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Why reading fiction is as important now as ever
Novels open us to the nuances of being human.
- "Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth," wrote Albert Camus. It remains an important social and political tool.
- Reading fiction has been shown to increase empathy and understanding.
- In the Instagram age, novels are still a necessary form of communication.
Having a spy as a mother must be challenging, especially if she dumps you off with a strange cast of characters during your influential teenage years. One day you're living with two parents when suddenly your father lands an overseas gig with Unilever; your mother is required to travel with him. The next, a shady man who ferries greyhounds across the channel to participate in dog fights is teaching you how to survive in the underbelly of the British economy. The familial dissolution fractures your relationship with your sister. When your mother returns you never regain that closeness, until one day she is murdered years after the war has passed.
Such an existence is foreign to nearly all of us. Yet the themes present—parental issues, friendship, social confusion, peer pressure, heartbreak—are universal. There are hundreds of volumes of historical nonfiction about World War II. Yet in Michael Ondaatje's novel, Warlight, we shed the macrocosm to home in on how war uproots one family. Though widespread death and destruction is absent, what replaces it is an ability to empathize with the imagined characters.
As relevant as the study of history is, this ability to feel and share the emotions of others is arguably more important. A recent commenter on Reddit argues the reverse, citing Dan Carlin's podcast, Hardcore History, as the catalyst for their intellectual transformation:
Listening to Dan Carlin's podcasts with my 11 year old son is what sparked my interest and took history beyond the names and places I had previously memorized for passing grades. It awoke something in me and made me realize that I have little need for fiction with so many unread historical accounts still out there.
I'd never argue against Carlin. It takes a special thinker to narrate six hours on the Celtic Holocaust and leave listeners wanting more. It's also important that more people study history, a fact Carlin has played no small role in promoting. He's not the only one. In a recent episode of Sam Harris' podcast Waking Up, historian Yuval Noah Harari argues that history is a framing of the present. Without knowing where we come from it is impossible to realize how we've arrived at where we are, a theme especially pertinent to Americans today.
But abandoning fiction for history? The two go hand-in-hand. Mythologies and epic poetry are predominantly fictional accounts influenced by historical events yet have shaped the way we interact as societies, war with one another, and communicate across political boundaries. History requires narrative; a disinterested recording of events has never occurred—most often we're reading the stories of winners, in war and political might. Perception is relegated to the individual writing these events; what we perceive is colored by our experiences. There is no such thing as "pure" history.
As Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid points out, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a text as "real" as Joseph Smith's golden tablets (yet presented as nonfiction), "stoked the fires of European anti-Semitism in the decades before the Holocaust." Uncle Tom's Cabin helped lead to abolition; Things Fall Apart opened many eyes to the tragedies of colonialism; The Jungle led to the Meat Inspection Act. I'm not sure anyone has tracked references of 1984 in the last decade, but it's certainly a more robust number than the years following its publication.
Fiction, Hamid continues, allows us to say what we otherwise would not. While there are certainly men as brazen as Rabbit Angstrom, rarely do you find one so vocal with his inside voice, as if the filter from cortex to mouth was severed. The tenderness an abused mother shares with the son she locks in the closet in Emma Donoghue's Room—though I'll never be a mother or closeted child, I found myself curled into a ball while reading the harrowing details.
Not that fiction need be painful. Wallace Stegner made me fall in love with states I've never set foot in. I've never sipped a cup of Happicuppa by name, but every time the term is invoked by Margaret Atwood an immediate aroma of grinding beans fills the air. Amitav Ghosh's retelling of the Opium Wars pulled from me a romantic longing for an era and culture that can only be imagined.
It is in our imagination that we solve the problems of the world. True, the same imagination creates these issues to begin with, so deeply embedded are our conjured fears. The hero's journey is a series of illustrious tales of us righting the wrongs we cause in the first place. Perhaps that's why redemption, a theme made famous by the world's most circulated story of fiction, is so meaningful: we adore the sucker who transcends their folly.
"Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth," remarked Camus, the man who asked us to imagine Sisyphus happy with his fate. Such a mediation today would be the source of severe cognitive disassociation. In a culture obsessed with self the burden of such responsibility is rarely entertained. It's hard to be absurd when you take yourself so seriously.
Yet this might hint at the most useful role of fiction in our age: a resurrection of the lost art of debate. The Stranger is effectively the story of a mind warring with itself. To wage a successful campaign, you must contemplate competing narratives with equal gravity before arriving at a decision. Nothing in contemporary society champions such an honest appraisal. To even think the other side has a point is heresy. Few histories capturing this moment will be free of deeply ingrained bias.
