What Biology and Fiction Writing Have in Common ‹ Literary Hub

Biology is the study of life, of finding unusual beauty in the ordinary. And so is writing.

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Why do we find glowing lights beautiful? From natural phenomena like fireflies and bioluminescent ocean waves, to man-made phenomena like fairy lights and vast nighttime cityscapes, there’s an allure to all that sparkle, glitter and glow. The pull is gentle, more of a suggestion than a tug.

In nature, glowing lights are a matter of survival: For fireflies, light attracts mates; for some jellyfish, the light shows within their tissue-paper membranes ward off predators; for certain marine bacteria, making light is the ticket to a cozy home inside squid and fish, which use that gifted glow to offset their moonlit shadows or as a means of catching prey. We humans are intrinsically drawn to such luminescence because similarly bright and sparkly things signal a water source, and the sight still tickles a primitive, survivalist corner of ourselves—or so one theory goes. (A hardwired Oooh shiny.) As a PhD candidate studying bioluminescent bacteria, I use these kinds of biological light-emitting effects on a daily basis.

In both science and literature, there is no such thing as useless knowledge.

But life-sustaining glow also takes forms beyond the biological, and when I sit down to write stories, it’s these variations on the theme that interest me most. I’m talking about the glow in certain moments and memories, the cocooning feeling that comes from campfires and candles crowned in flickering flames. That glow in your chest when you, a reader, sink into a book that hits all the right notes. Or the glow when you, a nostalgic, leaf through old photographs, thumbing each bygone era made rosy by the passing of the years.

Or when you, a sibling, notice your brother humming along to a song as he looks out the passenger window, his chin casually resting in the heel of his hand, the humming simply a reflex of happiness in this most mundane moment with you. I’m talking about this kind of unmistakable glow, this bioluminescence of the emotional variety, a vague thing that cannot be quite captured in an English word, and which may be on a plane that intersects or touches the Danish word pleasant, or to the Korean bunuigi (mood).

A kind of mixture of safety and wonder, warmth and sudden weightlessness, a sense that this is all fleeting, as if it were a momentary happiness, but yet somehow also longer-lasting, as if it were true contentment, plus a little bit of amnesia to top it all off – because in that sheltered amnion of glow, you forget for a moment that there is something out there. When we talk about the quintessential American quest for happiness, isn’t this kind of glow that we’re really looking for? This wonderful little pulse of warmth somewhere in the chest in a cavity that’s not strictly biological, not strictly physical, but still somehow capable of feeling like it’s bursting at the seams?

bioluminescence noun the emission of light by living organisms.

I look for this emission of light when I write stories, like many writers. How do you create bioluminescence in writing?

One possible answer to the elusive question comes from the biology lab. When it comes to cellular mysteries, sometimes the best way to find an answer to a question is to ask alternate questions that probe from oblique angles, then look for indirect readouts of the original phenomenon. To find glow in writing, too, I ask such oblique questions. How do we come to terms with the unknown? What is identity, when all our identities are always in a state of flux? And when these disembodied multitudes that define us, by the very nature of existence in an irrational world, are shattered, how are they put back together? Where can we find that mysterious glue, even in the most unexpected places?

The percolation of such questions through my final year as a student, the first year of the pandemic, accumulated in the form of We carry the sea in our hands. I found that when I ask such questions over and over again, looking at them from here and there, sometimes I get lucky and see a parallax, a glow. Sometimes you just need a certain angle to see it. A trick of the light, like most blues in nature. Aren’t we all just hunting for will-o’-the-wisps?

Perhaps this is why, in both science and writing, there is no such thing as useless knowledge. Knowledge acquired simply as a function of curiosity seems to have an inherently funky angle. Scientists in training are often encouraged to attend seminars in other departments, because a molecular biologist in a mechanical engineering lecture might pick up an odd bit of information or way of thinking that sparks a new idea. Fiction writers, too, can’t predict when learning a very specific, random fact might come in handy in a story—the oily flammability of birch bark, the difference between contact and alarm sounds in songbirds, the behavior of tin buttons in cold temperatures, the vagaries of practicality.

