Last week I had a conversation with one of my favorite scientists. I had just visited the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington and was struck by the changes in what we know about dinosaurs. When I was a child it was all about giant lizards. Yes, we knew more than the Victoria dinosaur hunters (I adore stories about them) but our general understanding was still it its infancy.
Some time in the 1980’s the avian connection to some dinosaur species gained traction and now it is an accepted part of science. I brought this up to my scientist friend and his response was marvelous, “To be a scientist is to live with a level of uncertainty.” He went on to say that he shocked his students by telling them that as much as two thirds of their content in their textbook will turn out to be wrong. Treasured theories can be, and often are, disproven.
If you want certainty, you should try religion — and particular brands of fiction. In some genres, like ‘cozy’ mysteries, the motivations for all actions — even murder— are clear and justice prevails in the end. Miss Marple, and her compatriots, tie up all the loose ends before THE END of the story. The roles are also as clear as the good sheriff and the bad stranger in a Western or the noble astronaut versus the scary aliens in classic science fiction. It’s very satisfying. The end of the story provides the kind of certainty that is a rarity in real life.
But uncertainty is also very attractive. The rise of the anti-hero, the murky end of a noir story, the morally ambiguous choices and unintended consequences that follow these choices are at the heart of much of contemporary fiction.
Uncertainty is not comforting or cozy, but it’s a great landscape for any kind of fiction. It may be tough on budding scientists, but good writers thrive on it.