What are your favorite novels featuring scientists? (updated)

In a recent post, we came up with a great list of popular science books that appeal to scientists. Now let’s do the same thing for fiction. What are your favorite novels featuring scientists? I’ll accept novels about academia too.

I’ll kick things off with four very different but equally-excellent selections:

Thinks… Light comedy/romance: poet meets computational psychologist. Beach reading for smart people. Includes interesting musing on the nature of consciousness and the relationship between scientific and artistic ways of looking at people. Gets lots of humor from the main characters describing the same events differently in their journals. By David Lodge, a retired British prof who’s written several campus novels, most of them humanities-focused. He’s one of my favorite authors. His sort-of-trilogy of campus novels Changing Places (US vs. British academia in the 1960s), Small World (satire on literary theory and academia more broadly) and Nice Work (comedy/romance about town-gown relations) is particularly good. Though to fully appreciate Small World you need to know something about the schools of thought Lodge is satirizing.

UPDATE ON THINKS… WITH MILD SPOILER: Note that one of the main characters in Thinks… is a senior male prof who sleeps around, including with a grad student (not his own). He’s portrayed positively, and never coerces anyone. But if you would find that character off-putting or unbelievable, Thinks… might not be your thing.

An Instance of the Fingerpost. 17th century murder mystery set in Britain, with big walk-on parts for several real scientific luminaries like Robert Boyle. Told from the point of view of multiple unreliable narrators, a device I always enjoy. My brief review is here. tl;dr: OMG this is soooooo good.

Brazzaville Beach. The main character is a young British botanist turned chimpanzee research field assistant, who has to find the strength to get through the collapse of her marriage to a mathematician and strange events at the field station. My brief review is here. tl;dr: The characters and their science all ring very true (not always a given when you’re a scientist reading a novel about scientists). And there’s a Big Idea about animal behavior lurking under the surface that gets taken to its logical, devastating conclusion.

Angels and Insects. Specifically, the novella “Morpho Eugenia” (the book includes two novellas). By A. S. Byatt. Drama. Young Victorian naturalist marries into the family of his rich upper-class patron. Much comparison of British upper-class family dynamics to the ant colonies the naturalist studies. Became a very good movie that sticks close to the novella (warning: the movie is rated R for a reason; the sex is integral, but it’s there).

And here are some selections I added to my Goodreads “want to read” list. But I worry about relying on the reviews of non-scientists. Hopefully y’all can tell me if they’re the sort of thing a scientist would like:

The Darwin Conspiracy. Fictionalized account of Darwin’s development of the ideas in the Origin of Species, purportedly explaining why he took so long to publish.

Galatea 2.2. A neural network trained on the Great Books becomes self-aware. An academic romance, humanities-vs.-sciences, meta-fiction mashup. Apparently.

As She Climbed Across the Table. Scientific satire-cum-romantic comedy. Particle physicist Alice Coombs dumps her boyfriend for…[wait for it]…a black hole she created in the lab.

Euphoria. Historical fiction, inspired by the young Margaret Mead.

UPDATE: Intuition. I’ll just quote Brian’s review in the comments: “A serious literary author takes on lab and science culture (carefully researched). Takes place in a biomedical lab in Cambridge, MA. Characters range from PhDs, postdocs, and PIs. Carefully plotted and a real page turner. Captures the daily lab experience with a sharp lens and no small dose of wry humor.”

I also found this list of “lab lit” suggestions. But I really want to hear yours!

120 thoughts on “What are your favorite novels featuring scientists? (updated)

  1. The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon — the main character is a scientist who understands patterns of molecules and works for a company that makes new drugs; he is able to do this job because of his autism, but the company wants him to try an experimental “cure”. Fantastic read, well-written, and very well researched (the author has a severely autistic son and has a biology undergrad degree).

    • Yes, as Stephen noted, sci fi is where most fictional scientists are to be found. I used to read some sci fi, but kind of got away from it. And the sci fi I remember really liking (e.g., Ken Grimwood’s Replay) doesn’t particularly feature scientists or science.

