Fiction informed by science

A. S. Byatt’s encounters with science shape the story and characters in her four-part series of novels.

Snail_2 I realized, one idle morning, that a snail in Latin is helix. And a snail’s shell is in the form of a spiral. Later I discovered that there were two species of snail, Helix hortensis and Helix nemoralis (the snails of the garden and the grove), that could be fitted into both my paradise garden imagery and my realist scientific tale. By pure luck I met Steve Jones, an evolutionary biologist at University College London, on a science radio programme (we were actually talking about Marcel Proust and the concept of time in physics). I discovered that Steve was the world expert on what had (unfortunately for my verbal web) been renamed Cepaea hortensis and Cepaea nemoralis. He had been studying the genetics of the external spiral of colours on the shells of the snails — work which the discovery of methods to extract DNA had rendered redundant. Novelists invent facts because of intellectual needs. I later asked Steve if he could see any connection at all between snails and work on neurons in the brain, on memory: he said that snails had giant neurons which made them peculiarly apt for this kind of experiment. I had an imagined woman scientist whom I needed to move from snail genetics to neuroscience. Curiosity is a profound drive in both novelists and scientists. I took great pleasure in learning about snails.

The other spiral that obsessed me was the Fibonacci spiral. It seemed to my non-mathematical brain a thing that could be made as a word game: take a number, add it to itself, the next number is the sum of the previous two, and so on. But this spiral informed (to use an old seventeenth-century word for shaping from within, like the soul in the body) all sorts of natural phenomena, from climbing plants to the sprouting of twigs round stems, from snails to pine cones and sunflowers. I discovered that Alan Turing had been obsessed by explaining this and had not had the computers to do it. I met John Maynard Smith at a Darwin seminar at the London School of Economics and Political Science and he sent me a paper by two French scientists in which they work out the maths and the mechanics of growth in biological Fibonacci spirals. I cannot really understand it, but I do try. I felt that the Fibonacci spiral was an example of a platonic order — a sense that an invisible mathematical order informed all our physical accidental world. My fearful mathematician at the end of the third novel moves from studying the computer as a brain to studying this spiral. This is for him a kind of paradisal completeness.

Read more in Nature here.