A Scientist’s Coming of Age

The coming-of-age novel or Bildungsroman is a well-established genre with such venerable examples of Voltaire’s Candide, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, Dickens David Copperfield and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.  But there are almost no corresponding novels that focus on a young scientist growing up and mastering the practice and pursuit of a science.  That’s what makes Barbara Riddle’s The Girl Pretending to Read Rilke so extraordinary.  I can think of only two others remotely like it.

Recently, I picked up Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith.  I had forgotten that it begins with an adolescent Arrowsmith and follows him in some detail through medical school.  While these scenes are only a small part of the novel, they are rare enough to be worth remarking.  Celestine in Djerassi’s Cantor’s Dilemma and NO is another exception, but Celestine is not a central character, and the two novels are not about her progress from undergraduate at the beginning of Cantor’s Dilemma to tenured full professor at Cal Tech at the end of NO.

Many novels about science and scientists have important characters who are post-doctoral fellows, but very few have graduate students, and almost none include undergraduates in the plot.  The question is why.

I’ve thought of several reasons, but I’m really curious what others think, especially those who have read more lab lit than I have.  Instead I want to use this post to describe two scenarios that it seems to me are nearly unique to coming-of-age fiction about science.

In fact, real science students rarely participate in important discoveries.  Even less often does a student make the discovery.  Yet, literature often focuses on the exceptions, and the very few true stories of students who played a central role in a major discovery make fascinating reading.  Jocelyn Bell Burnell, for example, was a graduate student at Jodrell Bank when she noticed the first evidence in the data that led to the discovery of pulsars.  She also pursued the finding in the data and established that it was indeed something new and exciting.  That it makes a good story can be seen in the subsequent controversy over whether she deserved to share the Nobel Prize that resulted from the pulsar.  Seems to me a similar plot would make a great novel!

An individual’s knowledge of science begins with questions that have answers.  Science education encourages the assumption that world is understood and that questions have answers.  But in the life of every young scientist there comes a moment of insight that not all the questions have answers and with it the inference that there is a frontier where new knowledge is sought and found.  Even more interesting is the realization that what is known or accepted is not quite correct, even dead wrong.  I think that a young scientist who challenges the establishment with a truly new finding or, even more interesting, a new line of explanation that does a better job of accounting for the evidence than the long-held theory in a field would make a great storyline!

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