There is no escape in fiction, though it offers something we so desperately need: time. Stories require an investment, the type of sacrifice tweets and selfies are not equipped to offer. The arresting power of a beautiful sentence; the captivation characters evoke, especially messy ones. To travel well with another's mind is a necessary form of communication. Without it, we lose our humanity, as blasts of puerile emotion shuttled through cyberspace in the form of reactionary fragments are teaching us.
We need history. Without it, we have no foundation for understanding today. But we need fiction as well. When we refuse to wrestle with our demons they always win. And America, despite what Twitter announces, is not tired of winning given how little of it we're accomplishing. The fiction we're living through has no elegance, no depth, nothing of the character of a good novel. We're just growing tired.
Why read fiction? Because of the 'Jihadi Sandbox Principle'
Eric Weinstein explains that if your mind isn't running contradictory programs, you're not thinking deeply enough. Fiction can help you imagine some of those dangerous and alien ideas, and learn from them.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
David Schmidt, a geology professor at Westminster College, had just arrived in the South Dakota Badlands in summer 2019 with a group of students for a fossil dig when he received a call from the National Forest Service. A nearby rancher had discovered a strange object poking out of the ground. They wanted Schmidt to take a look.
"One of the very first bones that we saw in the rock was this long cylindrical bone," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "The first thing that came out of our mouths was, 'That kind of looks like the horn of a triceratops.'"
After authorities gave the go-ahead, Schmidt and a small group of students returned this summer and spent nearly every day of June and July excavating the skull.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"
Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about 8.2 feet long.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a Triceratops prorsus, one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the Tyrannosaurus rex. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made headlines after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.
Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the New York Times.
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
The Badlands aren't the only spot in North America where paleontologists have found dinosaurs. In the 1870s, Colorado and Wyoming became the first sites of dinosaur discoveries in the U.S., ushering in an era of public fascination with the prehistoric creatures — and a competitive rush to unearth them.
Since, dinosaur bones have been found in 35 states. One of the most fruitful locations for paleontologists has been the Morrison formation, a sequence of Upper Jurassic sedimentary rock that stretches under the Western part of the country. Discovered here were species like Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus, to name a few.
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
As for "Shady" (the nickname of the South Dakota triceratops), Schmidt and his team have safely transported it to the Westminster campus. They hope to raise funds for restoration, and to return to South Dakota in search of more bones that once belonged to the triceratops.
Studying dinosaurs helps scientists gain a more complete understanding of our evolution, illuminating a through-line that extends from "deep time" to present day. For scientists like Schmidt, there's also the simple joy of coming to face-to-face with a lost world.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "You don't ever think that these things will ever happen."
Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.
In recent years, our team at Iowa State University has found a way to make pigs an even closer stand-in for humans. We have successfully transferred components of the human immune system into pigs that lack a functional immune system. This breakthrough has the potential to accelerate medical research in many areas, including virus and vaccine research, as well as cancer and stem cell therapeutics.
Existing biomedical models
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or SCID, is a genetic condition that causes impaired development of the immune system. People can develop SCID, as dramatized in the 1976 movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Other animals can develop SCID, too, including mice.
Researchers in the 1980s recognized that SCID mice could be implanted with human immune cells for further study. Such mice are called “humanized" mice and have been optimized over the past 30 years to study many questions relevant to human health.
Mice are the most commonly used animal in biomedical research, but results from mice often do not translate well to human responses, thanks to differences in metabolism, size and divergent cell functions compared with people.
Nonhuman primates are also used for medical research and are certainly closer stand-ins for humans. But using them for this purpose raises numerous ethical considerations. With these concerns in mind, the National Institutes of Health retired most of its chimpanzees from biomedical research in 2013.
Alternative animal models are in demand.
Swine are a viable option for medical research because of their similarities to humans. And with their widespread commercial use, pigs are met with fewer ethical dilemmas than primates. Upwards of 100 million hogs are slaughtered each year for food in the U.S.
In 2012, groups at Iowa State University and Kansas State University, including Jack Dekkers, an expert in animal breeding and genetics, and Raymond Rowland, a specialist in animal diseases, serendipitously discovered a naturally occurring genetic mutation in pigs that caused SCID. We wondered if we could develop these pigs to create a new biomedical model.
Our group has worked for nearly a decade developing and optimizing SCID pigs for applications in biomedical research. In 2018, we achieved a twofold milestone when working with animal physiologist Jason Ross and his lab. Together we developed a more immunocompromised pig than the original SCID pig – and successfully humanized it, by transferring cultured human immune stem cells into the livers of developing piglets.
