Jennifer Rohn is a cell biologist at University College London, and the founder of biogeek webzine LabLit.com. She's also the author of a new romantic science thriller, Experimental Heart. So if anybody would know how to present complex scientific topics in a comprehensible way to a lay audience, it would be she. She's been writing an online column about fiction-writing for Nature, and her latest installment explains how to deal with masses of complicated scientific jargon - otherwise known as "the Scotty effect." The key to handling complicated scientific discussions, says Rohn, is to know the difference between jargon that's not intended to be comprehensible, and "necessary information - things the reader does have to take on board." Incomprehensible jargon "can enrich the atmosphere without impinging on pace," if you make it clear to the readers that they're not supposed to understand it. It's sort of like texture, or extra scenery. So how do you deal with the bits of scientific explanation that are important to your story, and which your readers must understand? Rohn has a few suggestions. First of all, gloss over the details. Just because you've exhaustively studied every aspect of a scientific issue doesn't mean you have to share it all with your readers. Secondly, work in scientific explanation in between bits of dialog, and present it in a way that will make sense to lay readers. But include enough detail that people to allow people with a scientific background to understand what's going on.
A good lab lit novel should take lessons from The Simpsons, which does an amazing job of appealing both to children and adults simultaneously. The kids love the slapstick humor and mad capers, while the adults get a secret kick out of all the sexual innuendo and obscure pop culture references. Do you remember the episode in which Homer finds himself in a windswept row of aircraft hangers? Inserted into the plot is a two-second mini-scene that you might easily look away and miss. Homer passes a hangar door marked ‘18'. When the door is opened, we see an alien pursuing a crazed-looking official who blurts out, Look out, he's got his probe! I am sure most children wouldn't know what to make of it, or understand why their parents were collapsing in hilarity, but it's so quick and zany that they take it in stride. The story is enriched without impinging on the basic plot. In a similar way, lab lit authors who play to both laypeople and specialists can create a two-level experience that will expand a work of fiction's appeal.
Experimental Heart is about a biotech researcher, Andy, who meets an intriguing and lovely vaccine researcher, Gina, who's struggling with animal rights protestors and financial problems. After he spends time with her, his monotonous life begins to unravel and he realizes there's more to life than work. But when she disappears, he decides to find out what happen to her, and whether her vaccine really is the amazing breakthrough she claimed. [Nature]