Scientists in fiction

Judith Curry

I recently read Ian McEwan’s book Solar, which motivated me to ponder putting together a thread on scientists in fiction.   The classics in this genre, e.g. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dr. Strangelove, represent scientists as evil geniuses unrestrained by ethics.  Contemporary books in the genre provide more complex images of scientists.

The scientists in fiction genre has a fairly large number of books, with a rapidly increasing number of contemporary books.  Two good lists that I’ve found are

  1. Library Thing
  2. Lablit list

Examples of science and scientists in fiction of particular relevance to climate science include:

Each of these three books provided a powerful image of scientists.  These images  are highly unflattering that have heavily influenced the public’s view of climate scientists  and arguably the public debate on climate change.  State of Fear addresses issues surrounding the politicization of scientific research.  Solar captures the selfish pursuit of academic fame and priority.  The timing of the publication of Pachauri’s romance novel  which details sexual encounter after sexual encounter and appears to be semi-autobiographical, left the world wondering what Dr. Pachauri was actually doing, when he should have been paying attention to Himalayan Glaciers.

Carl Djerassi’s novels

My introduction to the potential power of the  genre of “science in fiction” comes from Carl Djerassi, who is currently Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry at Stanford University and is best known for his contribution to the  development of the first oral contraception pill. Djerassi wrote a tetralogy of four novels that address ethical issues in the academic environment; these books are widely used in medical ethics courses at universities.

Djerassi  describes his objectives in this essay, from which I’ve pulled the following excerpts:

Scientists operate within a tribal culture, the rules, mores and idiosyncrasies of which are generally acquired through intellectual osmosis in a mentor–disciple relationship. Scientific ‘street smarts’ are absorbed by observing the mentor’s self-interested con- cerns with publication practices and priori- ties, the order of the authors, the choice of journal, the striving for academic tenure, grantsmanship and even the Nobel prize. On their own, disciples discover the ‘glass ceiling’ for women in a male-dominated enterprise, the inherent collegiality of scientific research, and also the Schadenfreude generated by brutal competition. Most of these issues are related to the desire for personal recognition and even financial rewards, and each is coloured by ethical nuances.

An effective medium for illuminating such topics is the rarely used literary genre of ‘science-in-fiction’ (not to be confused with science fiction), in which all aspects of scientific behaviour and scientific facts are described accurately and plausibly. By dis- guising them in the cloak of fiction, science- in-fiction allows the illustration and dicussion of ethical dilemmas that are frequently not raised for reasons of discretion, embarrassment, or fear of retribution.

The four books in the tetralogy are

  • Cantor’s Dilemma
  • The Bourbaki Gambit
  • Menachem’s Seed
  • NO

Djerassi describes the issues discussed in the 4 books:

Several factors have always influenced the conduct of scientific research: the quality of the mentor-disciple relationship; trust in the reliability of scientific results; and like it or not, the drive for scientific priority. A more recent aspect of the scientific scene is society’s recognition that women should play a much greater role in hitherto male-dominated disciplines. Topics such as these should be presented to a general public, but writing about them in specialized journals will not bridge the gulf between the two cultures. My bridge is a special literary genre, science-in-fiction, wherein I illuminate in a projected tetralogy of novels the tribal culture of scientists, rather than dwelling on the science they do. The reception of the first volume, Cantor’s Dilemma, which addresses these issues, convinced me that science-in-fiction is an effective way of smuggling serious topics of scientific behavior into the consciousness of the scientifically illiterate.

The second novel, The Bourbaki Gambit, published in late 1994, deals with three other important subjects: the passionate desire of scientists for recognition by their peers; science’s inherent collegiality; and the graying of Western science (hence five out of the six main characters are above the age of 60!). In the process, a fictitious account is presented of the discovery of the PCR methodology – an invention that won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and also formed the unacknowledged basis for the Jurassic Park fantasy as well as the chief bone of contention in the O.J. Simpson trial. In other words, a fiction format is used to explain PCR to a lay public while weaving a story around scientists and their tribal behavior.

