Monday, January 30, 2006

What Is Lab Lit?


Lab Lit is all the buzz these days. Nature magazine had a recent article on it. Blogosphere is abuzz - see Hedwig's take on it.

SEED magazine has a contest. This is what they are looking for - it explains what they think Lab Lit is:

We are not looking for traditional Sci-Fi—we are looking for fiction that reflects the significant role science plays in our culture; fiction that uncovers the rich narratives in science; and fiction wherein scientists are fallible and human. We are looking for Science-In-Fiction, Fictional Science, Scientific Fiction—in the tradition of Andrea Barrett, Richard Powers, Margaret Atwood and Alan Lightman, writing that brings new meaning to our understanding of Science Fiction.

Chad Orzel, tongue-in-cheek, explains:

A true lab story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper scientific practice, nor restrain graduate students from doing the things that graduate students have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a lab story, you feel uplifted, or if you feel that you have learned some useful fact about science, you have been made the victim of an old and terrible lie. As an order-of-magnitude approximation, you can tell a true lab story by its absolute and utter lack of any real scientific content whatsoever.

Here is a List of examples of Lab Lit. From the list (as it is today - they keep updating it), this is what I have read, so far:

Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd is a story about a botanist-turned-primatologist, married to a mathematician who is going crazy, going to Africa to study chimpanzees (not gorillas, as The List states) where she gets in conflict with the Boss, gets into mortal danger, experiences civil war firsthand, and comes out of it wiser.

Bellwether by Connie Willis I classified earlier as SF, but that is debatable. Connie always does fantastic research for her books, so I am now wondering if there really are studies on the "bellwether effect" in social animals or something similar. The way the List describes it - "capers, chaos theory and a flock of sheep feature in this rom-com set in a research institute" is pretty correct. I enjoyed this book immensely.

In 1999 I went to the Gordon Research Conference in Neuroethology in Oxford, UK. I was horribly jet-lagged and barely slept throughout the meeting. Punting was a great experience that made me appreciate even more another book by Connie Willis' - To Say Nothing of the Dog (not LabLit but brilliant). After reading recent papers and reviews by the Conference speakers (you have to know who they are because Gordon conferences include a LOT of schmoozing), I was out of reading material for sleepless nights, so I picked up a copy of Menachem’s Seed by Carl Djerassi, a high-speed action drama, involving, well, human reproduction of course - it's Djerassi, inventor of The Pill, after all.

Blood Music by Greg Bear is definitely SF. Lots of nano stuff. Fast-paced, expecially nearing the end. Other Bear's book also have realistic scientists as main characters, including Darwin's Radio, Darwin's Children and Vitals.

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. Sure. I've read it. OK....move on.

There are also some books on the list that I own, but have not read. In most of these cases, I have started them, but never found time to finish them. A couple of them are still in the to-read-soon-stack near the bed. These include Passage by Connie Willis, Periodic Table by Primo Levi, Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver, Cryptonomicon and Zodiac by Neal Stephenson. The Darwin Conspiracy by John Darnton has been on my amazon book-wish-list for a while, but I need to add some more from The List.

What I found surprising are the glaring omissions - what should obviously be on the List, but is not. For instance, The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq, Hopeful Monsters by Nicholas Mosley, Rameau's Niece by Cathleen Schine, Evolution of Jane by Cathleen Schine, The Fly Swatter by Nicholas Dawidoff, Easter Island by Jennifer Vanderbes, Mr.Darwin's Shooter by Roger McDonald, The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett, Recombinations by Perri Klass, A Primate's Memoir by Robert Sapolsky, The Camel's Nose by Knut Schmidt-Nielsen and Darwin's Wink by Alison Anderson - speaking just of books I have, and have either read or started or intend to read soon. And then, there are other novels by those same authors. I understand that Andrea Barrett has other good stuff that can be defined as LabLit. Perri Klass wrote other science-centered raunchy stuff - in Recombinations you will learn of another use for lab coats - to make the lab floor softer and more comfortable.

But some of the best Lab Lit is in form of short stories. Main characters in many of H.G.Wells' stories are Victorian scientists and naturalists, in the lab, museum, greenhouse or on a research expedition. "Only He Can Make A Tree" a story by Phillip Jose Farmer (from this collection) is about beautiful and smart Dr.Legsandbrains, her ugly daughter, her three research assistants and the unintended consequences of their experiments. From that story comes the famous quote "Apart from being a failure, the experiment was a complete success".

So, what else is good LabLit? It appears that majority of scientists in LabLit are either physicists, molecular biologists or field naturalists. Any physiology, behavioral biology, chronobiology, sleep biology? Put your suggestions in the coments.

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