In novels and films, the most common scientist by far is the mad one. From H. G. Wells’s Dr. Moreau to Ian Fleming’s Dr. No to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, scientists are portrayed as evil geniuses unrestrained by ethics and usually bent on world domination. Over the past two years, as I struggled to write my own novel about physicists and their quest for the Theory of Everything, I often worried that I was falling prey to this stereotype myself. It is incredibly difficult to create fictional scientists who are neither insane villains nor cardboard heroes. To faithfully depict the life and work of a researcher, you need to immerse yourself in the details of his or her research, and very few writers have done this task well.
One of the earliest attempts to draw a realistic picture of science was Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1926. The book tells the story of Martin Arrowsmith, a callow Midwestern youth who after long travails throws off the temptations of money, power and fame to pursue a life of solitary medical research. Martin isn’t a very likable character—he’s peevish, disdainful and annoyingly self-important. One gets the sense that even the author doesn’t care for him much. The true hero of the tale is Martin’s mentor, Max Gottlieb, a long-suffering German-American bacteriologist. Dr. Gottlieb provides the novel’s wisest insights: “To be a scientist—it is not just a different job ... it is a tangle of very obscure emotions, like mysticism, or wanting to write poetry.” Arrowsmith also gives readers a fascinating glimpse of microbiology in the early 20th century. To get his facts right, Lewis relied on Paul de Kruif, a bacteriologist and science writer who received 25 percent of the book’s royalties in return for his help.
John Updike’s 1986 novel Roger’s Version features a very different kind of scientist hero: Dale Kohler, a research assistant at a computer lab whose specialty is devising graphics that simulate reality. Dale is a religious young man who becomes convinced that his simulation programs can prove the existence of God. His search for divine signals ends fruitlessly, of course, but Updike’s description of Dale’s late-night vigils at the computer terminal will ring true to anyone who has ever wrestled with software code. Perhaps the best parts of Roger’s Version are the entertaining arguments about science and religion, which are peppered with ideas from cosmology and particle physics. And the book abounds with the gorgeous sentences that make Updike such a joy to read: “His necktie, purple violently interrupted by green, struck the gauche note we expect from scientists. He carried a small paper cone of zinnias, the sort of bouquet young drug addicts sell now from traffic islands.”
A standout among the science novels published in the past few years is Intuition, by Allegra Goodman. The book delves into the hothouse atmosphere of a research institute that is investigating potential cancer treatments. One of the institute’s postdocs devises a genetically modified virus that appears to shrink tumors in mice, but a colleague accuses him of fudging his results. The story’s clever trick is that nobody at the lab is entirely in the wrong; the missteps of the researchers seem to be the result of sloppiness and wishful thinking rather than outright fraud. Instead of presenting a simple morality lesson, Intuition reveals the ambiguous, groping nature of biomedical experimentation: “Science was all about failure, and bench work consisted primarily of setbacks.”
A good work of fiction can convey the smells of a laboratory, the colors of a dissected heart, the anxieties of a chemist and the joys of an astronomer—all the illuminating particulars that you won’t find in a peer-reviewed article in Science or Nature. Novels such as Intuition, with their fully fleshed out characters and messy conflicts, can erase the ridiculously sinister Dr. No cartoons. And most important, these books can inspire readers to become scientists themselves.
Editor's Note: This story was originally printed with the title "The Mad Scientist Myth"