All scientists are mad, really.
June 7, 2012 12:29 PM   Subscribe

Seeking novels about scientists! All genres welcome; women protagonists, protagonists of color and non-Western protagonists preferred; weirdos also acceptable.

I was thinking about Gwyneth Jones's excellent novel of genetics, research, gender and the future, Life, and about Samuel Delany's use of language to create a sense rather than a direct depiction of future science in Triton. And then I was around a bunch of scientists. And I thought I'd like to read some novels about them.

So lay it on me! What are some novels about scientists? Any scientists will do, with the exception of sociologists, psychiatrists and anthropologists - let's emphasize the sort of scientists more commonly found in the lab rather than the field and whose work Extra points for novels some of whose action takes place in a research setting - Life, for example, is very much about the world of research and the career arc of a minor researcher. (Jones actually did a lot of shadowing of geneticists when writing it.)

Detective stories and science fiction are fine - I suppose romance novels would be too, provided that they were sufficiently sciencey. Ideally, these would not be right-wing novels.

A recognizable and somewhat realistic depiction of research life is a plus.

(I am around scientists all the I'm not so much looking for soft information about research labs and what goes on in them as I am looking for writerly treatment of research.)
posted by Frowner to Media & Arts (45 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Well, let me be the first of many to suggest Allegra Goodman's Intuition. Mystery/thriller-ish, about extraordinary results/potential research fraud and the ways that different folks react to that.
posted by amelioration at 12:35 PM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Connie Willis, Passage: psychology/neurology. It's been a while since I read it, but I think a big piece of the plot is a research project in a hospital.

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed: protagonist is a theoretical physicist (and an anarchist). Not much lab work, but I felt it gave an accurate depiction of the more mathy type of research which is basically sitting alone and thinking.

Greg Egan, Diaspora: the novel is mostly about other things, but one of the main characters is a mathematician/physicist, and ver education and research(ish) are treated.

You said novel, but I'll add Larry Niven's short story "The Hole Man". And, for something fun, Greg Egan's short story "Luminous".
posted by stebulus at 12:44 PM on June 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Contact, by the man himself, Carl Sagan.
posted by Gygesringtone at 12:44 PM on June 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Carl Djerassi has a number of them; I found them a little "as you know Bob" but they might not be that way for a layperson. The book Contact is TOTALLY DIFFERENT than the movie an does a lot more of this.

Intuition, mentioned above, so accurately depicted the frustrating late-grad-school doldrums that I had to put it down very early on because I was at exactly that place in life when I started reading it.
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:47 PM on June 7, 2012

Diana Abu-Jaber's Origin features a female crime lab specialist on the trail of a killer of children. Much more interesting than those Tempe Brennan books, but don't read it late at night.
posted by Currer Belfry at 12:47 PM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

As She Climbed Across The Table, by Jonathan Lethem: what do you do when your particle-physicist girlfriend falls in love with the naked singularity she has created in the lab?
posted by nicwolff at 12:49 PM on June 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

The Gold Bug Variations, by Richard Powers. Intertwined stories of two couples, one of which was (I think) a husband and wife team of scientists trying to decipher the structure of DNA prior to Watson and Crick.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:49 PM on June 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oof. Two I read that I can't, for the life of me, recall the titles of.

One opened on a Greek island where someone was a collector of black market antiquities, opening sealed jars to get the 'smell' of the past, and started a plague that wiped out a lot of the world, when this happens there's a man on the other side of the world, in jail in China? who walks home to the United States (not sure on how he gets across the ocean) to meet with folks who have holed up in Los Alamos to look for a cure.

The other involves an improbability about a super smart teen girl's own ovum and so never mind ...

