Solar, by Ian McEwan

I guess there is no escape from iconic photos for me. At least that is how it seems. This weekend, I picked up Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Solar. It is a great book (so far, as I am only two-thirds in), and you can read detailed reviews here and here, so I won’t go into details but about halfway into the book, McEwan’s protagonist, philandering and detestable scientist Michael Beard gets into a controversy after he questions the role of the women in science.

McEwan based it on Larry Summers controversy a while back, but Prof. Beard’s version was more nuanced: “There were no longer any institutional barriers or prejudices. There were other branches of science where women were well represented, and some where they predominated. … Although there were many gifted women physicists, it was at least conceivable that they would always remain in a minority, albeit a substantial one, in this particular field. from early in life, girls tended to be more interested in people, boys more in things and abstract rules. … And this difference showed in the fields of science they tended to choose: more women in the life sciences and the social sciences, more men in engineering and physics.”

Needless to say, it caused a media firestorm when coupled with his previous philandering. A protestor threw a tomato at him in a comic scene at line with the rest of the novel. Beard caught it, and threw it back in a playful gesture.

“In colour, it made a dramatic photograph. Taken from behind Beard, it showed him looming over a woman cowering on the ground, the victim of a gory assault. In Germany it was on the cover of a magazine with the headline ‘Protester Felled By “Neo-Nazi” Professor’. In the background, not quite out of focus, was the relevant placard. Another picture, also widely used, taken over the head of the kneeling woman, revealed Beard’s heartless smile. He could not help himself, he was genuinely amused. The tomato was so soft, his toss so gentle, the woman’s reaction so comically overplayed, a policeman so solicitous in bending over her, another so self-important as he urgently radioed for an ambulance. This was street theatre.”

It is not often that we read about a fictional photo-controvesy in books, but in recent years, we have seen so many picket lines, so many protestors that we can imagine such a scene with ease. But ask yourselves: who is the aggressor? who is the victim? Even with photographs, it seems increasingly hard to tell. Only last week, I posted this picture, a shining example that although pictures never lie, rhetoric often frames them. Seeing is believing but we choose what we want to believe.

Or rather we let editors do it for us.