Top 10 Books About Scientists Searching For an Answer

From a story on by Martin MacInnes heeadlined “Top 10 visionary books about scientists searching for an answer”:

Science, as much as art, is an act of imagination, the pursuit of something new. While novels about scientists often play with this likeness, there are also scientists who write with the ambition and empathy of novelists. Scientists in literature appear in all sorts of guises: as megalomaniacs, heroes, obsessives. It is this last figure – the obsessive – the character who will not stop – that interests me most.

I have always been drawn to quests. Quest stories range from the domestic – a mystery about a family secret, say – to the criminal, where a detective spends a lifetime brooding on an unsolvable case, to the existential. Existential quests extend across fiction and nonfiction, and again the scientist and novelist converge. Both are engaged in pattern-seeking and analogy-making, sifting experience and research in an attempt to piece together a convincing and original story about the world; to create something and at the same time to find something out.

In my new novel In Ascension, Leigh, a marine biologist, embarks on such a quest, determined to find out where life ultimately comes from. Along the way it occurs to her, as it does to many of the scientists below, that this isn’t the only or even primary question driving her, and that this other answer may lie somewhere closer to home.

1. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
The four women who enter Area X are named only by their profession: biologist; anthropologist; psychologist; surveyor. It is the biologist who is closest to VanderMeer’s heart, clear in the gorgeous accounts of the living world they walk through and in the novel’s concern with ecstatic dissolution and eroded borders, an awful commonality linking all things. The novel is suffused in beauty and grief, as the biologist goes on, determined to find out what it all means.

2. Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
Perhaps the most predictable inclusion on this list, Robinson has made a career out of dramatising the lives of scientists, partly as a way to challenge the anthropocentrism and ecological-neglect of much literary fiction. Aurora charts an interstellar journey to a potential second Earth, in a vast ship containing large biomes with distinct ecosystems. Biologist and ship leader Devi is tasked with maintaining life throughout her stage of the multi-generation journey. It’s not much of a spoiler to say the real wonder in this novel is the return to Earth. It has become trite to say that this planet is our only home, but rarely has the sentiment been shown as spectacularly as in Aurora.

3. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Early in Woolf’s fifth novel the botanist William Bankes surveys an abstract painting by fellow house-guest Lily Briscoe: “Mother and child then … might be reduced, he pondered, to a purple shadow without irreverence.” Her impressionistic style challenges him, and he and Lily go on to discuss alternative ways of representing people, objects, reality. Woolf was a proto-science fiction writer, interested in unorthodox ideas of time and space and in showing the human from a variety of scales. She was fascinated by contemporary discoveries in astronomy, including Edwin Hubble’s revelations on the size of the cosmos. To the Lighthouse dramatises a crisis of perspective – how do we best render our lives, against all that surrounds us – to shattering emotional effect.

4. Contact by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan
Developed into a novel and successfully adapted for film, Contact began life as a screenplay co-written by Druyan. It’s a classic example of a character driven to extreme lengths by events in childhood: astrophysicist Ellie, grieving the death of her beloved father, sweeps the skies with giant antennas, searching for an answer. Generally considered sentimental, this is undercut in places by an underacknowledged cynicism and ambiguity. Interestingly, Contact is haunted by another of Sagan and Druyan’s projects – The Golden Record – which, while dated and ethnocentric, should survive quite a bit longer than any of the texts on this list.

5. The Periodic Table by Primo Levi

Some of the characters on this list practise science partly as a means of making sense of their own life. Levi – who was imprisoned in Auschwitz in 1944 – knows this is impossible, but he does use his training as a chemist to at least arrange some of the seismic and tragic events he experienced. Rigorously written, frequently unbearably moving, the final piece, which tracks the multimillion year journey of a single carbon atom, is a high point in modern imaginative literature.

6. The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin

Shevek, a physicist (allegedly based on Robert Oppenheimer, a friend of Le Guin’s parents) living on the anarchist planet Annares, makes a theoretical breakthrough which promises to change worlds. Revolution is never far from Le Guin’s thoughts; her early exposure to anthropology showed her that no single culture is inevitable, an enviable position for a novelist. Her deeply political writing uses science to ask searching questions: why is the world the way it is? How can we live differently, and better?

7. Submergence by JM Ledgard

Deep-sea exploration is a fertile source of wonder in both fiction and nonfiction (in the latter category, Brad Fox’s forthcoming The Bathysphere Book lays a claim to being the best ever example), and it is commonly acknowledged that the bottom of the ocean is less familiar to us than the further reaches of space. What is less commonly noted is the chemical similarity of seawater and blood. Ledgard – polymath Shetland author, little-known in the UK and celebrated in the US – rights this in his remarkable dual-novel, one half of which tracks a spy imprisoned in a tiny cell in east Africa, the other charting an oceanographer diving further and further, surfacing with disquieting, provocative statements on human origin and dissolution and the primacy of the ocean.

8. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
A long literary tradition – from Mary Shelley to HG Wells through to Alasdair Gray – shows anatomists attempting to play god, overshooting and running amok, and Atwood joins it with the first in her MaddAddam trilogy. Twenty years old now, her take on genetic engineering seems disconcertingly prescient, when DIY CRISPR packs are free to buy online from biohacker collectives.

9. Once Upon a Time I lived on Mars by Kate Greene

In 2013, on the Hawaiian volcano Mauna Loa, physicist Greene and five other “astronauts” spent four months simulating a Mars mission, almost entirely confined to a white geodesic dome. The project comprised more than a dozen rigorous experiments, but Greene’s account is much more expansive. Startlingly intelligent, bracingly lucid, it’s full of insights on the minutiae of human behaviour and on the capacity for both personal and societal change. Though Greene never left Earth, she experienced something akin to the overview effect reported by astronauts, making major life changes and turning further towards poetry, becoming “more interested in the subjective and associative, in mystery”. Her remarkable hybrid memoir shows the imaginative possibilities of what may unfairly be dismissed as “science writing”.

10. Solaris by Stanislaw Lem
Lem’s most famous novel, as likely to baffle as enthral, is closer to Lynn Margulis’s nonfiction than to any of the other works above. Orbiting the planet Solaris, the crew reach into madness as they attempt to understand what exactly its living, sentient ocean is, and how to communicate with it. Like the rest of his canon, Solaris shows Lem’s specific genius for ultimately fruitless speculation: the research scientists spiral into ever more elaborate, ingenious, and unprovable hypotheses, as exhilarating in their creativity as they are frustrating in their inconclusiveness. The scientists grapple with the mysteries of their own lives as much as with Solaris’s ocean, unable, ultimately, to come to any firm answers.


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