I don’t read descriptions of Harvard Square under various weather conditions, or, review of “Intuition” by Allegra Goodman

Looking at my two yesterday’s posts, one on science fiction and the other on LabLit, together with Archy’s excellent post on history of SF, something, like a hunch or an idea, started to develop at the back of my mind (continued under the fold).


If you look at the way scientists are portrayed in older SF and in recent LabLit, there is a distinct difference. There is not much old LabLit, and new SF does not have many scientists in it (what with the whole flood of cyberpunk and fantasy), so I’ll ignore those for now.
In old SF, a scientist is likely to be portrayed as a loner, a refugee from society, brilliant but with meagre social skills, working in secrecy in his basement on an invention (being an inventor rather than a real scientist, and as likely to tinker with physics as with biology) that will change the world, usually for worse, either intentionally, or unintentionally when bad guys get hold of it. Victor Frankenstein and his literary offspring. Dr.Jekyll as well.
In new LabLit, a scientist is likely to be portrayed as a member of a large lab group within which a lot of interpersonal relationships happen (including sex on the lab floor), also brilliant but with meagre social skills, working in furious competition against hundreds of similar lab groups working on the same scientific problem – be it cancer research or something else biotech – that will change the world for the better, quite intentionally. See the protagonists of novels by Carl Djerassi or Perri Klass for typical examples. Even if they are not in molecular biology (where are physicists these days?), they are in a very competitive field, e.g., “Brazzaville Beach” deals with primate research out in the field, in Africa, using the discovery of chimp cannibalism as the centerpiece of the story. They are also much more likely to be female than in the old SF.
Is LabLit a continuation of old-style SF, developed once SF went on a fantasy/cyberpunk detour? When did this shift begin? When SF (as Archy argues) made a big shift, in the 1960s, and at the same time LabLit began to emerge, what was the trigger? After all, there was no need to invent LabLit if readers of SF enjoyed the new themes and styles of SF?
I’d say it started with Jim Watson’s 1968 book Double Helix. It is the Frankenstein of the modern time, the model after which the latter fiction was written.
Both in the old SF and the new LabLit, there is a conflict between the good guys and the bad guys.
In both, the scientific discovery or invention forces people, including the scientist hero, to align with the good or the bad guys because the discovery is so BIG and important and with potentially huge consequences to the society.
In the old SF, in the hands of the bad guys, the discovery is dangerous.
In LabLit, bad guys want to supress the discovery in general or to supress the discovery by the good guys in order to sccop them and become famous themselves.
In both, the discovery forces the scientist to come out of the literal (SF) or emotional (LL) basement and interact with other people and the society, and the lack of social skills can be used by the author for humor, as well as to explain why people do strange things that the plot requires.
In old SF, the discovery/invention itself is central to the plot, and the characters can be left as cardboardy and stereotypical as the author wants.
In LabLit, the discovery is peripheral – it is the interaction between characters, often well-done characters, that drives the plot.
In old SF, the brilliance of the scientist is never questioned – when he makes the discovery, it is what he says it is. The ethical questions concern the discovery itself and what it can do in the hands of wrong people.
In LabLit, NOT getting the wanted results is often central to the plot, be it struggling and not getting the “right” data, or botching experiments, or inventing data out of thin air. The ethical questions concern the process of doing science itself.
Much of all this musing came about because I intended to review Intuition by Allegra Goodman today, but I don’t think I am going to write a real review so much as use it to highlight some of the tropes and cliches of the new genre and compare it to the old genre.
(Grrrlscientist is the only SciBling who actually wrote a full-blown review of this book. Jonah, Alex and PZ mentioned it briefly and their comments are actually quite insightful. For comparison, read the reviews in Slate, WaPo, The Economist, some other places and the reviewers on Amazon.com)
I don’t read descriptions of Harvard Square under various weather conditions and Allegra Goodman, as a fine writer (and certainly an English major) had to include a couple of such paragraphs which I happily skipped. It’s part of her training and her job to write such passages, it’s my job to skip them.
