science, literature, mcmahon


From the polymathic bravura of Richard Powers’s Galatea 2.2, which dares readers to confront consciousness’s complexity, to the dour lyricism of Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, which casts science as an alluringly dreamy, ethereal enterprise, there have been a number of brilliant novels dealing with scientific ideas. But few writers have bridged the two cultures (or belied Snow’s schema) with as much apparent ease as Thomas McMahon (1943–99), a former biophysics professor at Harvard University and the author of four strikingly original novels—Principles of American Nuclear Chemistry (1970), McKay’s Bees (1979), Loving Little Egypt (1987), and Ira Foxglove (written before the others, but published posthumously, in 2004)—in addition to two books of nonfiction and numerous scientific articles and papers. McMahon was a whimsical, understated writer (and by most accounts a shy, modest man), which may be one of the reasons he is so much less well known than he deserves to be. His later novels, increasingly wry and exaggerated, bear a family resemblance to those of Kurt Vonnegut and to certain of Saul Bellow’s works. Yet there is an underlying sweetness to McMahon’s writing, a wholehearted engagement with those elements of scientific wonder that most resemble artistic creativity: how ideas come out of the blue and must be tested (in the mind or in the physical world); how experiments are most intriguing before they produce conclusions; and how finished creations, no matter how useful, have a way of falling short. The reprinting of these novels by the University of Chicago Press comes at a charged moment, when the very intricacy of the natural world and the human mind (which science and art have labored assiduously to reveal) is held aloft as evidence of a conclusion unprovable by either scientists or novelists.

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