    • Oh, I love Prodigal Summer. I also really like Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (though I’m not sure about the end). I’ve heard that other scientists haven’t liked it, so it may not be for everyone. The main character isn’t a scientist, but there are scientists as main characters. The basic plot is that the monarch butterfly winter colony settles in the Appalachian mountains instead of Mexico due to climate change. A monarch biologist shows up to study them and figure out what’s going on and the main character, a stay at home mom who lives there, starts working with him. One of my favorite scenes includes a conversation between the main character and an environmental activist that shows up to educate people about mitigating climate change. Barbara Kingsolver actually has a M.S. in ecology, so I think that helps her write about it.

    • I’m not sure if it’s common knowledge but I think Barbara Kingsolver did an M. Sc. in Jim Brown’s lab at the University of New Mexico so she would have been a scientist and seen some good ones at work.

      • Yes, she’s an ecology MSc; I didn’t realize it was with Jim Brown. I know Jim, so I’m two degrees of separation from Barbara Kingsolver. Cool.

  2. Snapper (Brian Kimberling) – young biology grad gets a job doing bird surveys in his home state of Indiana. Very funny https://www.amazon.com/dp/B009Y4I4I8/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

    We are all Completely Beside Ourselves (Karen Fowler) – tale of daughter of psychology profs and her sister. https://www.amazon.com/Are-All-Completely-Beside-Ourselves-ebook/dp/B00B4FU6KE/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1481721796&sr=1-1&keywords=we+are+all+completely+beside+ourselves

  3. Via Twitter:

    I note with interest that Annihilation really divided the Goodreads community. The majority love it, but a larger than usual minority hate it, with no one in the middle. Much seems to depend on whether atmospheric horror is your thing, and whether you find the main character boring.

    • And having read the whole trilogy (of which Annihilation is the first book), I can’t recommend it. The first book intrigued me; sets up a Lost-style what-the-hell-is-going-on mystery. But the subsequent two books don’t really resolve it, and are slow to boot. And the main character is a cipher.

  4. Intuition by Allegra Goodman
    A serious literary author takes on lab and science culture (carefully researched). Takes place in a biomedical lab in Cambridge, MA. Characters range from PhDs, postdocs, and PIs. Carefully plotted and a real page turner. Captures the daily lab experience with a sharp lens and no small dose of wry humor. Also deals with fraud and its interaction with publication pressure in a very nuanced way.

    • Thanks, that’s actually on my Goodreads “want to read” list already, forgot to add it to the post, will update.

      Our comment threads come through even when the post gives them no help! 🙂

  5. Sorry, this novel is so far available only in Finnish but it is been translated to English. “He eivät tiedä mitä tekevät” (They Know Not What They Do) by Jussi Valtonen won the best novel of the year prize in Finland in 2014. It is about animal experiments, modern technology etc. Very fascinating read. Here is a link to the news that it will be translated to English http://www.ahlbackagency.com/2015/01/oneworld-publications-acquires-world-english-rights-to-jussi-valtonens-they-know-not-what-they-do/

  6. In Vivo by Mildred Savage
    A long novel about early efforts to find new antibiotics. One reason it is long because it describes establishing and ramping up the research at a small drug company and the difficulties of testing all of the candidates in soil samples from around the world. Many candidates turn out to be toxic, not very effective, or rediscoveries of already know antibiotics. This book shows how the day-to-day work can be very wearing, and in the book lead to calls to shut down the research with its large costs.

  7. I don’t think it exactly fits the category, but Anthill by E.O. Wilson is about a young boy naturalist. I don’t know whether they qualifies as a scientist or not…certainly not in the professional sense. But presumably this “fictional” boy grows up to become a famous scientist who tells people that they don’t need to learn math. 🙂

  8. The Evolution of Calperna Tate– it is a young adult fiction book and Newberry Award winner so it might not be what you had in mind but it is my favorite book. It is about a young girl in the turn of the 19th century who skips out on her mother’s sewing and cooking lessons to go out with her naturalist grandpa collecting specimens, learning about science, and reading Darwin. There is a sequel that is good, but not nearly as good. I love YA fiction and this book resonates with me as a young female evolutionary biologist. It could be a good parent – child read too, or tweens and teens.

    • Oh, I’m happy to include YA novels on the list! Some of my favorite books are YA too (though they’re nothing to do with science). The Westing Game (another Newberry winner). A Hat Full of Sky (arguably the best thing Terry Pratchett ever wrote, which is saying something).

