Thursday, May 8, 2008

Books Set in the Science World

There was an interesting article on the Scientific American website entitled, “We Need More Novels about Real Scientists”. I have long thought this as well. One of the books mentioned in the article, Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis, is often cited by scientists now nearing their retirement age as a motivating influence in their life. I did not find it that interesting. However, Search by C. P. Snow, which was written about the same time, is an engrossing read; maybe because it focuses on the ambition of a young scientist and the decisions he has to make that dramatically impact his and other’s careers.

A recent novel that has received much acclamation and is also mentioned in this article is Intuition by Allegra Goodman. This novel follows the story of an academic research group. The details that the author adds shows that she has spent some time talking with people who actually work in a lab. The novel revolves around some research that appears to show one thing, but, in fact, may simply be sloppy note-keeping. It throws this group into turmoil and Goodman does a good job of showing the different points-of-view from the group leaders to the graduate students. A book that is not mentioned is Cantor’s Dilemma by Carl Djerassi. Djerassi is a very well-known scientist; he is a retired professor from Stanford who first synthesized the steroid oral contraceptive. In Cantor’s Dilemma he writes about trust and ambition in a science setting, or what he calls science-in-fiction. This is one of those books I would like to re-read, but I have unfortunately forgotten who I lent it to a few years ago.

Since few of these novels with scientists as lead characters, and not villains, exist, biographies or memoirs can fill the gap. My graduate school advisor, himself a Nobel prize-winner, mentioned Marie Curie by Eve Curie, her daughter, as a book that inspired him. I also found the story of Rosalind Franklin & DNA by Anne Sayre an enlightening read, especially when compared to the story told by her Nobel prize-winning colleague, James Watson. Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande is an insightful look into what it means to be a practicing doctor these days. I am looking forward to reading his next book, Better.

Know of any other good books out there with realistic pictures of scientists?


Anonymous said...

Happy Mother's Day, Cheryl!


:) C

Sandra said...

I recommend Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers. A novelist, working in a neuroscience lab, attempts to teach a computer to think and appreciate art. I won't give away the punchline, but this story raises intriguing questions about the line between humanity and cyberspace, and about how belief can sometimes trump objectivity.