In which I question an assumption: do fiction readers really dislike scientific detail?

My regular readers will know all about Fiction Lab, the world’s first book group devoted to discussing lab lit fiction. We’ve been meeting once a month for just over a decade at London’s Royal Institution to talk about novels with scientists as central characters. We try to get authors to join in whenever we can – and next month it’s my turn.

This is not my first rodeo; I also submitted myself to the grilling for my previous two novels. It’s quite nerve-wracking. For the past ten years I’ve witnessed more forensic and eloquent book trashings than I care to recall. The LabLiterati are a discerning bunch and very difficult to please. It’s not enough that any science is dealt with plausibly and realistically – the story, characters, writing style, pace and tone also have to be up to snuff, and the bar is high. We warm up by going around the circle giving the book a score from one to ten; some regulars routinely give zeros or indeed negative numbers, and the average score is seldom over five.

When the author takes part, we let the group meet in privacy for half an hour to allow candid discussion before ushering in the author for the Q&A. Members are usually on their best behavior at this stage, but it’s difficult to disguise disgruntlement completely. Hence my nerves on the eve of my own grilling.

My third novel Cat Zero has been well received thus far, especially by non-scientists (who will of course comprise the majority of any literary audience). Using an iterative process of running drafts by non-experts, I was very careful to try to strike a balance between detail and understanding. I agonized over every single passage that contained technical details, trialling it on dozens of guinea pigs, gauging whether it was earning its keep or going too far. I included only enough science to get the point across and offer a flavor of what research is really like. That said, there is a lot of science in the book, probably more than I’ve ever included before.

I’ve been very interested in the quibbles I have heard about from a few scientist readers; many seem to assume that the science is “too difficult” for non-scientist readers, who inevitably “won’t like it” or are bound to “struggle”. The novel, they suggest, might best be enjoyed by researchers or science students. This viewpoint is in contrast to what most of the non-scientist readers have actually been telling me, or saying in reviews.

I find this disparity of great interest. Why is it that scientists assume that non-scientists won’t enjoy or be able to cope with technical details? I am sure they are not merely being patronizing. It’s possible that it’s difficult to put themselves into the shoes of someone who knows nothing about a subject, experiencing it for the first time through the careful clues and word choices that I have labored hard to lay down (instead of putting it into their own context, which might include an undergraduate degree and PhD’s worth of baggage).

I have discovered over my many years of writing lab lit fiction that readers are surprisingly happy with a bit of technical detail and jargon, provided it’s clearly sign-posted as being part of the atmosphere and not strictly necessary for full comprehension of the plot. This experience is reinforced by the Fiction Lab group, the majority of whom are not scientists; their most frequent complaint is that the lab lit fiction we read is too watered down in the technical details, because the authors didn’t credit their readers with enough smarts to cope.

Because jargon, while it may be bad in traditional science communication (such as newspaper pieces about science, or a researcher up on the podium talking to school kids about her work), is paradoxically not automatically a bad thing in fiction. The example I always use is Star Trek: the characters may be chattering away about “quantum fluxes in the alpha segment of the warp core generator” but we, as the audience, don’t need to know what that really means. And we know we don’t need to know. All we need to know is that it’s a problem that needs to be overcome – and meanwhile, we’re left with the feeling that an authentic technical exchange has occurred, adding verisimilitude to the scene. Hospital dramas do similar things with medical jargon, as when we know we don’t need to know what it means when the consultant barks to the nurse to order an urgent amylase or creatinine test. It’s the same for lab-based fiction: one researcher might remark to another that she’s “cloned a PCR fragment”, but provided it’s embedded in an otherwise understandable exchange and the detail is signposted as being furniture instead of crucial, your average non-scientific reader will let it flow overhead as a touch of reality they don’t need to come to grips with.

What do you think about this issue? I’m sure it’s going to come up during the grilling, and I’d be delighted if you’d read my novel and join the Fiction Lab debate on Monday, 8 October at 7 PM at the Royal Institution in London. It’s free and all are welcome. The most cost effective way tor read the novel is on Amazon Kindle, but if you want a paperback, head over to Blackwells online, where it’s under a tenner with free UK delivery.

Hope to see you there!

