Bookwise — Search for a narrative

Science, in the right hands, is often the stuff of literature

February 24, 2012 05:31 pm | Updated 05:32 pm IST

The Emperor of All Maladies: A biography of cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A biography of cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

Of all the straitjackets of Indian education, the most suffocating is the enforced choice of science versus arts at the tender age of 15. Even worse, the life sciences are separated from the hard sciences. An “us and them” attitude is bad enough among students. It gets much worse when a doctor has his teenage son perform a caesarian to achieve a world record, or when an environment minister can’t imagine what a mega-dam can do to wildlife.

Perhaps the arbiters of Indian education will one day recognise that we can’t tease apart the tangled threads of science and humanities in any aspect of our lives. In other countries students can study botany and music together, or microbiology and medieval iconography. And for centuries before this present system there were Renaissance men, who hungered to know literature, sculpture, taxonomy, anatomy, engineering, medicine and whatever topic came their way. Now, scientists have once again become eager to translate the highly technical aspects of their fields into a narrative all of us can absorb. Siddhartha Mukherjee won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction 2011 for his “biography” of cancer, “The Emperor of All Maladies”. He traces the 4000-year-old war against an enemy entirely different from all others, a disease sewn into our own genomes, as he puts it. This is the stuff of literature.

Among the many ghosts Mukherjee raises is a long-dead woman whose cancerous cells are still dividing in a petri dish in his lab. He doesn’t name that woman, but she had to be Henrietta Lacks. Lacks died of cervical cancer before she was 30. Cells from her tumour were cultured and for some reason proved sturdier than other similar cultures. For over 50 years after her death, labs across the world tested the effects of environmental conditions and drugs on HeLa tumour cells. In “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, Rebecca Skloot writes more emotionally than Mukherjee. She is, after all, culturing an entire woman from a four-letter abbreviation. But she necessarily explores medical history, method and ethics in telling that woman’s story. When she interviewed people from the extended Lacks family, most were suspicious of her intentions and confused and angry about what had been done to Henrietta without her consent or knowledge. In tying together their interviews and letters with medical policies and laws about a patient’s consent, Skloot animates the humans whose cells teem in petri dishes around the world.

One of my favourite science writers is Vilayanur Ramachandran, who explored brain, mind, body and psychology in “Phantoms in the Brain” and a series of lectures published as “The Emerging Mind”. Whenever I see his name, I stop to read what he has written. Ramachandran connects specific gobs of our grey matter to our language, memories and attachments, to our extraordinary talents and our bizarre psychoses. He even explains why we find beauty in a Chola bronze Parvati. For every mystery he clarifies, he raises new ones, but that has always been the art of the scientist.

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