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MARGINALIA

Narrative

Roald Hoffmann

Real Tales

Everywhere one looks in science, there are stories. I could have recounted the grand ones, of the inflationary universe, of evolution, of continental drift, of Fermat's theorem. I could have told about smaller ones, no less thrilling—the quest for octanitrocubane, the European duplication of Chinese porcelain or the discovery of sulfa drugs. I could have recounted Primo Levi's stories, of a" solitary chemistry, unarmed and on foot, at the measure of man."

All of these stories have the hallmarks that literary theorists have seen in narratives, small and grand:

—Temporality: a peaceful beginning, a disequilibrated, tense middle and a resolution that often sets the world upside down.

—Causation: essential in science, the most deterministic of narrative genres. Every thing must have reason, or why would you tell it to your peers?

—Human interest: Reflect—how much more interesting are lectures than articles? Our microsociety's ossified strictures on what should go into a paradigmatic article are relaxed in seminars. One tells a story, and the audience drinks it up, for it sees the why and wherefore. And the speaker naturally tells a heroic tale of blind alleys, serendipity, obstacles overcome and all-conquering logic. Who needs a samurai epic when I can hear Sam Danishefsky or K. C. Nicolau struggling with the synthesis of calicheamycin?








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