Posted in LabLit, Scientific thinking, Writing | 8 Comments

In which I drift

Today as I walked to the lab from Belsize Park underground station, fallen cobnuts crunched under my shoes, and an obstacle course of shiny brown conkers scattered free from their deflated prickly cases. In the spent edges of Storm Helene, I could feel microscopic flecks of rain gusting against my face, almost more a temperature than a touch. The endless summer is finally winding down, and just a few precious days remain until the first-year undergraduates flock in for their Induction Week.

My mood is not so much melancholy as diffuse, undecided as to whether I am up or down. I feel a sense that I’m marking time, that there is something I’m striving for but I don’t know what that is. In the great press of competing imperatives, I have suddenly lost track of what is important. I have a monumental list of academic tasks, each competing for pole position, but I am not certain, sometimes, why they really matter in the grand scheme of my working existence. Maybe the diffuseness stems from there being just too many obligations to give enough time or attention to any one – the whole blurs into a mass of blind effort whose purpose becomes ever more opaque. Or maybe because I know that my position is not secure, this imparts the fleeting sense that I might not matter or belong.

I have caught myself recently wondering what it would be like to put all of my efforts into one thing – a project that would consume me, on which I could lavish all of my passion and energy. It’s not something I’ve ever had the luxury of experiencing in my working life, although I came close to that all-consuming feeling when I wrote my second novel on the dole. It wasn’t necessarily a healthy place to be, either.

Maybe the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle. But in academia, I am never going to get even close. The style of modern university work has evolved into a monstrous portfolio of a thousand different, disparate efforts, most destined to be overdue before they’re even begun, with emails unanswered, appointments double-booked, people disappointed, simply because you are constantly in an impossible situation. A situation that doesn’t stop when you slip out of the building; it chases you on your phone, follows you home, invades your bed, accelerates your heartbeat and threads into your dreams.

Most of the time, I love what I do. The rest of the time, I wait it out, knowing that the feeling will pass.

Posted in Academia, The profession of science, Work/life balance | Leave a comment

In which we enjoy: unique recycled goods from Upside-Down

I rarely engage in product endorsement, but I’d like to tell you about a company I’m just crazy about. (They aren’t giving me any money or discounts to write this review.)

Upside-Down is a Romanian company which recycles urban materials, such as truck tarpaulins and street banners, into beautiful products like wallets, folders and courier bags. I first encountered Upside-Down when I received a freebie folder branded with Figshare at a Digital Science event. It was a lovely object, visually and texture-wise, and as someone who is a bit of a stationery nut, it soon became one of my most prized possessions — where I would keep, for example, chapters of novel I was currently editing, or anything else intellectually precious.

It took me a few years to get around to finding out where the folder had actually come from. Digital Science kindly put me in touch with Figshare, and Figshare put me in touch with Andreea from Upside-Down. Yes, the “upcycled” products were for sale internationally, so I went to the website to find a wonderful assortment of objects in ravishing colours and with surprisingly low price tags.

The website is only in Romanian, but Google Translate did a pretty good job and I managed to order. Unfortunately you can’t use a card to pay, but I negotiated with Andreea to make an electronic transfer, as their preferred mode (cash on delivery) wasn’t practical for me. The bank wanted to fleece me for the BACS, so I used Transferwise for efficient service, good exchange rate and only about £1.50 in fees instead. Delivery is via DPD to the UK, fully trackable. The unit prices may be low, but the shipping is expensive, so I’d recommend clubbing in with your mates and buying in bulk.

So if you need a folder, bag, wallet or iPad case and want something environmentally friendly, beautiful and very different from the high street, this is the place for you.

Posted in Writing | 3 Comments

In which I plug: Cat Zero! (Punchline: it’s a great holiday read)

Are you heading off for some well-needed rest? Then do considering packing a copy of Cat Zero, my latest lab lit novel – in which a feminist virologist joins forces with a sexist mathematician to solve a cat plague that might be more sinister than it first appears.

Set in a quirky research institute in leafy North London, the novel sees Artemis “Artie” Marshall, a new lab head, deploying charm, wit and lateral thinking to establish herself in an old-fashioned academic community notorious for its misogynistic outlook. A light-hearted scientific whodunnit with a serious streak, Cat Zero is part-thriller and part oblique love story, packed to the hilt with hardcore lab life. It’s one of the hottest summers on record, and the novel kicks off with a strange new outbreak rearing up on the Isle of Sheppey, just off the coast of Kent in the atmospheric Thames Estuary. Artie and her team, with the help of two otherworldly and antisocial theoretical epidemiologists, find themselves on a race against time to get to the bottom of an epidemic which certainly isn’t what it first appears to be.