Nothing really happens on Harvard Square anyway. Stuff happens inside the building, where postdocs in a cancer research lab proudly nurture their Eloi-like pale skins. The Institute is losely affiliated with Harvard and, under financial duress, is about to get more forcefully controlled by the University. The particular laboratory in which the story unveils is also under financial stress and nothing appears to be working.
Cliff Bannaker, a postdoc in the lab, suddenly makes an important discovery. What exactly it is does not matter for the plot, except that something he did resulted in cancer disappearing in some of his mice so the direction of research is promising if one has a cure in mind.
The story revolves about the way different people respond to this finding and, later, when it is discovered that his data were not as clean as he claimed. Cliff appears to just want to believe his own data and, being a kind of person who does very shoddy bookkeeping, lets his preconceived notions make him believe he did nothing wrong.
His ex-girlfriend, Robin Decker, also a postdoc in the lab, has her own emotional reasons to start digging into Cliff’s notes and she makes the discovery that the data are not really what they seem.
Another postdoc, Feng, suffers in silence and deals with it in his own way.
The two co-advisors, flemboyant Sandy Glass (Type 2 scientist from this list I found via Sya) and Marion Mendelssohn (Type 5) have their own emotional reasons why they respond to the initial discovery and subsequent crisis the way they do.
These five characters, along with a couple of other lab members, plus members of the Glass and Mendelssohn families, are portrayed in three-to-four-dimensional way never seen in old SF. They are human. They have good and bad sides, good and bad prior experiences that explain their good and bad responses to events. They make good and bad decisions, have good and bad moments.
Nobody in the book is a hero. Just as you start strongly siding with Robin, she disappoints you. Just as you start despising Cliff, he does something that makes you emphatize. Just as you get used to liking Marion’s husband, he does something you abhor. Just as you think that your opinion of Sandy cannot sink any lower, he redeems himself. A constant rollercoaster on which you cannot hold on to anything concrete. Nothing is stable. Nobody is a straighforward hero to identify with, or a straightforward villain to hate. It is almost frustrating to read, as you desparately want to identify with a hero.
So, yes, they are all brilliant and socially inept (except Sandy) and the conflict – and there is no novel without conflict – is built not so much between them as when, forced by events, the scientists have to interact with the world outside the laboratory. Here, Goodman builds, I think on purpose, as cardboardy and stereotypical characters as she could muster. There is a typical anti-science, troglodyte-neocon, racist-antisemitic Congressman (you are free to guess his party affiliation) who gets a sweet put-down by Sandy during the congressional hearings. There are stereotypical unscrupulous lawyers. There are stereotypically shallow and uneducated journalists – especially those working for Harvard Crimson and The People Magazine – that we bloggers all know. There are stereotypical New-Agey, vegetarian, Birckenstock-liberal friends who are as shallow, empty and dogmatic as the stereotypes go.
It is in interactions with these people that the scientists fumble (except Sandy, but he is Type 2 scientist!), showing their social ineptness. They are forced to get out of their Wardenclyffe Tower (I would not call it Ivory Tower – a term which I associate more with the cluelesness and detachment from the real world of postmodern/deconstructionist folks like Stanley Fish) and are stumped by the very existence of those dogmatic and greedy troglodytes.
Reading the last third of the book, you realize that the scientists, as different from each other they may seem in their characters and temperaments, have much more in common with each other than the rest of the world. They are intelligent, educated, flexible and embrace ambiguity in the way the others cannot. They may be the pale-skinned Eloi, but you have to side with Eloi in a world full of Morlocks. While they may be more in touch with the (natural) world than the rest, they are omitting an important part of that world – the part that contains the human society and human beings in it.
So, this book, arguably one of the best in the LabLit genre, demonstrates some of the points I made above. The scientific discovery is peripheral – the plot revolves around human relationships. The characters drive the plot and are very well fleshed-out. They cannot be pigeon-holed as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The ethics problem is not about the application of the discovery, but in the process of discovery itself. The scientists are not mad loners, but a team – sure there is some friction within the group, but it pales in comparison with the friction between the group and the rest of society. And I assume that the descriptions of snow-covered Harvard Square are well done as well, but I wouldn’t know that, would I?
