In The Honest Look Jennifer Rohn has given life as only a writer can to one of the most important aspects of scientific research and science itself. For that reason alone it is a significant novel about science. It is also a very beautiful and touching story laced with poetry and humanity. Because I only recently finished reading it, I didn’t have it on my first list of recommended books! It deserves a place there.
As the book opens, Claire Cyrus arrives in Amsterdam to begin her job as a senior scientist at a biotech startup called Neurosys. She realizes at once that she is perceived as an interloper, whose job of running a very expensive new piece of analytical apparatus seems to be universally resented. Claire quickly falls in love with Amsterdam, only to realize after she takes an apartment there that Dutch culture is not particularly welcoming. The city is a great tourist destination but not a comfortable place for expats. Because most of the other English expats live in a village close to the lab, her choice of residence adds to her reputation as a black sheep (Black Maria, as one character labels her). Undaunted, Claire whips her Interactrex into shape and begins producing results, although everyone at first rejects them on principle, not necessarily valid ones.
Claire responds to her outcast status by disappearing into her work, putting in long hours and often sleeping overnight in an armchair she commandeers for her lab. Enterprise and hard work pay off when she demonstrates the contribution she and the Interactrex can make to work on the company’s only drug, just about to go into Phase I clinical testing. And a most unlikely romance with one of the firm’s principals develops in parallel to her growing status as an offbeat prodigy. But then, just when the success of her contributions promises to solidify her place in the company, she accidentally finds something that doesn’t make sense. At least it doesn’t fit into the working hypothesis on which the company’s only drug is predicated.
What makes Rohn’s book so noteworthy is that it turns a negative result into a vivid human drama. Most of the time scientists focus on finding evidence that “proves” a general statement is “true,” although they generally use more cautious, narrowly defined words. They say an experiment, a finding or the evidence “supports” a hypothesis, a theory or a principle. The important point to note is that no amount of evidence ever makes a principle or theory absolutely certain or true. A single finding can ruin the generality of every principle and theory in science.
So when a slip of Claire’s thumb accidentally takes a sample outside the cells she’s studying, she does something that comes from a peculiar mixture of intelligence, curiosity and a belief in the scientific method. She runs it through the Interactrex instead of flushing it out of the equipment. And the analysis doesn’t come out the way the Universal Aggregation Principle says it should. And if the principle isn’t true, then Neurosys’s only drug shouldn’t work. Now what? This is where research can get either nasty or exciting, and for Claire, it is both.
The Honest Look is a novel with the potential to change dramatically the way someone understands science and what scientists do. The sensitive and perceptive way the author handles her characters’ feelings and her evocative descriptions of Amsterdam make the novel a good choice for all college freshman to read and discuss during orientation. Rohn’s novel fits this pivotal educational role because it speaks so elegantly to the interests and concerns of young adults: coming to terms with parental influences, career choices and organizational politics, to list only a few. And there is something for nearly everyone: a complicated love triangle, for example; a foreign setting for readers yearning for travel, poetry and beautiful prose for the literary types; and a realistic glimpse of the daunting years of learning ahead for aspiring young scientists.