The Case for Hard-Core Lab Lit

The novels on the Lab Lit List share two defining characteristics: (1) a realistic scientist as either the main character or a character central to the storyline, who (2) is pursuing realistic scientific work. The one-word and one-sentence descriptions of the titles on the List make it clear that lab lit novels are independent of conventional genre labels. The List includes mysteries, romances, thrillers, comedy, humor, drama, fictionalized biography, and various mixtures and cross-overs. They are not restricted to any locus in time; most are set in the present, but there are a few historical dramas and a few take place in the near future, like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy (that begins with Forty Signs of Rain). The latter is quite properly classified as science fiction or speculative fiction, depending on the label you prefer.

“Hard-core” lab lit novels satisfy a third criterion. They are stories about the scientific research process. Scientific research plays an essential role in the plot. The stakes for the scientist characters arise from some aspect of a research project, for example, on the consistency of the findings with a prevailing hypothesis or theory as in The Honest Look by Jennifer Rohn and The Falling Sky by Pippa Goldschmidt. Another possibility is found in Meeting at a Far Meridian by Mitchell Wilson. Two scientists working in different laboratories using different techniques and instrumentation must resolve an important difference between their findings. Cosm by Gregory Benford tells the story of how an experimental physicist works with a theoretician to unravel the mystery of a new object created in a high-energy particle accelerator. By showing how theory and empirical studies work hand-in-hand, Benford manages to illustrate this complex intellectual and personal relationship better than most nonfiction accounts.

In Allegra Goodman’s Intuition, the scientific staff of a laboratory grapples with the repeatability of an important finding under the competitive pressures of being the first to report a new result and the unpleasant possibility of fraud. The conflict between repeatability and the race to be credited as the first to report a discovery are also the themes of Cantor’s Dilemma by Carl Djerassi, with the added pressure of a Nobel Prize at stake. Finally, Carbon Dreams by Susan M. Gaines shows the extreme degree to which a scientist’s identity and sense of self-worth are inextricably bound up with his or her work. Many readers who haven’t spent their young adulthood learning how to conduct investigations and understand their outcomes will be surprised at the intense desire of the heroine of Carbon Dreams to continue her work on picoplankton, a desire that overrides even the strongest aspects of her life outside her work.

Of the more than 160 titles on the List, I’ve so far read 60, along with several that I think are candidates for inclusion. If the fictionalized biographies and the historical dramas about actual scientists are not included in the count, there are very few hard-core lab lit novels. Although few in number, I believe these novels are enormously important because of their stealth role in educating nonscientists about the nature of the scientific enterprise.

Outstanding writers can master the necessary science and convey it to nonscientist readers in a way that motivates them learn to it, too. Obviously, no matter how accurate and thorough the information woven into the text of a novel, it cannot replace years of rigorous study of a science like physics or geology at all levels from high school to introductory courses in college. However, in the hands of a skilled writer, enough very detailed information can be conveyed to provide a realistic background and setting so a reader can understand and appreciate what the stakes are for the characters. Armed with a clear picture of what’s going on, the reader can see the situation as a scientist does and experience his or her thoughts and emotions from the “inside” of a scientist’s head.

Not even biographies can bring to life the drama of this interior experience the way a good novel can. These facets of science are usually left out of science courses and popularized nonfiction books on science. A well-written hard-core lab lit novel can leave a reader who has little or no background in science with a new, well-rounded sense of what it’s like to be a working scientist. This perspective should be especially useful to anyone interpreting public statements by scientists about everything from the latest dietary recommendations to the sources of climate change.

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