself because she can't recall how many times she had sex with Val — the kind of thing, she feels, that a scientist should be able to monitor. And Harry regales the young Alex with mythical descriptions of his work, from battles and breakthroughs to silver bullets and holy grails. Part of Alex's growth as a character is realizing that his profession isn't nearly as heroic as Harry makes out.

The Heart Broke In ends with almost everyone receiving their comeuppance. In the absence of a viable moral code, good and bad are enforced by naming and shaming in the press and social media — not by the desire to do no wrong, but by the imperative not to get caught. Science and religion have had their day, it says: the media, old and new, are the higher powers, with the ability to create and destroy reputations in predictable cycles.

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Correspondence to Jennifer Rohn.

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Rohn, J. Fiction: New moral arbiters. Nature 488, 457 (2012).

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