Read a lot and often: a phrase that both novice scholars and writers hear so often that they have the same reflex when they hear it: part agreement and part annoyance. Poke your nose into other genres, we are told. Step into something new, leave all your preconceptions behind, and just observe how things are done, we are told. And in doing so, we may find a new angle from which to approach our work, to look for a glow in an unexpected corner. I think this is what Abraham Flexner was talking about in his essay “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.”

The process of writing stories and scientific research are often not so different. People find reflections of themselves in stories, both in reading and writing them, and can move these similarities around, like an abacus, to try to make sense of things that have happened, are happening, or will happen. I wonder if this is also what biology is? To me it seems like echoing, moving questions and data points around to find an abstraction of truth in them.

A shortcut to glowing while writing, for me, is to go to the lab. Or rather, to think about biological phenomena, which is what the lab is for. There is so much to marvel at in a single cell, the vast knowns and even greater unknowns of something so small, something so delicately complex yet surprisingly robust, such elegant works of art. These are landscapes full of tiny intricacies floating and spinning and dancing, carried by molecular ferries and electron shuttles, all timed and positioned just so after millennia in the dollhouse of evolution.

How short each movement can be, yet how impactful in a whole undulating sea of ​​movements! How precisely complex a cell is, how easily it arouses wanderlust and vertigo – so much so that one wonders how one could possibly examine and tinker with its choreographies with any sensitivity, as if one were trying to cut out pieces of a pie with one’s bare fingers.

Questions without clear answers or end points form the nature and meaning of the problem.

When I see biology as the wonder that it is (or when I remind myself of this, when the reality of routine lab work clouds the beautiful view), an approach to glow for me. When I want to write, it’s often just a matter of transferring that nascent light into the written word. (Not unlike how FRET works, for the scientists out there.)

Perhaps most synergistic in their appreciation of uncertainty are scientific research and fiction writing. Nothing is a given; reexamining questions is the norm. Like ocean waves, echoing along the shore, each sandy imprint resembles its predecessors but is not quite the same. It’s one reason scientists and writers are blessed or cursed—take your pick—with the ever-flowing stream of “What am I doing?” “Am I doing anything right?” “Do I even know anything? And if so, how do I know it?”

Whether I choose to console myself by rationalizing this as an expression of scientific rigor, as the appropriate level of doubt and questioning with which I should approach my science, or choose to call it a minor crisis de rigueur requiring work with a philosopher or a therapist—or choose instead, as is often easiest, to simply slap the label of impostor syndrome on it as if it were one of those “Hello, my name is” stickers at a child’s birthday party—what seems to be true is that questions without clear answers or endpoints are both the nature and the point of the whole thing. To borrow a phrase one of my PhD advisors likes to say, “it’s not a bug; it’s a feature.” This seems to be the gristly stuff that extends between science and writing, making them two organ systems in the same body. In my life, writing and biology are necessarily symbiotic.

Four years ago, in my PhD program applications, I wrote about how my youthful hobby of writing morphed into an interest in science. All I wrote then about the newer, inverse relationship, how science in turn gave life to my writing, was that “biological research seeks what makes life move, and creative writing seeks why that is meaningful to people and society.” Microscope and macroscope, I guess. This essay is my addendum, but I wonder how all this might change in the years to come, this polaroid of opinions and tinkering? We become the stories we tell ourselves.

These past few months, I’ve felt adrift between worlds, unable to say “I’m a writer” or “I’m a scientist” without feeling like I’m wearing ill-fitting clothes. But I do recognize that living adrift between questioned identities that keep shifting like refracted light—“writing dabbler?” “science dabbler?”—has its own value, if you look at it from a certain angle. Making a home for myself in this in-between space is asking a lot of questions and enjoying the privilege of not knowing many answers yet (which I think is this: it’s easier to learn something mind-bogglingly fascinating when you just have so much to learn in the first place). This is also a state in which I’m learning how to find my glow within myself.


We carry the sea in our hands by Janie Kim is available from Alcove Press, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

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