Please visit our new site!


Uncomfortable truths

Intuition by Allegra Goodman

Bill Hanage 13 July 2010

Behind closed doors: cover detail

The personalities of the casts are dissected, laid out before us like sacrificed animals yielding up their secrets

Some people think that science is the stuff great novels are made of. It’s got suspense, office politics, drama and the thrill of discovery. Other people (and I’d be willing to bet this chap is one of them) think it just can’t work on the page, that science and scientists are boring, and that no reader could give a flying toss about what happens to these nerds.

Allegra Goodman’s book Intuition (Atlantic Books, March 2009) is a tonic to people in the first category, and stands as a raised middle finger to those in the second, mounted on a neon sign reading ‘sit and spin’.

It tells the story of a lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts (where there are quite a few labs in reality) and its denizens, from the nude mice to the bottle washers to the post-docs (who are mostly needy rather than nerdy) and the principle investigators. Almost everything bad that could happen to a lab happens to the Mendelssohn/Glass group in which the story is set. We join them as results begin to suggest a remarkable and promising new treatment for cancer. We know immediately that something is wrong, because unlike the protagonists we are reading this in the 21st century, while they are stuck in the 1980s (yes, the book is a period piece), and we know for a fact that no such discovery was made back then. Deprived of this crucial piece of intelligence, the scientists must decide whether to fling their resources and grant applications behind the new data point, or to be more cautious. Guess which wins?

Into the mix, stir a broken down lab romance, a dollop of sexism, teenage crushes and some of the most convincing portrayals I have ever read of the destructive power of ambition and how it effects different people.

In its portrayal of lab life, the book reeks of authenticity like a molecular biology lab hums with mercaptoethanol. The details are exceptionally, exquisitely laid out. One description early on of those nude mice makes you see those little wonders as if for the first time, and to recognise how beautiful they are, even if it is weirdly so.

These details are not limited to the ins and outs of experiments. One of the not-so-subtle meta-narratives of the book is the way in which the personalities of its casts are dissected, laid out before us like sacrificed animals yielding up their secrets. In places I found this genuinely unsettling, suddenly coming across a facet of my own personality so buried I was only faintly aware of it myself, here given to one of the characters in the book (no, I’m not going to tell you what it was.) Other times I blinked in amazement at the insight the book offered into the motivations of some of my scientific peers, who suddenly seemed much more understandable. For all that Intuition is about scientists, it remains one of the most human and humane books I have read.

But it isn’t flawless. All of the characters are stereotypes to a greater or lesser degree, and are mostly drawn from a fairly narrow stratum of uber-educated academic society. It is true that Goodman loving sprinkles them with those preternatural insights I just mentioned, but in no cases that I can think of are these an integral feature of their personality, from which others follow. They are instead a tasty garnish added afterwards. Cliff, one of the major characters, tends to view himself as if he were living in a Bildungsroman based around his own life. While that is something which is interesting, it seems incidental to Cliff’s role in the plot, rather than crucial to it. And indeed the way that this insight is brought up at the end of the book makes it seem like an afterthought, a cheap ending. Were it really true, surely some of Cliff’s previous actions would make more sense seen through that prism. And in fact this isn’t the case.

Goodman also lays the whole ‘late working post-doc’ schtick on pretty thick. I don’t want to pretend that scientists don’t work hard, but I have known a lot of post-docs, some of whom have become quite successful, and not one of them fits the image (heavily and repeatedly brought up in Intuition) of the person with bad skin because they are eating from vending machines all the time, unable to pry themselves from their experiments. That is a romantic myth which owes a lot to Uncle Quentin from the Famous bloody Five. (It has been brought to my attention that Goodman researched her novel in a lab notorious for just such a culture. So maybe she's simply depicting that. The question of to what extent such behaviour is productive is a topic for another day.)

To my mind, there are two things which characterise the scientific lifestyle, if I can call it that. One is that it never stops: if you are bitten by the bug you’ll be thinking about it at all times. That’s not the same as all the time, but it means that you can never rely on it not sneaking up and troubling you, making you try some different calculation, or plot the data another way, or plan another experiment.

The other is the freedom and terror that comes from not knowing quite what you are doing. Because science is grappling with the unknown. We have to pick some corner of nature, some dark recess in that vast poorly lit room of mystery we inhabit, and hold a candle to it. Intuition refers to this only in passing, in some asides about the history of science, and its links to poetry and art. But the vaunted image of the mystery and wonder of science which this taps into is very different from the reality in which you wonder, again, whether what you are doing even makes any sense.

But I don’t think I can really complain. The scientists in Intuition are for the most part brilliantly realised, and if they shade into the obvious at times, it’s forgivable. Goodman’s book is the sort that makes you want to buy copies for all your friends and pester them to read it. But I’m not going to do that because I don’t want to put them off, and it’s far too good for them to miss out.