But don’t just take my word for it. Matthew Reisz, the book editor of the Times Higher, recently wrote that this “highly entertaining” book is “both informative about the science and intriguing about the rivalries, backbiting and sexual tensions of laboratory life”, and that the mystery kept him turning pages to find out how it ended. (Other plaudits, including a few from best-selling authors, can be found in an earlier blog post.)

Once you’ve returned from your holiday (hopefully sun-kissed and not nettle-stung and/or midge-devoured), we’d love to see you at Fiction Lab at the Royal Institution on the 8th of October, where we’ll be discussing Cat Zero. For those who don’t know, Fiction Lab is the world’s first book group dedicated to the lab lit genre; we meet on the second Monday of each month at 7 PM, followed by a pub session at the nearby King’s Head (where the cheesy chips overfloweth and the ales are pretty decent). When the author attends, there’s a 30 minute free-for-all discussion beforehand so you don’t feel inhibited by any fragile authorial egos, after which they make an appearance to chat about the ins and outs of the novel, answer questions and of course, sign copies. It’s free, it’s a friendly bunch of regulars, and all are welcome – we’d love to see you there!

Cat Zero on Amazon.co.uk
Cat Zero on Amazon.com

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In which I preserve

I often think about how ancient survival strategies are probably still encoded somewhere deep in our chromosomes, cryptic and dormant but with the potential to be roused by the faintest of stimuli.

For me, recent unrest in the world has woken up some vestigial feelings. Social and traditional media are full of black times, news feeds spewing out calculated falsehoods, threats, abuse, close-mindedness, propaganda, pessimism – and ever other kind of -ism you’d ever not want to see in one lifetime. I try to walk a fine line between keeping informed and protecting myself from the worst of the onslaught. Otherwise, it’s impossible to stay productive – despite the more relaxed summer academic vibe, I still have a million and one tasks that need doing, and a team of scientists to supervise with a clear head.

Brexit is one of the things in the daily onslaught that worries me the most. I wouldn’t classify myself as either of the two patronizing categories currently in circulation (“remoaner” and “remainiac”), but I did vote for Britain to stay in Europe and I am heartily concerned at how terribly the Government is handling the negotiations. I don’t believe there will be any sort of apocalypse afterwards, but I do think it could take a few decades for the nation to stablize – at which point I’ll be gone, or close to, from this planet. I know that I am far better off than most, but still I am saddened that my chances at a pleasant denouement after a long life of working so hard will likely be materially harmed by a generation of sluggish economic growth.

This is my rational mind talking. But somewhere deep within, my body is preparing for some sort of immediate disaster come March of next year, no doubt fuelled by speculation in the media about supply-chain problems immediately after Brexit. (Actually, I’m not sure it’s even irrational to think there might be a period of food shortages, with trade so finely balanced and with retail supermarkets not being geared up to storing or refrigerating anything extra.)

Seeing as I spend so much of my spare time in a hard-working garden, it’s probably not a surprise that I’ve been thinking more carefully than usual about the bounty of fruits and vegetables currently glutting around me. In fact, I’m almost obsessed – hence my idea that instinct might be kicking in. Richard and I always have done lots of preserving: jams, jellies, pickles, chutney, wines and ciders. But this year it’s felt different to me, more relevant and urgent. I may joke that one day soon we might be trading quince jelly for ammo, but underneath the humor is something imperative that I don’t understand and am loathe to dismiss outright.

So I pick far more fruit than we will ever need, sacrificing precious reading and writing time to labor long after evening has fallen, scratching my hands on brambles and stinging my ankles on nettles. I save sweetcorn cobs desiccated by the draught to grind into meal, even though extracting the kernels is a tedious business. I research the best way to crack open sunflower seeds en masse. I collect coriander seed, linseed and fennel seeds for seasoning or infusions. I get more serious about saving seeds from the heritage vegetables that we currently have, preparing and drying and labelling them carefully in white envelopes for germination next year. Our fruit drier is going 24/7 – plums, figs, apples, chilis, whatever’s going – and Richard has lots of fermentation in progress, gurgling away in the corner of the utility room. We sow winter crops now in beds cleared of summer’s efforts, and think ahead to what will go in come early spring. And above all, we enjoy what we have in real time: fresh pesto from our basil pots; salsa verde from tomatillos, onion and coriander; deep-friend courgette flowers. Joshua wanders around in paradise, picking and eating what he finds, and will grow up thinking this is normal.

