Historical fiction about scientists
February 23, 2009 5:59 AM   Subscribe

Your recommendations: Historical novels about scientists


I'm looking for good historical novels about real or fictional scientists. I've read Stephenson's "The Baroque Cycle" (awesome), Iain Pearson's "An Instance of the Fingerpost" (similarly awesome), and am in the middle of Benjamin Markovits' "The Syme Papers" (not quite as awesome but not bad). I've probably read others too, but those are the ones that come to mind immediately and which are more or less the kind of books I'm looking for. Thanks in advance!
posted by Ziggy500 to Writing & Language (29 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Andrea Barrett's made a career out of exactly this. I haven't read her most recent, The Air We Breathe, yet, but the three before that were great.
posted by gleuschk at 6:04 AM on February 23, 2009

Cryptonomicon, also by Stephenson features several scientist characters.
posted by jquinby at 6:04 AM on February 23, 2009

Thanks for reminding me of Andrea Barrett's name, gleuschk, so I didn't have to look it up before answering this question. Her book of short stories, Ship Fever, was what I was going to recommend.
posted by roombythelake at 6:15 AM on February 23, 2009

John Banville's Revolutions Trilogy might fit the bill. From the Amazon review:

A collection of Banville's historical novels of three of the great figures in the Scientific Revolution. Dr Copernicus recreates the life of the Polish mathematician, whose insistence that the earth revolves around the sun signalled the end of the medieval world order. Johannes Kepler was one of the greatest mathematicians and astronomers, and in Kepler Banville reconstructs his life in vividly realized scenes. In the third of the trilogy - The Newton Letter - the story is narrated by a biographer of Isaac Newton, who is forced to revise his own glib assumptions on both his subject and life itself. (Kirkus UK)
posted by Jakey at 6:23 AM on February 23, 2009

You might try the Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers, which has two intertwined stories, one of which about a team of scientists working in the early days of DNA. Very good book!
posted by Admiral Haddock at 6:26 AM on February 23, 2009

Eifelheim by Michael R Flynn is a hard science fiction novel set in medieval Germany where a very well educated priest (about as close as you'll get to a scientist at that time) tries to understand some stranded space aliens and their technology. Whilst not precisely what you asked for, it's wonderfully written and I think you'll dig it.
posted by nowonmai at 6:30 AM on February 23, 2009

One of the best books about scientists (or anything else) I've ever read is John McPhee's "Curve of Binding Energy" about the development of the atomic bomb. One scientist's job was to determine whether a nuclear explosion would cause the earth's atmosphere to catch fire. Great book.
posted by dcbaudi at 6:38 AM on February 23, 2009

T.C. Boyle's The Inner Circle about Dr. Kinsey.
posted by fixedgear at 7:07 AM on February 23, 2009

Also by Neal Stephenson, "Quicksilver" features many gentlemen of the Royal Society et al. and their adventures inquiring into the worlds of biology, microscopy, mathematics, etc.
posted by Hello, Revelers! I am Captain Lavender! at 7:26 AM on February 23, 2009

Aaaaaaaaaand, I should have read the question more carefully. Excuse moi.
posted by Hello, Revelers! I am Captain Lavender! at 7:28 AM on February 23, 2009

Seconding Richard Powers' The Gold Bug Variations. I think it is a great book. Several of his other novels also contain intertwined stories, one of which concerns scientists at work, although not so much in a historical context as The Gold Bug Variations. They are: Galatea 2.0, Plowing the Dark, and The Echo Maker.
posted by pasici at 7:37 AM on February 23, 2009

Thunderstruck, by Erik Larson, has intersecting plot lines about Guglielmo Marconi and Hawley Crippen. Not Larson's best, but still good.
posted by charlesv at 7:51 AM on February 23, 2009

Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel.
posted by angiep at 7:57 AM on February 23, 2009

It sort of bends the idea of a "historical" novel, but that's part of the point: Amitav Ghosh's The Calcultta Chromosome.
posted by synecdoche at 8:05 AM on February 23, 2009

Er, Calcutta, not Calcultta, obviously.
posted by synecdoche at 8:06 AM on February 23, 2009

Goodman's Intuition is a fictionalized fraud case (based on a real case) and is decent. Smiley's Moo is a funny satire of a large midwestern research university.