During early fetal development, immune cells develop within the liver, providing an opportunity to introduce human cells. We inject human immune stem cells into fetal pig livers using ultrasound imaging as a guide. As the pig fetus develops, the injected human immune stem cells begin to differentiate – or change into other kinds of cells – and spread through the pig's body. Once SCID piglets are born, we can detect human immune cells in their blood, liver, spleen and thymus gland. This humanization is what makes them so valuable for testing new medical treatments.
We have found that human ovarian tumors survive and grow in SCID pigs, giving us an opportunity to study ovarian cancer in a new way. Similarly, because human skin survives on SCID pigs, scientists may be able to develop new treatments for skin burns. Other research possibilities are numerous.
The ultraclean SCID pig biocontainment facility in Ames, Iowa. Adeline Boettcher, CC BY-SA
Pigs in a bubble
Since our pigs lack essential components of their immune system, they are extremely susceptible to infection and require special housing to help reduce exposure to pathogens.
SCID pigs are raised in bubble biocontainment facilities. Positive pressure rooms, which maintain a higher air pressure than the surrounding environment to keep pathogens out, are coupled with highly filtered air and water. All personnel are required to wear full personal protective equipment. We typically have anywhere from two to 15 SCID pigs and breeding animals at a given time. (Our breeding animals do not have SCID, but they are genetic carriers of the mutation, so their offspring may have SCID.)
As with any animal research, ethical considerations are always front and center. All our protocols are approved by Iowa State University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and are in accordance with The National Institutes of Health's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Every day, twice a day, our pigs are checked by expert caretakers who monitor their health status and provide engagement. We have veterinarians on call. If any pigs fall ill, and drug or antibiotic intervention does not improve their condition, the animals are humanely euthanized.
Our goal is to continue optimizing our humanized SCID pigs so they can be more readily available for stem cell therapy testing, as well as research in other areas, including cancer. We hope the development of the SCID pig model will pave the way for advancements in therapeutic testing, with the long-term goal of improving human patient outcomes.
Adeline Boettcher earned her research-based Ph.D. working on the SCID project in 2019.
Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.
- A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
- The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
- The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
How can modern technology help warn us of impending volcanic eruptions?
One promising answer may lie in satellite imagery. In a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers used infrared data collected by NASA satellites to study the conditions near volcanoes in the months and years before they erupted.
The results revealed a pattern: Prior to eruptions, an unusually large amount of heat had been escaping through soil near volcanoes. This diffusion of subterranean heat — which is a byproduct of "large-scale thermal unrest" — could potentially represent a warning sign of future eruptions.
Conceptual model of large-scale thermal unrestCredit: Girona et al.
For the study, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis of changes in surface temperature near volcanoes, using data collected over 16.5 years by NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. The results showed that eruptions tended to occur around the time when surface temperatures near the volcanoes peaked.
Eruptions were preceded by "subtle but significant long-term (years), large-scale (tens of square kilometres) increases in their radiant heat flux (up to ~1 °C in median radiant temperature)," the researchers wrote. After eruptions, surface temperatures reliably decreased, though the cool-down period took longer for bigger eruptions.
"Volcanoes can experience thermal unrest for several years before eruption," the researchers wrote. "This thermal unrest is dominated by a large-scale phenomenon operating over extensive areas of volcanic edifices, can be an early indicator of volcanic reactivation, can increase prior to different types of eruption and can be tracked through a statistical analysis of little-processed (that is, radiance or radiant temperature) satellite-based remote sensing data with high temporal resolution."
Temporal variations of target volcanoesCredit: Girona et al.
Although using satellites to monitor thermal unrest wouldn't enable scientists to make hyper-specific eruption predictions (like predicting the exact day), it could significantly improve prediction efforts. Seismologists and volcanologists currently use a range of techniques to forecast eruptions, including monitoring for gas emissions, ground deformation, and changes to nearby water channels, to name a few.
Still, none of these techniques have proven completely reliable, both because of the science and the practical barriers (e.g. funding) standing in the way of large-scale monitoring. In 2014, for example, Japan's Mount Ontake suddenly erupted, killing 63 people. It was the nation's deadliest eruption in nearly a century.
In the study, the researchers found that surface temperatures near Mount Ontake had been increasing in the two years prior to the eruption. To date, no other monitoring method has detected "well-defined" warning signs for the 2014 disaster, the researchers noted.
The researchers hope satellite-based infrared monitoring techniques, combined with existing methods, can improve prediction efforts for volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions have killed about 2,000 people since 2000.
"Our findings can open new horizons to better constrain magma–hydrothermal interaction processes, especially when integrated with other datasets, allowing us to explore the thermal budget of volcanoes and anticipate eruptions that are very difficult to forecast through other geophysical/geochemical methods."