Or, I can only trust that it will remain so, even after we leave.

Posted in Domestic bliss, Gardening, Joshua, Staring into the abyss, The ageing process, Work/life balance | Comments Off on In which I preserve

In which Cat Zero arrives on the scene; plus some other literary shenanigans

It’s nearly showtime: my third lab lit novel Cat Zero is about to be published! After a several-month delay due to issues of US distribution, I am pleased to confirm an official publication date of Tuesday 5 June!

Yes, that’s next Tuesday! Just today, as I was working from home on various academic tasks, the postman rang the doorbell and delivered a few boxes of books hot off the presses:

Cats in a box – no relation to Schrödinger’s

Set in present-day England, Cat Zero relates the tale of female virologist (Artie) who has to join forces with sexist mathematician (Simon) to solve a mysterious cat plague that might be more sinister than it first appears. The novel is a light-hearted thriller/whodunnit/romance/drama set firmly in the lab lit genre, jam-packed with scientists doing their science as an integral part of the plot. In fact, it’s probably the most science-y of all of my books.

My only frustration with what has otherwise been a painless process of editing and production is UK Amazon, which hasn’t responded to requests to upload the correct, current information about the book. So don’t be put off by that £18.50 price tag: the paperback price should be £9.99 (and Kindle is £3.99). The US Amazon site has the correct information.

Completely coincidentally, the publication date nicely coincides with several other geeky/sciencey/literary events I’m involved with in the coming fortnight, all of which are in London.

PubSci

On Wednesday 6th June I will be speaking at London’s PubSci – seven years after being the guest speaker at their launch event. This time I’ll be delivering a new talk I’ve just started airing: Boffins, Beards, and B-Movies: An illustrated story of science stereotypes from Socrates to Sci-fi. Packed with examples and film clips, it’s a fun exploration of the portrayal of scientists in fiction, with a more serious message about how those stereotypes can actually impair the ability of scientists to be effective messengers about all the important and crucial work that science does for humanity.

Join us upstairs at the Old King’s Head, near London Bridge station. Doors open at 6pm for a 7pm start and as usual the event is free, but there will be a whip-round to cover costs.

Fiction Lab 10th Anniversary

This month marks ten years since the launch of Fiction Lab at the Royal Institution, the world’s first monthly book group dedicated to lab lit fiction. It’s been a real pleasure presiding over this group for a decade. To celebrate, we’re throwing a special informal public event in the Ri Library on 11th June to discuss the relationship between science and literature over drinks (cash bar).

Joining me on the panel will be award-winning author Philip Ball, novelist and astrophysicist Pippa Goldschmidt and novelist and astronomer Stuart Clark, all of whom have been featured guests of honour at Fiction Lab over the years. In addition, we are pleased to welcome on the panel Stephen McGann, an actor, author and science communicator who’s currently starring as Dr Turner in the BBC hit series Call The Midwife.

Starting at 7 PM, this event is free to attend, although spaces are limited, and you can reserve your place here.

Waterstone’s Event

I’ll be one of the panellists in this 13th June event at Waterstone’s on Tottenham Court Road. From their blurb: Virtual Futures presents a panel discussion, and a series of short-story readings, on using near-future fiction to foster transformative conversations between scientists and other audiences. By imagining possible futures, near-future fiction has the capacity to seize on the science and technology currently researched in laboratory environments and take it just far enough that it can provoke audiences to think on impending potential implications for society. How can science fiction be used to create a self-reflexive capacity in scientists? How can fiction help communicate scientific research to the wider public? How can encounters between the arts, humanities, social sciences, and hard sciences and engineering be fostered?

As part of the underpinning project, three authors (not me) interacted with scientists at King’s College London and incorporated their work into short stories – a great idea.

The event starts at 6 PM for a 6.30 start – tickets can be purchased here for £6.

I’ll have books to sell and sign at all of these events, so please come along to one if you can and say hello!