Bugs me I can't remember the names.
posted by tilde at 12:51 PM on June 7, 2012

The Scarpetta novels by Patricia Cornwell might work for you. Kay Scarpetta is a forensic anthropologist modeled on Dr. William Bass, the founder of the body farm at the University of Tennessee.
posted by workerant at 12:57 PM on June 7, 2012

The main character in Greg Benford's _Cosm_ is a black woman physicist who creates a Weird Physics Object.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:02 PM on June 7, 2012

Good Benito by Alan Lightman. Extra points as he's a physics professor at MIT. (He also wrote Einstein's Dreams which you may be a little more familiar with.)
posted by Hactar at 1:05 PM on June 7, 2012

You might like State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.
posted by easilyamused at 1:06 PM on June 7, 2012

The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton. A bit old, but the original TV adaptation was good.
posted by Thug at 1:06 PM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

One of the supporting characters in Stephen Donaldson's Gap Cycle, Lane Harwell, is a terrifyingly brilliant female forensic scientist.
posted by elizardbits at 1:07 PM on June 7, 2012

Pretty nearly the entire oeuvre of the recently deceased Ray Bradbury.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:07 PM on June 7, 2012

A great deal of Isaac Asimov, but especially The Gods Themselves
posted by Hactar at 1:11 PM on June 7, 2012

For something short, fun and goofy I can't recommend The Pirates!: In An Adventure With Scientists enough.
posted by munchingzombie at 1:15 PM on June 7, 2012

Red Mars. Contact. Also, weren't those Crichton books like Andromeda Strain mostly about scientists?
posted by small_ruminant at 1:15 PM on June 7, 2012

Many of Madeline L'Engle's novels feature scientists, particularly A Wrinkle In Time and the other books of that series.
posted by bunderful at 1:21 PM on June 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Only a short story but amazing in it's depth of emotion evoked:

The End of the Whole Mess by Stephen King
posted by RolandOfEld at 1:26 PM on June 7, 2012

Ooh! Poor Things, by Alasdair Gray!
posted by scody at 1:27 PM on June 7, 2012

It may not seem like it at first, but Neal Stephenson's Anathem is definitely about scientists! I like to describe it as taking place (at least in the beginning) at a science monastery with a main character who's a novice science monk. There's a fair bit of philosophy as well, but it's all bundled together with something of a scifi alternate universe coming of age novel.

Flashforward by Robert J. Sawyer features CERN scientists as main characters, unlike the TV adaptation which inexplicably decided to follow a bunch of FBI agents instead.
posted by yasaman at 1:39 PM on June 7, 2012

"A Fierce Radiance" by Lauren Belfer -- the protagonist is a reporter, not a scientist, but I would still describe it as a novel about scientists. The story focuses on the development of penicillin in the WWII era.

I'll second Connie Willis's "Passage", as well. Her book "Bellweather" is also good. The main character is more of a sociologist, but she is a sociologist studying scientists, if that counts! Each chapter starts with a little anecdote about some real-life discovery, as well, if I remember correctly.
posted by Kriesa at 1:53 PM on June 7, 2012

I Robot has a story about a woman scientist.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:56 PM on June 7, 2012

Sinclair Lewis's Arrowsmith is about a doctor in conflict with a profit-focused pharmaceutical firm. It takes place in the 1920s or 30s, IIRC.
posted by scratch at 2:03 PM on June 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Serious suggestion - Christopher Moore's Fluke rings very familiar as someone who did animal behaviour in the field.

Crazy suggestion - Suzanne Carey's Leave Me Never. Well, it's a romance. And it is pretty horrible (old fashioned and all that entails). But knowing the scientists that work at the real "Larsen Park" and that it was written by a former scientist/grad student there and that (apparently) the male romantic object is based on a real person, makes this story so great. The science is pretty true to life, although the career paths are wacky. Email me, and I'll spill the beans.

Let me leave you with the blurb on the back:


It was an honor to be accepted as a student under the great Dr. Benjamin Reno. But the moment she returned to Larsen Park, Terry knew she should never have tried to come back, back to the man who had claimed her body and soul six years before. The flame that burned in his eyes, the passion that drove him to punish her with his lips, was fired by hurt, or anger, or even worse. Ben desired Terry as powerfully as he always had, but would he ever trust her enough to love her again?

posted by hydrobatidae at 2:08 PM on June 7, 2012

Thomas McMahon was a scientist and his novels are about scientists. One of the great unrecognized US novelists.
posted by TheRaven at 2:08 PM on June 7, 2012

China Mieville -- Perdido Street Station, Kraken
posted by freshwater at 2:14 PM on June 7, 2012