  9. Stoner, by John Williams. Probably one of the best books about academia ever written. About the life of a professor of English literature in the mid-20th Century. The writing is sublime, the frustrations familiar, the issues deeply resonant.

    • Cheers for this. A little surprised we haven’t had more campus novel suggestions.

      I can recommend a couple of campus comedies (non-David Lodge division): Lucky Jim (maybe *the* classic campus comedy). Also Jane Smiley’s Moo.

  10. OK, if we are including graphic novels then very funny and highly recommended is Sydney Padua’s Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, which started as an online series:


    (Very) loosely based on the real lives of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage – I think you’ll like this, Jeremy, if you’ve not already seen it.

  11. I really liked Cantor’s Dilemma by Carl Djerassi, which stars several scientist characters that are very authentic and brings up ethical dilemmas that we may all have faced, albeit probably not on such a large scale. I also enjoyed The Dinosaur Feather by S.J. Gazan, and Rattle His Bones by Carola Dunn—in each novel, a detective and a journalist, respectively, delve into unfamiliar scientific territory in order to solve a murder. Rattle His Bones might appeal more to younger readers (I read it in high school, although I think adults would enjoy it too), whereas The Dinosaur Feather is for mature audiences only.

  12. Nice post! I’d like to add “Coffin Road” – very topical at the moment, and of particular interest to any scientists interested in the effects of pesticides on bees! And also the “Signature of all things” which deals with historical Botany very well!

  13. Great idea! glad you mentioned David Lodge, I love his novels.
    An all-time classic that might be considered popular science but is written like a novel is Never cry, Wolf (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Never_Cry_Wolf) by Farley Mowat, telling his experience as a wildlife biologist for the Canadian government. That book definitely helped me choose to do research in ecology.
    Much more recent and less dramatic is the Rosie Project (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rosie_Project), about a professor in genetics who tries to find a wife…caustic observations on academic life and some psychological profiles found there. The follow up “the Rosie Effect” is not as good in my opinion, but fun too.

  14. Cannery Row – Steinbeck. Doc, the marine biologist, collecting specimens for a biological supply company. Hijinks ensue.
    YA fiction/sci-fi: A Wrinkle in Time and other associated novels by Madeleine L’Engle – many members of the various families are scientists or become scientists when they grow up, and the books of several different series are all related to each other via characters or locations

  15. Good Benito by Alan Lightman. Physics, not biology. I was taken with the complete dedication of the main character to physics. Is that what it takes to be a really good physicist? I was reminded of this when reading Ben Millers ‘It’s not rocket science’ (nonfiction). Miller was also very good at physics but, as he says, more of a session musician than a rock star. Miller went on to become an acclaimed comic actor and now writes about physics in his spare time. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Miller

  16. Solar, by Ian McEwan.
    The Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian – the scientist/spy Maturin character is worth the series in itself.
    I’ll second Angels and Insects by A.S. Byatt (and everything else by her)
    Frankenstein, is timeless and amazing and speaks much to this moment.

    • Cheers for these Terry.

      Have been thinking of giving Solar a try but many Goodreads readers didn’t like it, feeling it fell well short of McEwan’s best and that the main character was just an unsympathetic jerk. Can you comment a bit more on what you liked about it?

      Patrick O’Brian? Huh [searches Goodreads]…Oh, the Master and Commander guy! That was a great movie! Yeah, I could totally see myself reading that. And there’s a whole series–even better! Thanks!

      • Solar was not McEwan’s best. But I’ve read most of his stuff and all of it’s good. The main character was horrible, it’s like a polar opposite of Breaking Bad as a story of descent – but out of pathetic lack of agency. (I’ve noticed on goodreads that books with admirable protagonists do better than I’d expect, and ones with problematic protagonists get critiqued as not good books, I think…?) It’s definitely a downer, but I thought it was a parable worth telling. It’s funny, I read it a few years ago, but I still think of it once in a while, compared to other books. So that it stuck with me says something, though not entirely sure what that something is.