——————————
More about Cat Zero

Here’s what some people have said about the book already:

Cat Zero is that rare beast, a racy novel with a sound scientific background. Postdocs will love it. Ph.D.s will gasp. And the general reader will enjoy a smart romantic thriller in which an intelligent, independent and, yes, beautiful, researcher confronts her demons while fighting to succeed in a male-dominated world. Will she find love along the way? Read it to find out—I did, and loved it!”
— Simon Mawer, author of Man Booker Prize-shortlisted The Glass Room, and Trapeze, The Fall and Mendel’s Dwarf

“Absolutely gripping. A fast-paced story that opens the lid on the secret world of the laboratory and shows us what scientists are really like—as human and fallible as the rest of us.”
— Pippa Goldschmidt, author of The Falling Sky and The Need for Better Regulation of Outer Space

“A potent mix of science, thrills and romance… Fans of Michael Crichton will love it.”
— Mark Edwards, author of number-one bestsellers The Magpies and Because She Loves Me

“Within the stylish package of a pacy thriller, Jennifer Rohn gives us a glimpse of what it’s really like to work in a scientific laboratory: the academic rivalries and jealousies, the gender politics, the frustrations of painstaking experimental work and the excitement of new ideas and breakthroughs. For once in a science-based novel, everything here is plausible – which makes it all the more alarming, and all the more compelling.”
— Philip Ball, award-winning author of Critical Mass

“A mysterious outbreak of cat plague sends an intrepid virologist on a hunt to find the source of contagion in this gripping page-turner. Nobody writes about scientists quite like Jennifer Rohn, who captures not just the technical details of research, but also the complex humanity of the endeavor.”
—Jennifer Ouellette, Cocktail Physics

“Cat Zero weaves together the complicated, sometimes archaic, social hierarchies of researchers with the thrill of a new scientific discovery. But you don’t have to know anything about science to follow along with the mysteries in this book: Why are cats falling ill in Kent? What’s going on with Artie’s strange colleagues down the hall? And will she hook up with her postdoc—or should she stay away? At the end of the book, we have some answers. But like real scientific discovery, the end is just the start of a whole new set of possibilities.”
— Eva Amsen, Easternblot.net

“This book purrs. It does that thing that cats do, playing with their toy, gently poking at it, softly lobbing it in the air, then, eventually, lunging. I’d recommend it for those who like the interplay of scientific lives, permeated with motives and mys-tery.”
— Grant Jacobs, Code For Life

“Very human scientists go about their lives and work, seamlessly blending into a fascinating tapestry as they try to solve the scientific mystery of a disease plaguing a cat population, which spills over into the human population. I loved getting to know the main character, Artie, a female scientist who deals with all of the plusses and pitfalls of being a woman, a scientist and a woman-in-science. Her personality shines through in Jennifer Rohn’s work.”
— Joanne Manaster, Read Science

“[T]he final chapters are absolute emotional roller coasters. I could not put the book down. I had to know how it ended. But I am not telling. You will have to find out for yourself. I give it five purrs and two paws up.”
— Susan Johnston, Goodreads

Here’s a spotlight on me and the novel that my lovely publishers, Bitingduck Press, sponsored in Publisher’s Weekly.

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In which a new Doctor is born

No, not that Doctor. (Besides, I’m not sure any graduate student would care to regenerate and repeat the experience for all eternity!)

My first PhD candidate, Harry Horsley, recently had his viva. Here he is, about an hour before the event:

Smiles in the face of impending Doom

The waiting was drawn out as the examiners cloistered themselves and discussed their grilling strategy. But finally Harry was called into the room, whose door clicked shut with heavy finality.

Nail-biting time

I can honestly say that I wasn’t worried for one moment that Harry wouldn’t ace it. He’s one of the most talented young scientists I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, and of his three thesis chapters dealing with data, two are already published, and the third will be submitted in the next few weeks. But I was unaccountably nervous as the minutes ticked by: my colleagues joked that I looked paler than Harry had.

Just under two hours later, our new Doctor had emerged, victorious and with only a few battle scars, related with much laughter over champagne in the common room.

A well-deserved beverage

Yesterday, Harry gifted me with the first of what I hope will be an ever-expanding line of tomes to display with pride in the office bookshelf:

Heavy denouement

It’s been a rite of passage for me as well as Harry. My second student is finishing up his experiments this summer, while a third has just accepted an offer to join the lab (hooray!). My academic life has never been crazier: I taught my last class of the year yesterday, but now a month of full-on marking awaits. So it will be head down until June, trying to fit all of this in among my many other obligations: preparing for a clinical trial on our novel drug delivery system that the MHRA has just green-lighted in principle; working on the astonishing crop of five manuscripts that await polishing; discharging our ambitious Athena SWAN action plan; ticking off the never-ending list of small chores that accumulate like the drifts of petals and pollen swirling down and banking up on pavements all over London.