The third volume, Menachem’s Seed (focusing on recent advance in male reproductive biology and on the involvement of scientists with international policy issues), has just been published, while the final volume, NO (dealing with the “biotech” industry and the treatment of male impotence) appeared in 1998.

When I read Djerassi’s books, I was so excited by this concept that I pondered writing a novel in this genre, addressing gender in science issues (my impulse to write has been subsumed by the blogosphere).  This is a really interesting topic, and there is actually a substantial body of literature on women scientists in fiction.

Women Scientists in Fiction

Allison Sinclair has a superb article entitled Stealing the Fire: Women Scientists in Fiction.  An excerpt from her article:

Working scientists are a relative rarity in mainstream novels and working women scientists even more so. The more usual place for a fictional scientist is in genre fiction: science fiction, detective fiction, horror and thrillers, but as a working woman scientist, I was curious to see how women scientists were portrayed in novels featuring a recognizably contemporary setting. Certain themes, I noticed, tended to recur:

  1. The drama of science, centering on the possession and integrity of the discovery.
  2. Relationships, and their influence on a woman’s life and work.
  3. The problem of genius: What is genius, and can it be tolerated in a woman?
  4. The withdrawal from science, as portrayed by no fewer than six of these novels.

Her article then describes individual books with each of these themes.

Another website that describes women scientists in fiction is here, which includes summaries of notable books in the genre.  One book description particularly caught my eye:

Brazzaville Beach (William Boyd).  Hope Clearwater is an ethologist, studiying first ancient hedges, and then, after the disaster of hermarriage, retreating to Africa to work as observer on a project studying chimpanzees.  Her observations directly contradict the invested beliefs of the senior scientist leading the project.  The woman scientist as dissenter or whistleblower is a common theme in several of those novels.  I suspect it’s a common theme in novels about science and scientists because it is one of the obvious dramatic conflicts.  There’s an interesting difference in perspective: the male whistleblower usually stands to lose his membership in the “club,” while the female whistleblower is already an outsider.  The question for her seems to be much more “will anyone listen?”

Oh my, the female scientist as whistleblower, I need to chew on this idea a bit.

Conclusion

We need more novels about real scientists, and climate science certainly provides some rich fodder for such novels.   I look forward to hearing about any books in this genre that you have read.  Has anyone actually read Pachauri’s book?

103 responses to “Scientists in fiction

  1. You can’t forget “The Day After Tomorrow” and its source material, “The Coming Global Superstorm”.

  2. To start a discussion like this without mention of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke seems a bit peculiar. There is a substantial body of science fiction writing by practicing scientists and scientifically educated people. More recent prominent works which feature scientists sympathetically and realistically include Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, and the global-climate-disaster series “Forty Days of Rain”, “Fifty Degrees Below” and “Sixty Days and Counting” by Kim Stanley Robinson.

    The idea that “Pachauri’s romance novel details sexual encounter after sexual encounter” has been vigorously disputed; according to some there is one brief and relatively chaste interlude that has been blown up out of all proportion, like so many other things have. I haven’t seen the book myself. At present, I am inclined to believe this idea about Pachauri is just a bit more misinformation from the talking points factories.

    • I think you meant Sagan’s “Contact”, Michael.

      And a female scientist to boot.

    • I suppose Dr. Curry is looking specifically at the portrayal of scientists in popular fiction as opposed to science fiction with the thought that non-science fiction is more likely to be read by the general population and therefore more influential. I would contend that far more people have read Heinlein and Pournelle than Pachauri but it’s probably fair to say the general public’s perception of Science and scientists has been far more influenced by Crichton than Clarke.

  3. I’m confused, R Pachauri is a scientist? His book is a science fiction? His book is semi-autobiographical?

    I would have thought the book was about his lonely fantasies and belonged next to the Mills and Boon stuff.

  4. Don’t forget Jor-El . . . . he who saved his only son from environmental disaster.

    . . . and spawned the Jor-El Syndrome.

