Friday, November 02, 2007

Intuition by Allegra Goodman

This is a funny thing for a science fiction fan to say, but I don't read a lot of novels about scientists. Then again, I suspect that neither does anybody else. In any genre, depictions of science and scientific research are rare, and in SF in particular one more often comes across science in its processed form, technology. The popular SFnal depiction of scientists falls somewhere between Rodney McKay and Gaius Baltar--glorified engineers coming up with off-the-cuff solutions to immediate problems. Off the top of my head, I can only think of one novel, Gregory Benford's Timescape, which tries to depict the reality of the scientific process--painstaking, meticulous, and above all slow. As one of the characters in Allegra Goodman's novel Intuition says: "Can I tell you about the research that goes on here? People are saving lives every day in theory, in the future."

It was mainly curiosity, therefore, that caused me to pick up Goodman's novel, but within a few pages I was hopelessly hooked. This is a fantastic, exceptionally well-written and compulsively readable novel. Intuition is a character study, a detective story, and a philosophical meditation all wrapped up into one supremely enjoyable, devastatingly smart package. This is a novel about science as a rarefied pursuit, detached from human frailty and pettiness and concerned solely with shining, incontrovertible truth. It's also a novel about science as something inextricably bound with human foibles, with politics, passion, envy and love, whose truths are so distorted by the act of observation that they can mean completely different things to different people. What's remarkable about Goodman's accomplishment in Intuition is that she makes us see how science can be both of these things--chilly and precise; messy and emotional--to the same characters, and at the same time. Like David Auburn's Proof, Intuition insists on treating research as a form of self-expression that is just as meaningful and just as personal to the people who are drawn to it as painting and literature are to artists and writers, but Goodman does Auburn one better by refusing to romanticize the process of scientific research, as he does with his shut-in mathematical genius of a protagonist. Intuition's plot hinges, in fact, on the primal importance of precision and attention to detail in the experimental process, and on the catastrophic consequences that can ensue when scientists surrender their detachment and skepticism in the face of potentially good results.

Intuition takes place in Boston in the mid-80s. In the small, chronically under-funded Mendelssohn-Glass lab, post-doctoral fellow Cliff makes a discovery that seems to have been lifted wholesale out of the most unrealistic popular-culture depiction of science. His heretofore unsuccessful attempts to attack breast cancer cells with a genetically modified virus, which he had been ordered to stop by the lab's directors, Marion Mendelssohn and Sandy Glass, appear to be bearing fruit. Several of his experimental mice, deliberately given cancer and then exposed to the virus, have gone into remission. For Cliff, this promising result marks a dramatic turnaround in his prospects at the lab. Overnight, he is transformed from a golden boy who never lived up to his potential to one who has made good. Cautious Marion and exuberant Sandy sanction another round of experiments, and when these show dramatic results--a 60% rate of remission--they dedicate the entire lab to Cliff's research, scrambling to draw attention to themselves within the scientific community, through journal publications, and in the general media, through puff pieces in People and Time.

The general atmosphere of excitement in the lab does not infect Robin, Cliff's fellow postdoc and former girlfriend. Frustrated by the failure of her own research, and vaguely resentful of having been reassigned to Cliff's project, Robin is initially thrown, and later suspicious, when her attempts to recreate Cliff's results are unsuccessful. These suspicions are bolstered by her realization that Cliff has not always followed lab procedure, and by the discovery of preliminary notes that paint a very different picture of Cliff's experimental results. Though Cliff insists that he is, at most, guilty of the occasional sloppy record-keeping, Robin is increasingly persuaded that he doctored his results. She takes her suspicions to Marion and Sandy, and later to an internal review board of the Boston scientific community. When these fail to support her, she turns to the NIH (from which the lab has, by this point, received a grant) and its oversight body, and from here her accusations snowball into a media circus. A congressman who has made the demand for greater accountability and oversight in publicly-funded science his pet issue latches on to Robin's accusations, and before long the entire cast is testifying before congress, and the results of an official investigation into Cliff's methods are plastered on the front pages on national newspapers.

