Science in fiction

I love reading fiction, and I love science. Occasionally these two meet when I read a  science fiction novel. And just occasionally I read a book set in contemporary society where a scientist is one of the protagonists and issues relevant to scientists and their lives are explored. And sometimes I’d like to pass the book on to friends, but mostly forget. So here are a few examples that have recently piqued my interest. Perhaps readers have their own suggestions. And maybe there is a website devoted to this. Any comments, please do tell.

Barbara Kingsolver, Flight behavior. Kingsolver worked in population genetics before becoming a full-time writer.  This book captured the essence of scientific discovery as a process of ongoing questioning, the role of science in policy and media and eduction and a little insight into the folk who do science and how different they/we are from most of the wider population.  Set against a backdrop of range expansion by Monarch butterflies and climate change in rural north east US, it is a great read, on many levels.

T. Coraghessan Boyle, When the killing’s done. California’s Channel Islands are the setting for a story about managing island invasions and eradications. It iss a great story concerning environmental management problems that some of my colleagues actively deal with on a daily basis: setting objectives, tradeoffs between conflicting objectives, multiple stakeholders, tradeoffs between conflicting objectives, uncertain system models… classic, hard environmental decision problems. The narrative entwines animal rights activists, pastoralists, career scientists and managers and relationships among them. The major protagonist is a female mid-career biologist working for the parks service and charged with overseeing an eradiction program focused on invasive species such as rats that prey on ground nesting seabirds on these islands. I was instantly empathetic.

Less contemporary is the bizarre novel by Daniel Kehlmann. Measuring the world, which provides fanciful double biographies of two of the greatest scientists of the 1800s, one an aristocratic committed empiricist, Alexander von Humboldt who laid the foundations of (plant) biogeography, and the other the lowly-born, brilliant mathematician and theorist Carl Friedrich Gauss.  Both possessed of enormous self-belief and drive, they approached the generation of scientific knowledge from fundamentally opposite stances: theory and observational empiricism.  The novel charts their lives, including von Humboldt’s epic travels in South America with Aime Bonpland. But for me, its the tension between ways of trying to make sense of the world that is of interest here.
A nice review can be found here.

I’m sure there are many other great reads that concern science as a process, scientists as  some of those real people I know, and others that I could never know like von Humboldt. I’d be glad to know of them, do tell…

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