  5. Another classic is Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith, allegedly based on the lives of real scientific and medical personalities. Today, it would be dismissed as insufficiently cynical about human motivations, but it fit well with its time.

  6. Niven, Pournelle, Flynn – Fallen Angels.

  7. If you want a good comparison between the good and evil scientist genres, read ‘Lucifer’s Hammer” and then “The Stand”. Both are end of the world scenarios.
    Lucifer’s Hammer – A natural event predicted by scientists destroys civilization. Technology is good, scientists are good, religion is quasi-evil. The good people are saved by science. The survivors try their best to put technology back in use.
    The Stand – A virus created by scientists destroys civilization. Technology is bad, science is evil, religion is good. The good people are saved by religion. The survivors generally decide to return to nature.

  8. One of my favorite author is Clive Cussler.

    Each novel includes extreme theories in both science and history.

    Some of the theories he depict in his book are:

    Crust displacement
    Rapid planetary shift, where both pole get upside down.

    He goes in an array of science and also archeology.

    I’ve also read 50 degrees below and was unable to reach the end. While I read State of fear by Michael Crichton twice.

    Usually science novel will exploit fear of a new discovery. Frankenstein was written not that long after the idea that human were like machines by Descartes, who took the idea from some other writer. The fear of human being built from parts of other human, was thoroughly present in the early 1800s.

    More recently it is the scare of mutated insects, super-viruses, or planetary disturbance that fill the imaginary. Sadly these books and movies really scare the bejesus out of those who can’t differentiate between science and fiction.

  9. Eksperimentalfysiker

    In the great series of nautical historical novels by Patrick O’Brian, the Aubrey-Maturin series, one of the main characters is the surgeon-spy-naturalist Stephen Maturin. His role as a scientist or natural philospher greatly benefits from his two other roles as ship’s surgeon and secret political agent. Balancing the, at times, cross purposes of his various roles, what is consistent throughout is a character who is consistent in the neccessity and joy of free inquiry and discovery.

  10. Richard S Courtney

    Judith:

    Your point about female scientists being “outsiders” is historically correct.

    Marie Currie struggled to get her work accepted as her own for years.

    Crick and Watson got a Nobel but Rosalind Franklin is mostly responsible for determining DNA structure did not get the Nobel and is mostly forgotten.

    etc.

    In my opinion, this treatment of female scientists deserves attention.

    Richard

  11. Surely the archetypal science novels are Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. We have a scientist – Holmes – who begins with no preconceived biases, formulates theories based purely on the evidence, rejects theories that don’t fit and eventually arrives at the correct solution (“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”) He is frequently at odds with the heavily tribal scientific establishment of the day (in this case the somewhat less-than-efficient Inspectors of Scotland Yard) and he also has his “public” (Dr. Watson). The analogy is almost exact, except for the fact that Dr. Watson’s reporting of Holmes’ cases, as distinct from the present-day media reporting of climate change, tend to be factual rather than sensational, even though Holmes himself didn’t think they were.

  12. The works of CP Snow?

    • Especially:

      “The Two Cultures” (1959: science on one side, humanities on the other.) The current (1993) version, edited by Stefan Collini, has “(Canto)” appended to the title. Collini’s Introduction summarizes Snow’s argument and the controversy it stirred. Snow’s 1959 Rede Lecture follows, and the book closes with his 1963 response to four years’ of debate.)

      and “The Affair” (1960: science vs. politics). At the time, the politics of concern were red, but substituting any other variety works just as well.

      I’ve never had much luck with the “Strangers and Brothers” saga, though.

  13. I must second Richard Courtney’s inclusion of Marie Sklodowska Curie as both a scientist-in-(although not in fiction) literature and as a feminist. The book: Marie Curie: A Life serves as a “model” (unlike contemporary figures and their antics) for all who pursue honorable and uncorruptable careers in science. The book is a suggested reading for women who enter science during the undergraduate years. The book serves as a reminder that one can get two Nobel Prizes without advocacy and immersion into the political morass. It only takes one book, one example of honorable behavior to illustrate how far removed the present climate science tribe has strayed.

