I’ve started work at the Genomics Forum

I’ve been at the Genomics Forum for a couple of weeks now, and I’ve spent some of that time trying to figure out what happens here. That may sound rude, but it’s not. According to its website, the Forum has been set up to ‘integrate the diverse strands of social science research…, develop links between social scientists and scientists working across the entire range of genomic science and technology, and connect research in this area to policy makers, the media and civil society in the UK and abroad.’

That’s a long shopping list, and I want to understand how the people here actually do join up all this… stuff. But first I need to figure out what the ‘stuff’ is. What is the science and what is the social science? Is the latter a sort of commentary on the former, to analyse its impact upon society etc?

Before I make any headway on that, I need to find out more about the science. I’m a scientist by training, but I know nothing about biology or genetics. I also know that I don’t want to read too much commentary on this science without first having a basic understanding of the science itself.

So I’ve been reading a dummy’s guide to genetics. For some reason I picture the twin strands of DNA as a zipper that is capable of being unzipped and zipped. I know that this is not a very good analogy, as all the teeth of a zipper are identical whereas it seems that the four types of “teeth” on a strand of DNA can only be matched so that A meshes with T and C with G. Perhaps I can come up with a more scientifically accurate and yet also nicely ‘literary’ analogy in the future.

And how do I think that the Forum will impact on my writing? I’m excited about working here because much of my writing looks at the same issues that people here are interested in. For example, I’m writing a series of short stories about people who migrate from one country to another. I want to explore how this experience changes them, their children and subsequent generations. How does someone ‘become’ British? Is it a consciously learned process? How do people adapt their behaviour? How is our identity affected by our genes? My family is Jewish and I’ve learnt that some ‘groupings’ of Jews (such as the Cohens) are more likely to share genes than others, and non-Jews. But there’s no straightforward link between being Jewish and one’s genetic make-up.

More generally, I’m keen to see if fiction can convey not only information about science itself, but also open up the process of doing science. There’s such a tension between the way that end results of (successful) science are portrayed, and the often messy and problematic route taken there.

For example (I chose this because it’s just been dramatised on TV with David Tennant), in 1915 Einstein published the general theory of relativity which immediately transformed our understanding of gravity and superseded Newtonian physics. But it was a theory, not proven. Sir Arthur Eddington was very keen to ‘prove’ that Einstein’s theory was ‘correct’, not only because of the aesthetics of this theory, but also because Einstein was German. Eddington, who was a Quaker and a pacifist, could see how this could be used to build bridges with Germany during and after the First World War.

He set up an experiment to distinguish between Einstein’s and Newton’s theories. But this was an extraordinarily difficult experiment to carry out, and much of the data are not convincing. Eddington discarded the data which corroborated Newton, managed to persuade the rest of the scientific community that the experiment was a success and proved Einstein correct.

But would the outcome of this experiment have been different if Eddington had not been a pacifist? Would it even have been carried out at all? It’s not clear how a strictly ‘scientific’ analysis of the problem could admit the influence of Eddington’s beliefs. But a fictional telling of the story could explore them.

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