These two not really novels: Sobel's Galileo's Daughter and Conant's Tuxedo Park, but they are quite readable, and the latter taught me how critical radar research was to WWII - it's often overshadowed by the Manhattan Project in the US.

I think you could argue that Sherlock Holmes is a scientist. (Batman, too, for that matter.)

If you allow memoirs, Wilson's convinced me to become a scientist.

My novels are at home - I hope to post more when this evening.
posted by Jorus at 8:10 AM on February 23, 2009

I heartily recommend the following:
The ur-scientist novel Arrowsmith by Upton Sinclair, 1925. I give this to those deciding between science and medicine for carreer paths.
For Richard Powers, I prefer Plowing the Dark
You could argue that Stephen Maturin of the Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander series is a scientist in as much as he's a pre-darwinian naturalist. But I would recommend those books for everything, including nosebleeds and toothaches. They cure all.

i tepidly recommend these as fitting your criteria:
Hopeful Monsters by Nicholas Mosely. I didn't finish it, but it looked all sciency at the outset.
Allen Kurzweil's A Case of Curiosities More of an inventor story, of 18th century France. Not bad, but not great either.

Non fiction that reads very well:
A Rum Affair by Karl Sabbagh. Mystery, intrigue, Botany! Quite Charming.
The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, Paul Hoffman. A biography-ish of Paul Erdös. Highly awesome.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 9:02 AM on February 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding Cold Lurkey's Patrick O'Brian recommendation. Stephen Maturin is based in part on Joseph Banks, and the books are in fact sovereign remedies for dropsy and excess of phlegm.
posted by rdc at 9:07 AM on February 23, 2009

Oh crap on a stick, I mean Sinclair Lewis, not Upton Sinclair. fah.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 9:08 AM on February 23, 2009

Empire of the Stars: Obsession, Friendship, and Betrayal in the Quest for Black Holes by Arthur I. Miller

Abundant usage of historical data, but is an easy, interesting read.
posted by mandapanda at 9:44 AM on February 23, 2009

I recently started reading American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of Oppenheimer, about the life, times and works of the father of the atomic bomb. It's very good.
posted by tachikoma_robot at 10:26 AM on February 23, 2009

Well technically this is a biography, but the author is so enamored of the subject that it comes off as fiction. The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin is a pretty darn good read. He was quite the scientist, but obviously that's not all he did.
posted by elendil71 at 11:11 AM on February 23, 2009

Not fiction, but great historical and scientific reads:

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi, experiences of a Jewish scientist in Europe during WWII era

The Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif, profiles the major figures in the history of microbiology, in very vivid and engaging prose

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. Definitely not novel-like, but Bryson is such a fantastically enjoyable writer. This book is about science and scientific knowledge, as well as the scientists who figured it all out, and it is so much fun.

and, for the chemistry enthusiasts among us,

Caveman to Chemist by Hugh Salzberg. Just fantastic.
posted by Sublimity at 11:38 AM on February 23, 2009

A great and fun read about the opposite, only slightly intertwined lives of Gauss and Humboldt is Daniel Kehlmann's Measuring the World. That book was a huge success in Germany a couple of years ago (which does not mean too much, but I can recommend it, anyways).

Another book I thoroughly enjoyed is Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, which is not only about the "Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World", but also about the physician and scientst Dr. Snow.
posted by Henrik at 12:40 PM on February 23, 2009

Whatever a scientst is...
posted by Henrik at 12:47 PM on February 23, 2009

This is a genre : Lab Lit. The list llinked to contains >100 novels, including most that have been recommended above.
posted by lalochezia at 4:44 PM on February 23, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you so much, everyone!
posted by Ziggy500 at 6:36 AM on February 24, 2009

I'd also like to throw in Three Days to Never by Tim Powers. While Einstein isn't directly a character, the entire book revolves around some of his more mysterious discoveries.
posted by ssmith at 2:41 PM on February 25, 2009

The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt is a novel about Nikola Tesla. It's kind of fantastical, not a straight-up biographical novel, and has a lot of fictionalized stuff, but I'm finding it quite enjoyable.
posted by matildaben at 12:22 PM on April 30, 2009

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