One thing that irks me about both old SF and new LabLit is that the plot requires a big conflict, and this is usually accomplished by portrayal of scientists working on some really Big Thing. It does not matter if the scientist is successful in making the discovery/invention (old SF) or makes mistakes on the way to it (LabLit), it is important that the discovery has huge and immediate consequences for the world – total annihilation or cure for cancer or something at that level. While the former is stuff of SF, the latter describes only a small subset of science and I am afraid that the popular understanding of science is just as skewed by LabLit today as it was with SF in the old days.
A year or so into my graduate program I went to my first conference. There I met one of the former PhD students from our lab and asked him what was the best thing about working for our advisor. His reply was one word: “Time”.
What he meant is that there is no pressure. No clocking in. No 13-hour days, 7 days a week. No looking over your shoulder. No fear of being scooped by the Japanese. No need to publish in Science or Nature.
Once you join our lab you are given a project to “play with”. After two semesters, if you have not produced any data, your funding gets cut off and you are not a member of the lab any more. If you are a mature adult and take your work seriously, you will have some data to show every few weeks or so.
If you have followed last week’s posts about research from our lab, you may have noticed that all those projects take a long time to do – months, sometimes years for each experiment. It cannot be expected to show fresh data every day or two. The work is campaign-style. We would do something over two or three consecutive days and nights, often with little or no sleep. After that, nobody expects to see our faces in the lab for a week. We would come in anyway, to take a look at the animals, to download and read a few more papers, to think and discuss ideas, to socialize, but not to do any real work. Animals and computers are doing it all on their own. Technicians are feeding the birds. We had “Time”.
And it appears that everyone in our Department was in that mode. You do stuff because it is exciting to you, not because your advisor whips you to do it. I used to do most of my real work at nights and on weekends mostly because I am too social. My choice entirely. During the day, there are just too many people to talk to. At night and on weekends I’d be alone and be able to get a lot of work done.
Then, I spent a couple of months doing some molecular experiments in a cancer lab at a neighboring University. A big lab. Twenty-two people. All pale-skinned Eloi working in silence (no silence in our lab ever!) days and nights. Nice people, but not my cup of soup.
One day, I went to a lab meeting there on a Friday afternoon. One of the postdocs showed some preliminary data and explained why there was a glitch in them. What did the advisor say? “Do it right over the weekend and show me the data on Monday morning!” Excuuuuse meeee?! This is a postdoc. He has a PhD. He has publications. He is supposed to be an independent researcher. And he is a very smart guy, too. And he lets himself be whipped like that? With the fear of the everpresent specter of the scooping Japanese? That was the moment I decided I was NOT going to do a postdoc in that lab (I was invited). As I progress through my career I don’t want to go backwards, losing my independence instead of gaining more of it (what Type of scientist from the list does that make me?).
But many, many scientists do not live in such a world. I was reminded of that when I went to the meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) a few years ago. Here they were, hundreds of scientists obviously enjoying their work and enjoying listening to other people’s research. There was evolution and ecology, animal development and animal behavior, plant physiology and insect enodcrinology, biomechanics and evo-devo, paleontology and quantitative genetics. All really cool stuff I like to blog about and people like Carl like to blog about. Almost nothing with obvious and immediate application. No competition and fear of being scooped. Science for the joy of discovery!
And there are many people in the world doing stuff like that, outside of the supercompetitive world of cancer or AIDS research. Most scientists do not care about Science and Nature papers, Nobel prizes and big money. And all of the people at SICB were funded for their work. Not millions from NIH, but hundreds of thousands from the NSF – just what their research requires.
But that kind of stuff does not make for a good plot for a novel, does it.

One response to “I don’t read descriptions of Harvard Square under various weather conditions, or, review of “Intuition” by Allegra Goodman

  1. Maybe it would, but a Jane Austen, Margaret Drabble type of novel (which I enjoy)