Brief book reviews: four novels featuring scientists (UPDATE)

A long while back I linked to a list of novels* featuring realistic scientists as central characters, taking place in realistic settings (as opposed to speculative sci-fi). I picked out a few to read, here are my brief reviews.

My hope is that I’m adding a bit of value by reviewing these from my perspective as a scientist, thereby helping you avoid reading stuff that wouldn’t work for a non-scientist. What’s plausible to a non-scientist might well be implausible to a scientist.

Warning: mild spoilers ahead for the last book on the list.

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Ian Pears. Oh. My. Goodness. This. Is. Great. A murder mystery set in Oxford at the dawn of science as a self-conscious activity, featuring walk-on parts for Robert Boyle and other “natural philosophers” of the time. The same events are described from the perspectives of several narrators of varying reliability, a device I always enjoy. Clearly involved a ton of background research, but you never feel that it really should’ve been a history book instead. Pears doesn’t use the background research as a substitute for his own imagination, or let it get in the way of the story–a James Michener novel, this ain’t. Many of you have probably read this already (it was a bestseller), but if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?

Bellwether by Connie Willis. Non-scientists seem to love this, but I didn’t like it. The central character is a sociologist trying to understand how fads develop, spread, and die out. But the way she pursues her research would only be plausible to a non-scientist, I think (especially when she decides to change research approaches and order a herd of sheep…). And she spends the whole book struggling her way towards what’s supposed to be a profound insight, but I figured it out very early on. Which is death for a book like this, much as a too-obvious culprit is death for a murder mystery–it makes the characters look stupid to the reader. The plot also depends on too many implausibilities (A big R&D corporation would suddenly refocus its operations on chasing a measly $1 million science prize? Yeah, riiiight…) Many of the implausible elements are intended as breezy satire on pop culture and corporate management, but they didn’t work for me. The satirical bits were all either too detached from reality or else too obvious. Bottom line: I suspect that too much of it will ring false for a scientist reader.

Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann. Historical fiction/character study: contemporaries Gauss and Humboldt presented as obsessives whose singlemindedness allows them to achieve great things while doing tremendous damage to those around them. But they’re interestingly contrasted in other ways–Humboldt is the ultimate concrete, inductive empiricist, determined to describe the entire Amazon. Gauss is the ultimate abstract, deductive genius, determined to mathematize the entire universe. The book touches lightly on the strengths and limitations of their respective approaches to science. You muddy boots field ecologists who aren’t truly happy unless you’re physically suffering to get one more data point will probably find the portrayal of Humboldt particularly congenial. :-)  Note that I have no idea what Gauss and Humboldt were actually like, so my enjoyment of the book didn’t depend on the accuracy of the portrayals. If the portrayals are inaccurate and you know this, it’s possible that might bug you. (UPDATE: Commenter jk informs us that the portrayals, and many of the historical details, are not accurate and are not intended to be. Interesting!)

Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd. A novel of both character and ideas. The central character is Hope Clearwater, young British botanist turned chimpanzee field research assistant in Africa. The main plot reads as a riff on the career of Jane Goodall. Hope discovers novel evidence of violence among chimp groups but struggles to convince her co-workers and her famous boss. An interleaved subplot follows the growth and collapse of Hope’s marriage to a mathematician. The story is told in flashback, as Hope tries to understand and come to terms with what she’s been through. The characters are well-drawn and believable, especially Hope herself. She’s a strong, intelligent, thoughtful, self-aware, independent woman. She’s surrounded by men (and a few women) who contrast with her in various ways, mostly through their very human flaws. Lurking underneath this character-driven drama is a Big Idea: Boyd takes seriously the notion that chimps aren’t fundamentally different from humans, and follows it to its logical, devastating conclusion. There are a few points at which the plot advances by incredibly unlucky coincidence or via an out-of-character screw-up on Hope’s part. But those are isolated, minor flaws. The portrayal of field work in Africa rings very true (or at least, it did to this Canadian lab ecologist), as does the portrayal of the power dynamics at the chimpanzee research station. If you’re looking for a novel with a strong, relatable woman scientist as the lead character, this is the novel for you.

*The list also includes movies, plays, and tv shows.

9 thoughts on “Brief book reviews: four novels featuring scientists (UPDATE)

  1. Jeremy – Really enjoyed this post and will look at these books for sure. I’m an ecologist and cli-fi mystery writer. There’s intriguing research indicating that you can reach readers via fiction more effectively that with non-fiction if your goal is social change. Thanks again. Charlenee

  2. Measuring the World. I agree, it is nice and fun to read.

    Just as a comment to accuracy of the portrayals.
    The whole book sounds like a fact-based historical novel, but it isn’t. So please, keep this in mind while reading. It has a lot of historical discrepancies (actually intended by the author) and it is often difficult to tell what is fiction and what is reality. One example is Humboldt quotation about slavery and evolution. Further, the character portrayals of both Gauss and Humboldt are biased, often wrong and one-sided.
    The author himself wrote about his book (roughly translated from german):
    “It starts as a historical fact book, until it suddenly changes, because things/points/events are reported that are no facts, but fictitious and made up. It was intended to look like a reputable historian suddenly gone crazy. “

  3. Can we add scripts? Michael Frayn’s Copehagen is about trying to piece together what happened in the fraught, final conversation between Heisenberg and Bohr (and ultimately finds unresolvable uncertainty) and David Auburn’s Proof broke my heart. (OK, the latter is about mathematicians, but I think it will resonate.) The movie version of the latter is excellent too.

    • I will now make you jealous: I was fortunate enough to see Copenhagen in London back when I was a postdoc.

      Proof too–got front row seats as a Christmas present from the parents of a student at Brinsley’s school. The lights came up, and Gwenyth Paltrow was sitting literally two feet from me on the edge of the stage. That was pretty cool.🙂

      Proof the play was great. I thought the movie was fine but nothing special. But it’s possible that seeing the play as I did spoiled the movie for me:

  4. Thanks for the “Instance of the Fingerpost” recommendation. I had never heard of it despite frequent searches for this kind of novel. What I loved the most was the detailed characterization of how 17th century people thought about and understood the world and their attitudes about daily life, work, women, religion, politics, randomness, fate, social status, punishment, foreigners, manners, etc. etc. I wouldn’t even classify this as a mystery, unless that story behind Sarah is the real mystery. A great non-fiction companion is Carl Zimmer’s Soul Made Flesh.

  5. Pingback: Why so few novels about scientists? | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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