We Need More Novels about Real Scientists

From Scientific American:

Man 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.

More here.