On Monday I was at the Royal Society, as Pepys might have said, always being at the cutting edge of the establishment of his day, for the launch of a book co-written by a friend of mine, Nicholas Beale, with the particle physicist Professor John Polkinghorne. I've not often been to that wonderfully grand, white building in Carlton House Terrace, but I never cease to be awed - once I've recovered from entering under the gaze of its founder, one of my favourite monarchs, Charles II - at the history of science which surrounds you: Newton looking mad, Faraday looking sensible, Wren, Hooke, Davy, Huxley, Kelvin, Rutherford, and so on, portrait after portrait, room after room. The book, Questions of Truth, is about the interface between two belief systems which attempt to make sense of the universe and our human experience in it: religion and science. And the launch took the form of a fascinating panel discussion between distinguished scientists, none of whom had any difficulty in reconciling the two by virtue of having thought long and hard and clearly about what that reconciliation consisted of. There were then questions from the floor, which were, for the most part, civilised and scholarly versions (as befitted a room and a platform full of FRSs) of the usual debates.
But one answer really caught my interest. The question concerned the reductiveness of a certain kind of science, which believes that everything which matters about the world and human experience can - or will be - explained, if we can only break things down into small enough particles. And one of the speakers described how biologist Denis Noble, in his book The Music of Life has said that science has spent the last forty years doing just that, and now it's time to put Humpty Dumpty back together again: to reassemble everything that we now understand so much better, and try to see what we've actually got, and how it explains the world we experience. And I was instantly and irrestistibly reminded not only of the A Level history which made me give up a lifetime's ambition to be a historian, because history, too, got smaller and smaller in the middle of the 20th Century, and then of the philosopher Richard Kearney. In On Stories he describes how narrative is formed from 'the bits and pieces of experience'. Fiction and, say, history-writing, make different claims as to the kind of truth they represent: history (like science) makes a narrative that presents the probable and the likely, while fiction presents the possible, the 'memories we don't have'. But, essentially, narrative is how we understand these things, because as Kearney puts it, 'we are storied creatures.' And narrative is how we understand science, too. It needn't be the rolling periods of Herschell or thick modern jargon describing an experiment, because even an equation is, fundamentally, a narrative: a series of bits and pieces which are put together to describe a relationship, a story with a beginning and a middle and an end, written in a language so it can be communicated. An equation is not what actually happens inside a quark (do quarks have insides?), any more than a book on your shelves is what actually happened during the Dark Ages, or in Brick Lane. And more than one narrative can be made from any set of bits and pieces, whether it's my research into Elizabeth Woodville or someone else's into the funny habits of E. Coli. But we have no other way of making sense of it.
Unfortunately, this thought only came to me as I was sitting there; I was just thinking it out, when the other face of this storiedness intruded, and complicated things still more, and I wish I could go back and say it all better: the ghosts of six generations of my FRS grandfathers were perhaps not terribly impressed. To me, intimately connected with our storied nature is the need for us to tolerate what poet and novelist Philip Gross calls not-knowing, (and it's relevant to that evening because it seems to me that the human fear of not-knowing is what drives fundamentalism among both religious and scientific communities) as much as it does learning. I know there's a connection between narrative and not-knowing: I can feel it. Is it the sense of all those other narratives one might make which is so familiar to short story writers, in particular, so that we have to live with the impossibility of any one narrative being definitive? Is it simply the realisation that we cannot, in a way, apprehend more than one bit or piece at once, rather as the human eye (unlike a camera) can only focus on one spot: in humans an image is built up in the brain from a particular sequence of such focussings, just that day, in that light? Yes, I can feel there's a connection but I'm damned if I can put it into words. I shall have to live with feeling it, but not knowing it.