        I could go on and on about the O’Brian series. Over a couple years I read from the first to the end, and it’s just so rich. I’m tempted to go back through again. There’s a lot of nautical stuff (I know more about sailing than I ever thought I would have) that can slow down the narrative, but it’s all very compelling. There are women characters but clearly, the story is all about guys. But it’s about a loving relationship at its heart, and the good that can emerge when flawed people bind together. I’ve been surprised that, when it comes up, just as many women I know have been fans of the series as guys. Folks have said it’s Jane Austen on a ship, which I agree with and think of as high praise.

      • “I’ve noticed on goodreads that books with admirable protagonists do better than I’d expect, and ones with problematic protagonists get critiqued as not good books, I think…?”

        That’s my anecdotal impression as well.

        “Folks have said it’s Jane Austen on a ship, which I agree with and think of as high praise.”

        That is indeed high praise.

  17. Maybe a bit of a stretch, but I’ve been reading the first book in the Amelia Peabody series. Amelia Peabody is a fictional Egyptologist, but are by Barbara Mertz (but published under the pseudonym Elizabeth Peters), who has a PhD in Egyptology from the University of Chicago.

    • We’ve already had novels about anthropologists and English profs, and a comic that imagines Ada Lovelace as a crime-fighting heroine. So we can definitely find room in the thread for a novel about an Egyptologist. 🙂

    • I just started rereading that series last night! (Its about my 3rd time through). You do learn a lot of Egyptology along with a lot of laughing.

      • The only problem is that, now that I’m near the end, I’m finding it hard to put down when I should go to bed!

    • I realized recently that, if Amelia Peabody fits on the list, so does Isabel Dalhousie. She’s the protagonist of Alexander McCall Smith’s Sunday Philosophy Club series. In the series, Dalhousie is a wealthy philosopher (thanks to an inheritance, not due to philosophers being well-paid) and is the editor of the Review of Applied Ethics.

      • Ooh, good one. Will have to check that out.

        Re: a wealthy philosopher, in The Lady Eve Henry Fonda plays a rich herpetologist. Someone should make a list of implausibly-rich academics from books and film. 🙂

  18. Archangel and Ship Fever (both short stories) and Voyage of the Narwhal (novel) all by Andrea Barrett. I also second Good Benito and Solar. I do not recommend State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

    • Yes, perhaps we should have anti-recommendations too. In an old post I recommended scientists steer clear of Bellwether by Connie Willis. Doesn’t ring nearly true enough to be effective satire. EDIT: and although I love most of David Lodge’s academia novels, I don’t recommend Deaf Sentence. Boring, should’ve been much funnier.

    • Having just finished Ordinary Thunderstorms, I’m sorry to say I don’t think it’s a patch on Brazzaville Beach. I say this for several reasons (warning, mild spoilers ahead):

      -Implausible plot. Starts out with a very Hitchcockian, innocent-man-made-to-look-guilty-by-unlikely-event setup. Which is great; I love Hitchcock. But then piles on additional implausibilities. It’s like a Dan Brown novel with good writing.

      -Attempting to justify the implausibilities by dressing them up as a (purportedly) Big Idea about the power of random events in our lives.

      -It’s only incidentally a novel about a scientist. There’s no reason for the main character to be an atmospheric scientist. Had he been a furniture salesman or a musician or whatever, Boyd could’ve just retitled his book and picked a different metaphor for the Big Idea. Ok, that’s not really a criticism of the book per se. But I went in thinking it was going to be like Brazzaville Beach, in which scientists doing science are central to the book. So I ended up disappointed.

      -This is a small thing, but the treatment of the main character’s fling with his grad student who then turns out to be a crazy stalker struck me as especially implausible, and seems likely to strike many readers as worse than that. That bit only exists to get the main character divorced and moved to the UK, which could’ve been achieved in many other ways. So why not pick some way that won’t make readers either roll their eyes or cringe?

  19. Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear. It’s been more than 15 years since I read it and I was in the middle of my grad student years but I remember feeling like it captured the excitement of doing science – not to mention having a head-over-heels plot that just never slowed down. The main character is a molecular biologist.

  20. “This thing of darkness” by Harry Thompson. A fictionalized account of Fitzroy and the Beagle. Lots of Darwin action there. Well written and reasonably accurate.