But that “school’s nearly out” feeling of my youth cannot be suppressed, evoked by the warmth of the air through an open window, the smell of freshly mown grass, the tenor of the birdsong. Some things are ending, but others are beginning.

Posted in Academia, Careers, Students, The profession of science | Comments Off on In which a new Doctor is born

In which science imitates life, number 365: zones of death in public transport

I was waiting for the bus this past weekend, ridiculously early to get my son to his swimming lesson across town. Or so I thought.

We waited, and waited, and Joshua jumped up and down anxiously, looking adorable with his lobster rucksack bouncing on his back, asking over and over, “Mama, why isn’t the bus coming?”

Quite. We were rapidly reaching the point of no return, so I pulled out my phone to view the live map. There, I could see a swarm of buses studiously avoiding our position in a way that was strangely familiar:

Was it something we said?

Where had I seen that pattern before? And then I had it:

The Kirby–Bauer disk diffusion assay (via Wikipedia)

My son and I were the antibiotic, and the buses were the bacteria. And the swathe of nothingness between…was about to make us very late.

I called up an Uber – which arrived just as the bus lumbered past.

Posted in Joshua, Scientific thinking, Silliness | Comments Off on In which science imitates life, number 365: zones of death in public transport

In which age is no impediment to scientific discourse

Joshua has had quite a few vaccinations in his four-and-a-half years – the usual routine inoculations for standard childhood illnesses and a couple (chicken pox and meningitis B) that are not on the NHS menu. The last time I took him out of nursery, this time for the flu vaccine, he asked me why we were going to the doctor, and I decided to give it to him in simple terms.

With Joshua these days, you never know how much information he will end up retaining. His memory seems very fluid: he can easily forget an event that happened only moments before, but will then come out with something that he was told only once, months ago.

I wasn’t sure if he had really been paying attention, but as he was sat on my knee in the GP surgery, the kindly nurse looming over him with a syringe, he spontaneously volunteered, “I’m getting pretend germs to teach my body how to fight the REAL germs.” The nurse was visibly astounded, then regrouped and told me how happy it made her to know that someone had bothered to explain it to him.

Currently, the nursery is being decimated by chicken pox – when I picked him up today, the room was nearly deserted.

“I’m not getting the pox,” Joshua said confidently to one of his teachers. “I’ve got pretend germs. Mama, what is chicken pox?”

So I told him about viruses, and promised to show him pictures on the phone when we got home. Together, we pored over images of virions in all of their strange and beautiful glory. He liked the science fiction monstrosity of T4 phage a lot better than varicella zoster, which he proclaimed to be a “boring spiky ball”. After I tucked him up in bed, he said, sleepily, “Mama, I know I have pretend germs, but how do they REALLY fight chicken pox?” I promised I’d draw him some pictures tomorrow – antibodies, perhaps, in simple terms, and how they act.

I have tried very hard not to hold back on any scientific explanations when my son says “why”, no matter how further down the molecular or atomic rabbit hole it takes us. He seems continually up for the challenge, soaking in facts like a sponge, and enjoys the simple experiments we have done together when it turns out the answer to “why” can be demonstrated in some way. Not for the first time, it strikes me that his is precisely the age when this sort of information is best assimilated, and I always wonder if I am doing enough.

I suspect this is my cue to plug my friend Alom Shaha’s new book, Mr Shaha’s Recipes for Wonder: Adventures in Science Round the Kitchen Table. He is also giving a free talk at University College London next week called “How To be your child’s first science teacher” if you want to know more.

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In which I get the blues (a tale of miracle surgery)

I have a good excuse for not writing for a while: eye surgery in the new year, which made reading or writing of any kind difficult. Only now am I starting to get back to my old literary self.

I have worn glasses since about age six. My myopia had grown progressively worse over the decades until I settled at about -11 diopter with an astigmatism of about 3.5. Standard laser surgery was out of bounds, as my deeply distorted corneas didn’t have enough width to sculpt away. Soft lenses became unworkable, and then toric lenses in their turn, leaving gas-permeable hard lenses the only contact option. Finding these increasingly uncomfortable, I eventually surrendered to specs.

