An Awkward Symbiosis

Can fiction and scientific autobiography coexist?
By Jennifer Rohn

Luminous Fish: Tales of Science and Love (Sciencewriters), By Lynn Margulis, 192 pp., Chelsea Green Publishing, $21.95

The biologist Lynn Margulis has led an eventful life: fighting for decades to push the endosymbiotic theory of organelle development into biology textbooks, sharing a brief marriage with cosmologist Carl Sagan, championing the Gaia theory, and in recent years, criticizing Neo-Darwinism and aspects of conventional science. Luminous Fish, self-published by Margulis' own imprint, attempts a curious symbiosis of fiction and memoir, but never quite achieves that feeling of mutualism.

The book launches with an exposition about the flashlight fish, itself a symbiosis between a teleost and specialized luminous bacteria....

If only she had ended on that fictional note. The subsequent chapter, containing reminiscences of the author's meeting of Oppenheimer, seems bolted on and appears mainly to serve as an excuse to berate science for the A-bomb and criticize all applied research. Lumping the quest to cure disease with Hiroshima seems unfair, and her vitriolic delivery is unlikely to sway hearts and minds - which is a pity, because the ideas are worth discussing. In any case they might best have been reserved for another book. Fiction and autobiography can be mutually illuminating when artfully blended together, as with Primo Levi's Periodic Table, but if kept partitioned, both lose impact and parasitize the outcome.

Jennifer Rohn is the editor of LabLit (

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