  21. I’ll put in a plug for the Science of Discworld books, especially the first two. A collaboration between fantasy humorist Terry Pratchett (my favorite author ever) and scientists/mathematicians Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. The books alternate chapters of a science-themed humorous fantasy novella by Pratchett with chapters by Stewart and Cohen explaining the real science underpinning Pratchett’s story. The novellas stand on their own and they’re better than the popsci chapters in my view.

    • I would sort of agree about the first of those, but not the second, which in the non-fictional parts unfortunately has a lot of nonsense about folklore and mythology (and anthropology), some questionable speculation about recent human evolution that at one point borders on racism, and an unintentional demonstration of their point about “lies to children”, in which they take their simplistic description of entropy too seriously and end up saying some rather silly things about astronomy.

      (I also thought the actual Pratchett novella was better in the first volume, but that’s more just a matter of literary taste.)

      • Yes, this is what I meant about the novellas standing on their own and being better than the popsci–the popular science is pretty questionable in many places.

  22. I’d second Annihilation–The Biologist is so central to that series, and Vandermeer has some really wonderful and thoughtful moments that let her worldview flow into the horror.

    China Mieville writes about academic protagonists a lot; The Scar is a about a linguist, while the first third of Perdido Street Station is about the protagonist trying to continue his research after being shut out of the university where he was like an adjunct or something. The protagonist of Kraken is a museum employee (curator? tour guide? I forget) with some expertise on squid biology.

    Glad to see Angels and Insects listed too–I love that book so much and don’t see it talked about enough.

  23. The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara. As a physical anthropologist working with rainforest hunter-gatherers, I was blown away with how well the author nails the feeling of being deep in a rainforest and the surreal interactions that take place working with a culture so far from one’s own. As a bonus the made-up academic details are disturbingly realistic and the story touches on some of the social flaws of modern academia. Can’t recommend it enough…

  24. “When the Killing’s Done” by T.C. Boyle. A novel about the eradication of non-native species from the Channel Islands of California, involving two protagonists – an animal rights activist and a biologist.

  25. No Highway by Nevil Shute – written in 1948 – Jeremy should like as set in UK and Canada – about a scientist who predicts metal failure in a new aircraft but as an expert is not believed – vindicated in the end, but given the anti-expert fever being generated by politicians at the moment seems very apt reading

  26. I wrote a post on a similar theme back in the early days of Mola mola (https://shefmeme.org/mola_mola/sciency-fiction), so a couple extracted from there: Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy is sprawling historical fantasy, but covers the founding of the Royal Society with a mix of real (Hooke, Newton, Wren etc.) and imagined characters. Really good fun. Michel Houllebecq is controversial and not to everyone’s tastes, but biological themes and characters run through Atomised. And Being Dead by Jim Crace tells the story of the decomposition of an elderly couple murdered amongst sand dunes with poetic ecological detail.

  27. I enjoyed A Report from Group 17 by Robert C O’Brien when I read it as part of a college class. It’s a suspense story about biological/chemical warfare during the Cold War. It was out of print when I read it nearly a decade ago, though, so it might be hard to find.

  28. leap into the wayback machine to 1962 for Aldous Huxley’s ‘Island.’ His swan song. A socio-scientific hypothetical answer to his ‘Brave New World’ from decades before. Huxley’s setting here is an imaginary island in the South Pacific where Eastern Buddhist roots were grafted unto Western science and medicine. Stir and simmer from the 1840’s to the 1960s and voila, a society both familiar and strange to the gentle reader. Echoes of Mesmer and Montessori, LSD and Gandhi, oil exploitation and vegetarians, sexuality and synchronicity, hope and death. Authored by a novelist, pacifist, essayist and…Hollywood screenwriter.
    local media documentary archive

  29. I just finished The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert and really appreciated the depiction of the taxonimist character as well as description of the work she did.

    Also, you said “I’m now wondering if I should take it as a hint that nobody on this thread has said anything about any of the books on which I was hoping for recommendations…” so now I’m curious as to which ones you were hoping for…

    • In the post I listed some books that I’ve placed on my reading list after skimming the linked lablit list. I was hoping some commenters had read some of those books and so could give me their views on The Darwin Conspiracy, Galatea 2.2, etc.

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