In my forties, I started losing my near vision too. I remember the precise moment I realized this: I was riding the New York subway, got a bit lost and realized I was physically unable to read the network map in my hand. Thus began the era of carting around three different eyeglass cases in my handbag, and shoving my glasses up onto my head to read my iPhone with one eye a few millimeters from the screen.

To make matters worse, for the past few years no optician has been able to give me a spectacles prescription that made far vision even remotely sharp. I finally went to Moorfield’s Eye Hospital to find out why.

The answer: early-onset cataracts.

I wasn’t actually unhappy to hear this. It was good to have a diagnosis at last, especially one with such a safe and reliable surgical method of treatment. Before this, I’d even been toying with the idea of treating myself to more intensive surgery. So this seemed like a good excuse to jump in feet first.

As is traditional, I underwent treatment one eye at a time. For approximately a minute, the surgeon blasted the cornea of my right eye with an impressive piece of kit known as a femtosecond laser. This was primarily to allow surgical access, but the computer had been programmed to bestow a bonus partial reduction in astigmatism. (“You’re a tough case,” the surgeon told me cheerfully. “I spent an entire evening with your scans.”)

Next, as my veins were flooded with opiates and sedation by a breezy anesthetist who looked like a rock star, and “Comfortably Numb” blasted into the theatre (I still don’t know if this was a joke), my natural lens was sonicated to bits and sucked away, and a brand-new perfectly powered artificial lens was deployed, probably as specialist as one of the eyepieces on our fancy microscopes back in the lab. It was all over in 20 minutes, efficient and painless.

The world of our senses is a neuronal construct, a fudge factor the brain cobbles together to keep us alert and safe. It’s not something most of us probably think about very often, if at all, until we encounter a drastic change. As I was wheeled into recovery, the difference was stark. I couldn’t see much out of the right eye yet, but everything was suddenly pure and silvery blue, bathed in an ethereal full-moon glow. In contrast, my knackered old left lens showed a dingy-yellow world that I didn’t much like the look of.

Which one was real? I had no idea, and I still don’t. The ageing lens does increasingly facilitate the yellow wavelength, but is the newborn lens crystal clear? Does my son see the same white-hot light that my right eye was seeing now, or is it a super-human enhancement courtesy of a lens that is clearer than any biological material could ever achieve? I can’t think of any objective way to measure this, as my experience can’t be coherently compared with anyone else’s.

But more revelations awaited. My surgery was in the evening, and it wasn’t until the next day that I properly appreciated the difference. A large number of things were newly blue, an effect that intensified when my second lens was swapped. Black looked dark navy, and some shades of blue were now full-on purple – including, it seemed, half of my wardrobe. Sunsets and sunrises featured lush, jaw-droppingly beautiful shades of violet and lavender; flames contained an iridescent core of indigo that I’d never seen before and is impossible to describe now.

Having done some reading, I now know that I’m lucky. Some color changes are more drastic, and can be quite distressing to patients (and life-changing, if their profession relies on color distinction, such as interior decorators). And while the blue shift turns out to be common, it sometimes comes at the expense of other shades, washing out greenery into a dull grey for example, and draining existence of beauty.

More than a month on, I still wander around in a daze, half befuddled and frustrated by my poor far and close vision, and half admiring the world’s transformation. My acuity improves week on week but I have a long way to go. It can take six months for the brain to adjust to the new input, and I have a hefty residual burden of astigmatism which may be correctable with more lasering, or toric lenses if not. Meanwhile, the temporary difference in acuity between my two eyes has led to a new problem: double vision in the distance, especially when I’m tired or have been using reading glasses (which are still essential for most close-up tasks beyond reading). I now have a grand total of four eyeglass cases in my bag – two different powers of readers for very close work and screens, unpowered lenses with a rather obtrusive prism in one eye to correct the double vision when I can’t bear it any more, and sunglasses for those rare bright days when the white light becomes overwhelming.

Yes, I’m partially disabled now, worse than before for a few months: things like working from a cookbook or assembling something from instructions have become so troublesome that my brain keeps urging me to avoid them. But equally, I feel I’ve been blessed with an astonishing miracle. I can see, without glasses, for the first time in my conscious life.

A world without glasses – I never thought I’d see the day.

Posted in The ageing process | Comments Off on In which I get the blues (a tale of miracle surgery)