  14. The novel “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus”, (Mary Shelley, 1818) has an interesting climate science sidebar.
    Written around 1816 / 1817 (a Year Without a Summer), the Lake Geneva weather induced the author and her companions to stay inside and write stories. Appropriately, the narrative begins on a ship beset by Arctic ice.

  15. Remember Jules Verne. He had some scientists with questionable goals and methods: Dr. Moreau, Captain Nemo. But by and large his books had tremendous success in firing up the imaginations of generations about all kinds of science. We don’t think much about the names of his heroes, but what they did we remember. Perhaps not terribly realistic, but what a grip on the imagination.

  16. Francis Larson

    Nevil Shute Norway wrote numerous things that touch on this topic. Two I particularly like are No Highway and Slide Rule which is actually non-fiction.

    • Endorsed 100%

      No Highway is a great story …and so prescient of the Challenger disaster IMO.
      Good film too.

  17. I would recommend Solar as he nails the academic culture to a T. (at least the UK one)

  18. randomengineer

    Frank Herbert has a climatologist-like hero in “Dune” in Dr Kynes, the Imperial Planetary Ecologist.

    Herbert later gives us the spectre of the turned-evil scientist in “White Plague.’

  19. ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’, by Rebecca Skloot is a complex study of the interface of science and humanity in the second half of the 20th century.

    I agree that Crichton’s ‘State of Fear’ may have aided the downturn of faith in climate science. It is one of the most sickening examples of a misguided lay person fomenting ignorance and bias in a vendetta against a pet cause. I condemn Crichton for his unethical use of the bully pulpit granted to him by an adoring public.

    I’ve written a distant future novel which began with the presumption that some day there will be another ice age. Orbital parameters suggested a date: 625-650,000 years distant, after the upcoming extended period of low eccentricity finally ends. The book explores the issues of true long-term sustainability–in a time long after all useful non-renewable resources have been squandered and dissipated into landfills.

    I began with the presumption that the golden age of human space travel is already a thing of the past here in 2010 (we already have 35 years of data showing the declining trend), and therefore that we must make due with what we have here on Earth to sustain our species.

    And from there I concluded that you cannot have any meaningful technology if you are going to sustain a balanced existence in harmnony with Earth’s ecosystem for upwards of half a million years. What value science in a setting where your only sources of the trace minerals necessary for high-tech are scavenged from scattered landfills?

    Even the most scrupulous recycling program is not 100% efficient, and every green technology we now posses is underpinned by long-term non-renewable resources. Life is ingeniously structured around the most abundant elements. Technology ignores that basic realilty.

    I posit this scenario not presuming to have a crystal ball into the future. But it is the one not entirely dystopian long-term future that seems most plausible from my perspective as a scientist. Fiction is about informed speculation. So I welcome all criticisms.

    Scientists put things in boxes and try to keep other things out. In almost every instance, they run limited ‘models’ of reality and test them.

    Because of that, my fictional study represents scientists as primitive pre-human creatures from the perspective of Homo phronensis who dominate the Earth of 635,039AD. Phronesis is the Aristotelian concept variously translated as ‘practical wisdom’, ‘Prudence’, ‘equanimity’, or ‘circumspection’. Man has finally emerged from a Long Sojourn into Harmony and Balance; and he has found that the artifice of *any* model of reality fails in the long term. The only useful long-term model is the ongoing one, in which humans participate wholly, making changes to the parameters with all the mental resources at their disposal, not as dispassionate observers and game players. Imagine what we will have learned after running such a model for 630,000 years.

    Science says: Establish a principle objectively (based on evidence) and then apply it to your life to determine its value.

    Balance says: Establish your Noble Course in life (based on conscience) and the most valuable principles naturally emerge.