Goodman describes these events in a narrative tone that manages to be simultaneously detached and emotional. Her style is reminiscent of Jane Austen, and even more so of Norman Rush. Like them, she has the knack of writing dispassionately about passion. Her descriptions are precise and stripped-down, but also exhaustive:
The room had no windows. A large freezer and four refrigerators stood shoulder-to-shoulder against two walls. Thousands of dollars' worth of ingredients were kept in the refrigerators: liters of fetal calf serum the color of maple syrup; pen-strep (a solution of penicillin and streptomycin); Fungizone; and other antibiotics that the researches mixed into media to fight off bugs and mold. A desk topped by a bookcase, the laminar flow hood, and two large carts on wheels took up the rest of the space. The room was packed to the ceiling with supplies: plastic funnels; cardboard cases of filters, test tubes with orange and white caps; dozens of foil-topped beakers standing up in rows, waiting to be filled. There were rolls of labeling tape--white, yellow, pale green, robin's egg blue--jars of powdered chemicals, and scores of books; fantasy and quilt-making books were shelved together with scientific catalogs: GIBCO BRL 1986, The Quilter's Guide to Rotary Cutting, VWR Scientific Products. The space was cluttered but entirely organized. This suited Nanette Klein, who ran the place.
The same mixture of precision and exhaustiveness is extended to the novel's characters. Above the four already mentioned, these include the other post-doctoral fellows in the Mendelssohn-Glass lab, the lab technicians, Marion and Sandy's families, and many others. Goodman inhabits each of their points of view in turn. The result is not so dramatic as a Rashomon-ian reinterpretation of events from each character's viewpoint, but it does create a richly textured reality.

None of the novel's characters are permitted to be uncomplicated. Sandy is a mediocre scientist and a publicity hound. A renowned oncologist, his reputation rests primarily on a devastating combination of charm and tenacity--he can't do much more for his patients than any other doctor, but he can make them feel as if a pitched battle is being fought on their behalf, and even more importantly, as if they were key players in that campaign. His is the sort of domineering charm that most of us have come across once or twice--the guy who is smarter, more driven and more energetic than anyone else in the room, and who uses these advantages as a justification to run roughshod over the desires and opinions of anyone who disagrees with him, especially if they happen to be his relatives--and it is precisely because we've met him before that Sandy isn't a thoroughly objectionable person. We can sympathize with his wife and daughters' exasperated yet fierce love for him (if Sandy were a more substantial thinker, and less focused on public opinion, he'd be a lot like Jed Bartlet), and we're touched when Goodman makes it clear that in spite of his intellectual shortcomings, Sandy needs to think of himself as a researcher. He has a deep admiration, which borders on courtly love, for Marion's intelligence, and his actions are frequently motivated by a desire to make the multitude aware of her brilliance.

The other characters are similarly complex. Marion is staunch and unforgiving of fault, but it's ambition, as much as scientific curiosity, that drives her. It is through her ambition that Sandy manages to persuade her to publish Cliff's results prematurely, a failure of rigor of which her husband, Jacob, is deeply critical. Jacob is the closest Goodman comes to an out-and-out villain. A former child prodigy who has dropped out of science, and shares Sandy's admiration for Marion's intelligence (and nothing else), it's Jacob who initially, and quite deliberately, encourages Robin's doubts about Cliff's results, and thus sets the novel's entire chain of events--a grueling, humiliating experience for his wife--in motion. One might say that Intuition is driven by a covert struggle between Jacob and Sandy, not for something as prosaic as Marion's body or even her love, but for her soul as a scientist. Nevertheless, Jacob loves Marion and is loved by her. He genuinely believes that he's doing the right thing for her, and Goodman never stoops to making that belief seem deranged or irrational. In the end, Jacob is as fully human as the rest of the novel's characters.