Ratner's Star, by Don DeLillo. Definitely satisfies the request for weirdos.
posted by newmoistness at 2:28 PM on June 7, 2012

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett is sort of Heart of Darkness retold with two women scientists, the junior of whom is half Indian (South Asian).
posted by matildaben at 2:30 PM on June 7, 2012

You TOTALLY want Mira Grant's Newsflesh series, starting with Feed, then Deadline, and finally, Blackout. They are awesome and feature ZOMBIES, and lots of science and ZOMBIES and virology and the CDC and scientists, both good and bad. I'm finishing the last book, which just came out and it's SO GREAT.
posted by Aquifer at 2:32 PM on June 7, 2012

Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd is about a biologist (zoologist?) It mostly follows her in the field in the Congo as she does research on chimps. For bonus points, her husband is a mathematician. It's one of my favourite books.
posted by fso at 3:31 PM on June 7, 2012

Definitely Connie Willis's books mentioned above as they do a really good job of showing the slow progress and weird leaps that research takes.

Also, Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake and The Company books by Kage Baker--In the Garden of Eden is the first one, although those scientists are more field, less lab.

In the non-SF realm, Kathy Reichs' mystery novels, whose main character shares the same first name (and essentially nothing else) with the main character on the tv show Bones, are a great depiction of the daily life of a forensic anthropologist (which is a lab field that is basically the same as being a human anatomist who specializes in skeletons).
posted by hydropsyche at 3:46 PM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson is mathy rather than sciencey. Well, code-breakey. Also, it's awesome.
posted by mollymayhem at 4:17 PM on June 7, 2012

Andrea Barrett has written a gorgeous set of interconnected stories about scientists across a couple of centuries - Voyage of the Narwhal and The Air We Breathe (novels), and two short story/novella collections, Servants of the Map and Ship Fever. So good. I like the stories better than the novels, but the novels are good. And Servants of the Map begins with a very long story/novella, also called "Servants of the Map."
posted by mskyle at 5:07 PM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Rebecca Goldstein, Properties of Light: A Novel of Love, Betrayal and Quantum Physics.
posted by BibiRose at 5:07 PM on June 7, 2012

Perri Klass's Recombinations is, as I recall, kind of chick-litty, but the main character works in a bioengineering lab and there is a fair amount of discussion about what she does.
posted by BibiRose at 5:21 PM on June 7, 2012

Ted Chiang's Exhalation.
posted by Artw at 5:29 PM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Bruce Sterling's Distraction. Best description of the strangeness and passion behind science I've read in SF.
posted by demons in the base at 6:52 PM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding Andrea Barrett! I luuuuuurve those books.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:28 PM on June 7, 2012

Rosemary Kirstein's Steerswoman series (The Steerswoman's Road, The Lost Steersman, and The Language of Power) are about characters (mostly women, and a few men) that investigate the world through gathering knowledge, using mathematics/geometry, researching, and asking questions. They aren't called scientists in the books, but the books are very much about the processes of science.
posted by creepygirl at 9:36 PM on June 7, 2012

Does a novel about engineering count? If so, just heard about Stefan Jaeger's "The Jackhammer Elegies".
posted by ccalgreen at 11:08 PM on June 7, 2012

Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio - there are more books in the series but I've only read the first. It's about women who are essentially giving birth to the next evolutionary stage of humans (although it's mistakenly identified as a horrible virus), and the main character is a female epidemiologist. It wasn't my cup of tea but if you like science-dense '80s-style scifi you might like it. Research and science language make up a large part of the story.
posted by tracicle at 1:36 AM on June 8, 2012

A few years ago, I posted a question about historical fiction about scientists - one of my favourite genres. You may find some good suggestions there - I have been working my way steadily through many of the books named in that thread and have been enjoying them very much.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:53 AM on June 8, 2012

These ones feature contemporary scientists, labwork, and the like. Each of them are dealing with cognitive neuroscience, so they do or do not fit depending on the extent to which this is disqualified by connections to psychiatry.

David Lodge, Thinks
Robert Cohen, Inspired Sleep
Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2

If you're comfortable with late 18th/early 19th century science as fitting the criteria, then Measuring the World is really quite good.
posted by .kobayashi. at 6:06 AM on June 8, 2012

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