  20. You might want to check out Clive Cussler’s work … a lot of his fiction work starts with a science project run amuck or about to — some focused on politics, some on economics, but a fair few titles on climate related events.

    Off the top of my head, I can think of Polar Shift, Skeleton Coast, Sahara, Atlantis Found and Arctic Drift as the ones relating or involving climate.

  21. I’ll Second Chuckles recommendation of Fallen Angles by Pournelle, Niven an Flynn:

    One minute the two space Hab astronauts were scoop-diving the atmosphere, the next they’d been shot down over the North Dakota Glacier and were the object of a massive manhunt by the United States government.

    That government, dedicated to saving the environment from the evils of technology, had been voted into power because everybody knew that the Green House Effect had to be controlled, whatever the cost. But who would have thought that the cost of ending pollution would include not only total government control of day-to-day life, but the onset of a new Ice Age

    Stranded in the anti-technological heartland of America, paralyzed by Earth’s gravity, the “Angels” had no way back to the Space Habs, the last bastions of high technology and intellectual freedom on or over the Earth. But help was on its way, help from the most unlikely sources ….

    You can read the book free by downloading it from the Publishers Free Library or Read it online: http://www.webscription.net/10.1125/Baen/067172052X/067172052X.htm

  22. I like Pierce Brosnan as Michael Kessler in Mars Attacks. Best line – “They are more technologically advanced than us……and therefore peaceful.” Priceless and evocative of a certain mindset, I think. I also like Dr. Strangelove describing how the 100 year-bunker will have to be filled with eggheads and reproductively appealing babes. And the Val Kilmer kids who design a laser only to find out its going to be used as a Death Ray in Real Genius. They were only interested in the science and were willing to let engineers figure out applications. Best line, “This reminds me of when Socrates said, ‘I drank what?'” The downside of scientific ego is on display all over the movies, and that is what I think is relevant to this discussion.

    • On the other hand, we have the real-life example of Edward Teller, who decided that the threat from communism was greater than the threat of annihilation via nuclear war, so had no hesitancy in designing and building thermonuclear weapons. He was in sharp contrast to Oppenheimer, who rightly saw that he had enabled “… the destroyer of worlds.”

      • Oppenheimer’s crocodile tears are of little interest to me. The Cold War is over as is the Soviet Union, so I’ll take Teller anytime.

      • There are still more than enough nukes left to destroy us.

      • There will always be something, whether its nukes or not. I doubt we are more terrified of nukes than the average Roman was of the Huns or medieval people were of the Mongols, never mind the horrifying impact of the plague. At least I understand nukes – what comes after is potentially worrisome. On the fiction topic this reminds me of the Twilight Zone where Burgess Meredith just wants a little time to read alone, and the movie Brazil with the constant random bombings by an endless series of gorups with grievances. On your comment about the similarity of Crichton’s plots I see him as being really great at using the Law of Unintended Consequences in his work. I see your point, but I always enjoyed reading his books nonetheless. I liked the Jeff Goldblum character (Ian something?) and especially appreciated the idea that nature would find a way around our best laid plans. This thought makes me itchy whenever I hear about putting sunscreens in space, spreading sulfuric acid droplets in the atmosphere or dumping huge amounts of iron in the ocean.

  23. State of Fear:

    >State of Fear firmly established research funding as a prime motivator for scientists, with its link to unethical behavior< [Judith C quote]

    Utter rubbish – the book did no such thing. In fact, it opens with a glaciologist resisting just such pressure from the prime funder of some unhinged greenie NGO (perhaps Greenpeace) … precisely the opposite to your disingenuous comment. I had hoped this type of misrepresentation was beneath you, Judith. It makes me wonder if you have actually read the book

    I have seen this misrepresentation in other greenie comments on it. It remains unclear as to whether they have actually read the book or not, but the underlying motive seems to be that greenie NGO's would *never* do such a heinous act as attempting to bury facts that disagree with their preferred narrative … (ho hum). It is the constant drip of catastrophic fear-mongering by the unhinged greenie groups (not the scientists) to which Crichton was attributing the State of Fear. I agree with him

