Seven Books (About Scientists) to Get You Through Winter

Feb 10, 2015

Credit François Philipp / Flickr

There are books about cops, and books about doctors. John Grisham made his name writing about lawyers. So where are all the scientists?

Remember that old saying about art imitating life? Well, not always. According to the National Science Foundation, in 1999, there were somewhere around 3.5 million scientists and engineers working in the United States. Walk into a bookstore, though, and you'd be hard pressed to find a book about a scientist. And when they do show up in movies, scientists tend to be wildly stereotyped and misrepresented as eccentric geniuses with few social skills and maybe - just maybe - the key to saving the planet ... by tomorrow.

"They’re not some evil maniac with messy hair and hunchback," says cell biologist and author Dr. Jennifer Rohn of her fellow scientists. "They’re people like you and me, just trying to do their best to enlighten us about the world and how it works, and try to find some solutions to some really sticky problems that we’re in at the moment."

That's the point Rohn tries to get across in her own novels. Her first, Experimental Heart, is a romantic thriller that happens to involve scientists. The main character in her second, The Honest Look, works at a biotechnology start-up in the Netherlands (as she herself once did) and confronts the possibility that a new product may be too good to be true.

In addition to writing these stories - something that has become harder to do while juggling the demands of an academic research career and a new baby - Rohn, via her website, also tracks other instances of what she calls "lab lit." She coined the term several years ago to refer to books, movies, plays - any fictional media, really - that involves a scientist(s) as a main character and reveals at least a little of that character's work and professional life. While lab lit can bleed into science fiction, it tends to overlap more with historical fiction, being set in the past or present, in places that conform to the laws of science as we currently understand them.

Rohn hopes that realistic, fictional portrayals of scientists can draw in a larger audience than, say, science textbooks and reveal the humanity of science.

"Fiction is a great stealth mechanism - not to be a cheerleader of science, I really don’t want that – but just to enlighten the world about what it is, who are the people who are doing it," says Rohn. "We are a force for good. And we don’t always get it right, and there are obviously problems and mistakes, but we are not some untouchable, unknowable race. We are human beings trying to understand the world."

So, without further ado, here are five lab lit reading suggestions from Rohn herself, plus a couple of recommendations we got from listeners. Enjoy, and let us know what you think!

  1. Plague and Cholera (Patrick Deville, translated from the French by J.A. Underwood) - a fictionalized account of the life of Alexandre Yersin, discoverer of the bubonic plague microbe, which Rohn asserts is far more fun to read than the title might suggest.
  2. The Signature of All Things (Elizabeth Gilbert) - a complete departure for the author of Eat, Pray, Love. A young woman in the 19th century grapples with reason, morality, and superstition as she studies botany in an age when women were not supposed to be clever.
  3. Decoded (Mia Jia, translated from the Chinese by Olivia Milburn & Christopher Payne) - a math genius gets recruited to break codes and soon gets sucked into a world of madness. Older, but no less recommendable, books about code-breaking include Robert Harris' Enigma and Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon.
  4. Flight Behavior (Barbara Kingsolver) - an uneducated Appalachian housewife becomes entangled into a scientific life and soon grows beyond the confines of her upbringing.
  5. A Fierce Radiance (Lauren Belfer) - told from the point of view of a photographer from Life magazine, the race to market penicillin is paved with sex, intrigue and murder.
  6. Intuition (Allegra Goodman) - a meticulously researched account of a graduate student who uncovers scientific fraud by a colleague.
  7. Einstein's Dreams (Alan Lightman) - a dive into the creative genius of Albert Einstein, in the form of dreams he might have had while working in a patent office and developing his theory of relativity.