In spite of the increasingly strained tones in which the debate over Cliff's results is conducted, Intuition is rarely a dramatic novel. On several occasions, Goodman playfully sidles up to dramatic plot twists, tantalizing the readers with the possibility of disaster overturning the characters' existence and radically altering the course of the novel's plot--several characters decide to swim across Walden Pond, Cliff climbs a snow-slicked public statue--but always pulls back at the last moment. As the investigation progresses, however, the novel becomes increasingly tense, the readers more and more invested in its results. At the same time, we don't really want to find out that either Cliff or Robin are right. This is not because either one of them is a particularly appealing person. Cliff is callow and insubstantial. One senses that, if it weren't for his success, there would be nothing to him as a person. Robin's scientific rigor is inextricable from her bitterness, and it's impossible to tell where her jealousy of Cliff's accomplishments ends and her genuine convictions begin. Still, as the novel approaches its end it becomes increasingly clear that if either of these characters were to lose their struggle--if Cliff were exposed as a liar or Robin were proven wrong--they would be utterly destroyed, not just as scientists but as people. At the same time, we can't help but be aware of the fact that there is an ultimate truth--either Cliff's virus works or it doesn't--and as Goodman works hard to draw parallels between scientific research and criminal investigation (both are, paradoxically, pursuits of objective truths and subjective uncertainties), we need to know what the answer is.

It's only at this point that Intuition falters, ever so slightly. Goodman draws the novel's final chapters out, certainly when one considers the slightly anti-climactic way in which she finally reveals what really happened in the lab (though, given her aversion to drama throughout the novel, this similar aversion at its end shouldn't come as a surprise). It's a minor failing, however, and Goodman soon rights herself. Intuition ends more satisfyingly than a novel so focused on uncertainty and the murkiness of the scientific process has any business doing. Cliff realizes that he truly loves research, not as a way of achieving fame and recognition, but in its own right. Robin steps out from under Marion's shadow, and Marion from under Sandy's. In the novel's final scene, Marion and Robin meet for the first time since Robin made her accusations public, at a conference in which Marion is presenting a paper. At first, the two women are understandably awkward and reluctant to acknowledge one another, but as Marion's talk progresses past its slow introductory phase, as she begins to explore the actual science of her argument, they find themselves capable of overcoming their differences. Through pure, unemotional science, these former enemies find a way of having a conversation, and through that conversation, perhaps a path towards repairing their relationship and making it better.

This ending is particularly satisfying because, though it is rarely acknowledged outright, the issue of women in the sciences is a very large elephant in the room throughout the novel. Once again, Goodman is delightfully subtle. Robin's problems don't stem from the fact that she is a woman, but they are clearly informed by it. Though brilliant, she's a worker bee in the Mendelssohn-Glass lab. Her project, assigned to her by Sandy, is basically catalog work--looking for a common marker in blood samples from cancer patients--and yields no results. When she comes up with a more aggressive avenue of research, she's turned down (later on, after Robin leaves the lab, one of the male postdocs takes over her work and has promising results) and asked to support Cliff's work. It would be reductive to argue that Robin's career woes are strictly the result of her femininity--Sandy genuinely believes in the work her assigns her; when Cliff has good results, it makes sense for the rest of the lab to rally behind him--but the picture that Goodman forms of Robin is of someone who is always being asked to wait her turn, a common problem for women in science or business. There are also indications that Marion's career has been stunted by her gender--the very fact that she needs Sandy to act as her representative, to be the lab's public face, to goad her into submitting publications and deal with the press, suggests an awareness, perhaps only subconscious, of how much harder women have to work to be taken seriously as scientists.

