This morning over our tea and croissants, OneMonkey and I were listening to the World Service (more people should, it’s an absolute treasure); I was enticed to stay with them after the news had finished, when they announced that Robert May (a well-known physicist, even to those who know no physicists well. Not to be confused with Brian May, a physicist well-known for other things) would be talking about chaos. Now back when I was still a physicist myself, chaos was my thing (anyone who’s ever visited my house would be forgiven for thinking it still is) so while I didn’t necessarily think there’d be anything I hadn’t heard before, I was still interested to hear how he put it across to a lay audience (very well, in my opinion, without dumbing it down, and with the inclusion of genuine maths). Also on the program were a financial journalist, and a doctor, Abraham Verghese. Abraham was given 60 seconds to outline a good idea, and the good idea he chose was ‘read more fiction’.
For someone who writes fiction that’s obviously going to sound like a great idea – a bigger readership has got to be a good thing. For someone who enjoys reading fiction, it also sounds like a great idea, if you’re anything like me (and I hope for your sake that you’re not) you’ll find it hard to understand how anyone could get through their lives without reading novels (even if ‘reading’ means an audio-book on the move). The point he was making, however, was that the imagination of a lot of adults never gets exercised, whereas when you read a work of fiction, you’re invited to create a world in your head, and watch events unfold there (it won’t necessarily match the world created by other readers, or by the author), and therefore it exercises some part of the brain that all too often is left to wither away (presumably not literally). He complained that all the metaphorical names for diseases are at least 100 years old, all the colourful descriptions that conjure up an image for someone who knows nothing about the underlying reality. These days everyone’s too concerned with technical terms, like stars being named by a string of letters and numbers – it makes things easier for the astronomers but they’re hardly memorable or romantic, and I find it hard to believe that anyone points at the sky and says ‘oh look, you can see HD-1234 tonight’. (Please don’t anyone point out that that’s not a valid star-name. I never did any astrophysics, I know as little about it as the proverbial man in the street, and probably even less. LeMat was an astrophysicist before he diverted into philosophy, and despairs sometimes.)
I’m all for scientific rigour, it does wind me up when terms are used imprecisely in the media, by journalists who were probably brought up in the ‘not understanding maths is fine but never having read Shakespeare is a crime’ vein, but a well-crafted metaphor (as long as it’s clear it is just a metaphor and not the literal truth) can be invaluable as a way of getting ideas across. A metaphor can make you grasp the gist, even if the details are entirely beyond your comprehension, but the metaphors are either not there at all these days, or stale and not likely to conjure up any vision at all in today’s adults, saturated with images handed to them on a televisual plate.
So let’s all read (and write) more fiction, whether it’s set in a fantastic world or in Bradford (other Northern cities are available), and not only will we be hanging on to a youthful part of our brain, but we’ll also contribute to a wider understanding of science, and thus to a better future. If only.