Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Science of Sherlock Holmes

The science of Sherlock Holmes

Jonathon Keats, contributor
(Image: Everett Collection/Rex)
The ace detective continues to enthrall us, as two new books, The Scientific Sherlock Holmesby James O'Brien and Mastermind by Maria Konnikova, show
THE death of Sherlock Holmes, as related in the December 1893 issue of The Strand Magazine, was met with sadness and fury. Fans wore black armbands to mourn their favourite detective, thrown from a cliff in mortal combat. They also sent scathing letters to Arthur Conan Doyle, who had written off Holmes to concentrate on more "serious" fiction.
A decade of literary failure persuaded the author to admit his error, averring that Holmes had actually survived. He would appear in 33 more stories by the time Conan Doyle died in 1930, but even that misfortune didn't mean the end for Holmes. Most recently he has been the subject of two TV series set in the present day: Sherlock, from the BBC, and Elementary, produced by CBS.
Two new books also capitalise on his undying fame, and suggest reasons for his appeal across genres and generations. In The Scientific Sherlock Holmes, chemist James O'Brien presents him as a pioneering forensic scientist. In Mastermind, psychologist Maria Konnikova poses him as a master of mindfulness. While each book has serious flaws, together they offer some valuable insights into the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon, and how it relates to the rise of popular science.
In Conan Doyle's opinion, science was what set Holmes apart from other fictional detectives, who typically solved crimes by chance. The author, who had trained as a physician, boasted of giving Holmes "an immense fund of exact knowledge". The majority of O'Brien's book is an assessment of whether this knowledge really was immense and exact, and how much of it is still accurate.
Holmes fares better here than in past appraisals, notably Isaac Asimov's 1980 claim that he was a "blundering chemist". O'Brien shows that he had a surprisingly advanced understanding of certain chemicals, such as barium bisulphate, which many turn-of-the-century chemists didn't believe existed, and that his famous test for blood, by detecting haemoglobin, was perfectly viable.
He also shows that Holmes was on the cutting edge of forensic techniques, from fingerprinting to tracking criminals with dogs. The first Holmes story involving fingerprints dates to 1903, two years before they were first successfully used by the police. His first story to employ a tracking dog dates to 1890, 13 years before they became popular with real-life investigators.
All of this would be little more than literary trivia were it not for another observation made by O'Brien. Conan Doyle's interest in science waned with age, as he embraced spiritualism. While he never imposed these beliefs on Holmes, the later stories contain far less science than the earlier ones. O'Brien finds that 60 per cent of the forensic science takes place in the first half of the Holmes canon, and that every story in which he performs chemical experiments predates 1904. He overlays this with reader polls that have overwhelmingly favoured the earlier stories, and concludes that the correlation between scientific content and reader interest is "surely no coincidence".
Though his certainty seems overstated, O'Brien is persuasive when he says that science gives the stories a sense of plausibility and an authenticity that prior detective fiction lacked. Conan Doyle's fiction appropriates the authority of Victorian science; Holmes's forensic investigations allow readers to vicariously experience his scientific achievements in a setting more thrilling than a university laboratory. He is the Ernest Rutherford of crime, pursuing murderers instead of protons.
Of course forensic techniques are only part of the equation. Holmes applies the scientific method to everything he encounters, surmising where people have been and what they have done by logical deduction. His astonishing insights, and how he achieves them, are the subject of Mastermind.
"I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic," Holmes tells Watson in the very first story, "and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose." This quaint analogy "may not be far from the truth", Konnikova says. By her 21st-century interpretation, the hippocampus is the entryway, where information is initially placed, and long-term storage is achieved by the process of consolidation. Part of what makes Holmes so good at what he does is that he is scrupulous about what he lets into his attic and how he organises it. His talent for deduction derives from keen observation combined with a memory primed to associate fresh input with prior knowledge.
Half of Konnikova's task is to describe his thought processes in terms of present-day psychology. The other half is a primer on how to employ Holmes's techniques yourself. To attain his power of observation, for instance, requires the sort of focus you can practise through meditation. To reason as effectively as he does requires that you be aware of your biases.
If all of this sounds vague, it's because Konnikova is seldom specific. Whereas O'Brien tends to get lost in details and to run off on tangents, Konnikova offers only the quickest gloss on complex issues in neuroscience, and dishes out advice that hardly depends on psychology or Holmes. She does make an interesting point when she claims that Holmes is perennially popular because "he makes the most rigorous approach to scientific thinking seem attainable". The very existence of her book shows his appeal as a self-help guru. But surely he also engages us as a man in need of help himself.
That's the line taken in both recent TV programmes. CBS presents Holmes as a recovering drug addict; the BBC as an autistic savant. While each show departs significantly from Conan Doyle's Victorian milieu, they are true to Holmes's "dual nature" (as Watson dubs it): the hyperintelligence and morphine dependence that together make for such a vivid character.
Sherlock Holmes is a work in progress. We may be fascinated by the forensics and impressed with his deductive reasoning, but it's the detective's vulnerability that moves each generation to cast him in their own image.
Jonathon Keats's new book Forged: Why fakes are the great art of our age will be released this month

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