These are all, however, undertones, and at no point does Goodman allow us to seriously contemplate the possibility that Intuition's events are driven solely by sexism. No one, for example, argues that Robin is merely a jilted woman (though there is the tiniest grain of truth in this interpretation). When Robin plaintively says that she expected Marion to support her "as a woman scientist," she sounds whiny and uncouth. This is, I think, all to the good. It's important to remember that sexism isn't as clear-cut as old white men in smoke-filled rooms chuckling over how women should be barefoot and pregnant. Goodman's version of sexism is a watered-down form, which so thoroughly permeates out culture that it informs the actions of both men and women without their being aware of it. This makes the novel's ending, in which two women finally see each other as equals, and speak to each other without male intermediaries, all the more powerful.


Anonymous said...

I remember, in my final BA year five years back, a lecturer and future head of my department, wrote me a comment about a pape I submitted (I think it was about Buffy, mentioning how Willow is both a grade-A student and a social outcast), saying she was always troubled by the way science and scientists are presented in the media - either they have no life, or they're out of their minds. Reading this post made me realize that of all things, it was probably the science fiction genre that pushed this sentiment hardest - where else did the mad scientists came from?

-Raz Greenberg

Abigail Nussbaum said...

On the other hand, you frequently get clean-cut, heroic scientists in Golden Age SF, though I'm not certain whether these are research scientists or the engineers I mentioned in the post. Susan Calvin, for example, though awesome beyond the telling of it, doesn't seem to do a lot research.

Anonymous said...

True, but Calvin is also in the "has no life" category. In the realm of the media, we have examples of anti-scientific sentiments as the driving force of some of the most popular works, such as "The X-Files" (believing in the paranormal always turns to be true, as opposed to scientific skeptism), and you've mentioned "Battlestar Galactica" in this post (a show that promotes messaionic religious belief and presents scientific rational thought in extremely negative light).
On the other hand, we have the completely mainstream show "CSI", that promotes the notion of science as something sexy. Why did such a show have to come from outside the genre?

-Raz Greenberg

Anonymous said...

To be honest, I have always thought of CSI as being science fiction.

To be less snide: as scientific research goes on right now, there is no particular reason why it should be a science fictional subject. In fact, to make research in a story plausible, it should draw on todays theories, which means that the story must be set today.

A story about the consequences of the theory, must be set in the future.

Andrew Stevens said...

Arguably, 'Frankenstein' was the first science fiction novel, written by Mary Shelley, a woman deeply skeptical of science (though only 19 at the time she wrote it so we can forgive her). Science fiction then was born from this skeptical view of science. Of course, H.G. Wells was much more inclined to science as were the Golden Age authors like Heinlein and Asimov. (Heinlein's heroes were of the engineering variety, but Asimov did have some actual scientist heroes like Harry Seldon and I would probably include Susan Calvin. Neither does any actual research described in the novels, but both clearly had done a mountain of it prior to the novels.)

In the mainstream, dystopian science fiction has always been more popular. Frankenstein has been done to death, for instance, probably particularly so after the invention of the atomic bomb.

The negative portrayal of scientists in mainstream media is for the same reason as the negative portrayal of athletes and businessmen. The mainstream media is shaped by wordsmith intellectuals and/or artists who prize themselves above all others. So they have to tear down those who can compete with them for the public's affection. This includes athletes, businessmen, politicians, and (perhaps especially) numbersmith intellectuals.

Anonymous said...

wow, andrew. it seems a trifle late for this comment but it seems like you are the one jealous of artists, or let alone anyone creative. i forgot that most people who are "right brained" do nothing else with their time but cultivate their envy of mathematicians, athletes, oh, and scientists. and then, after, figure out some "creative" way to smear them in the mainstreme media.
but you've seen through it all, haven't you? hats off.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I could disagree more with your assessment of Jacob as the "villain." If anything, I think he is the hero, as he was the only character who put his ambition behind him, and was the first person to figure out that Cliff was cheating. Cliff is supposed to be the villain, as he was the one who got where he was going by being a charming cheater.

Anonymous said...

The villain is a relative truth.

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