Lab lit? What’s that? Not to be confused with science fiction, lab lit refers to novels with scientists as central characters.
Wikipedia defines lab lit as “a loosely defined genre of fiction” but it doesn’t quite live up to the definition of a genre. There’s certainly no section in the library for books about scientists, any more than there is for books about mailmen or teachers.
The term was coined in 2005 by Dr. Jennifer Rohn, a biologist and writer, also founder and editor of LabLit.com. Books and, for that matter, films and television shows, that fit the lab lit mold have exploded in recent years, in a backlash against outdated portrayals of mad scientists.
Melanie Lauwers, books editor for the Cape Cod Times, and Jill Erickson, reference librarian at Falmouth Public Library, compiled some of their favorite lab lit. There are obvious choices, like Frankenstein, and surprise appearances by acclaimed authors not known for writing about scientists. There are also plenty of new titles for even the most voracious readers.
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley – You’ve doubtless encountered the monster who goes by that name these days, but Frankenstein was actually the scientist who created the monster. He’s the archetypal mad scientist.
- The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux – Theroux’s lead character fancies himself a modern-day Dr. Frankenstein while waxing poetic on the real-life field of biomimicry - engineering inspired by natural systems.
- Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis - Lewis' Pulitzer-winning 1925 novel chronicles the scientific career of a midwestern physician and researcher, and shows just how much popular perception of scientists had changed in the century since Frankenstein.
- Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton - Crichton is among the best known lab lit authors. His novels, like real-life science, explore the fuzzy boundary between scientific fact and science fiction.
- Cannery Row by John Steinbeck - How many characters named "Doc" can you name? Steinbeck's Doc was based on his lifelong friend Ed Ricketts and the laboratory he operated on Cannery Row from 1928 to 1948.
- Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman - Albert Einstein is one of the most widely recognized scientists in the world, but try picturing him as a father or a friend. Not easy. Lightman, a physicist and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, does so with elegance.
- The Wives of Los Alamos by Tarashea Nesbit - On the flip side of that equation, Nesbit makes the scientists secondary characters, focusing instead on their wives and friends.
- The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly - Every scientist was a kid once. This beautiful story set in 1889 could as easily be set in 1989, telling a timeless story of a child exploring the world around her with her grandfather as guide.
- Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday - To say this book is about introducing sport fishing to the Yemen sells it short. The "waking dreams" of fishery biologist Dr. Alfred Jones offer beautiful insight into the ruminations that can spark scientific inquiry.
- Orfeo by Richard Powers - The fictional Peter Els is a biochemist (with a home lab) and a composer. He also knows Arabic, which draws suspicion from Homeland Security officers. The story of Els' life weaves together art and science, as well as commentary on modern culture.
That's just our top ten. Jill Erickson has a longer list on her blog. But there's plenty more out there. What's your favorite book about a scientist?