    In my view, the book does have a flaw – the assumption of as yet undeveloped technology that the unhinged were utilising in their attempts to panic various Govts into direct and drastic action. I mean, a "cavitator" to induce a large earth tremor of sufficient size to drown cities across the other side of the Pacific with tsunamis ? Really …

    But then it is science "fiction"

    • I had meant to add that Greg Craven’s hysteria (detailed on another thread here) is exactly the sort of episode that Crichton was targeting

    • randomengineer

      It is the constant drip of catastrophic fear-mongering by the unhinged greenie groups (not the scientists) to which Crichton was attributing the State of Fear.

      Indeed.

      One thing I am having a great deal of difficulty understanding is how so many in the science community can’t seem to grasp that the green message is 100% negative, fear mongering misanthropism. Maybe they think the greens are referring to the unwashed, unworthy masses outside the lawns and halls of their protected labs — not them.

      • Whenever this subject is raised (the dead silence of climate scientists in response to hysterical greenie misanthropy), the silence becomes deeper and louder. And I mean EVERY time it is raised …

      • randomengineer

        Here’s a fairly typical scare article. Recent, too.

        http://apnews.myway.com/article/20101219/D9K734E81.html

        Meanwhile Dr Curry and the AGU and countless others wonder how it is that people are skeptical. Obviously the message is unclear. What we need you see is a “climate repsonse team.”

        And yet do you think for a New York minute “the team” will address the hysteria in that article, setting the record straight? Don’t answer, it’s rhetorical. Of course they won’t.

        In other news, the AGU managament has decided that climate is the sort of thing the AGU needs to have a “position” on. Maybe if they had a position that was an actual POSITION, they’d decide that taking on the excesses of climate reporting was just as responsible to the mission they claim to have as taking on skeptics. Never mind what MAKES people skeptical of course — just declare them irrational.

        As you say, the climate “community” is one sided. As a group they’ve thrown in their lot with the misanthropes and can’t seem to figure out why so many (purportedly irrational) people are declaring what amounts to war.

        Does it really take a Harvard trained sociologist to explain this?

        Sometimes this stuff is simply breathtaking.

      • This discussion loses the plot. Lack of response to radical positions can be equally interpreted two ways:

        1. not worth responding because the claims are so biased as to be self-evident.

        2. not worth elaborating because they expressed their case so eloquently.

        Anyone who creates a conspiracy theory from a vacuum is … well … not worth responding to. Do not presume to be able to read someone else’s mind.

      • randomengineer

        Lack of response to radical positions can be equally interpreted two ways

        Public perception much?

        Many in the public (50%? More? Lots of irrational republicans) perceive the climate community as fungible with extreme green. The arena of public perception is ulimately where issues get decided.

        If a “climate response team” and/or the climate community as a whole has a prayer of being taken seriously by this segment, it will need to be seen as even handed.

        Do not presume to be able to read someone else’s mind.

        Even-handedness doesn’t happen and hasn’t happened yet. There’s no reason to assume it will happen in the future. If that’s mind reading then I’m the Great Carnack.

      • According to Gallup, 40% of Americans believe in strict creationism, i.e., “God created humans as is 10,000 years ago”.

        How do you propose the climate science community, much less any science community, reach these folks?

      • What a great question. The answer is simple. Stick with what you are a genuine expert at, and stop trying to be an authority on other topics, let alone the arbiter of all knowledge and trust.

        You don’t have to go into creation in order to discuss a plan for the next couple of years. What does it matter whether we all agree about long ago? The point is what we should do now.

        Would you rather have an agreement for working together now, or would you rather hold out for a different goal entirely, such as all agreeing that Darwin is great and Billy Graham isn’t?

        Good luck with that second one. But the first one might be do-able if you stick with that and no more. Politics is what happens when people of varying beliefs and priorities work together to manage our shared resources anyway.

    • Cavitating doesn’t seem so odd when you consider the existence of super-cavitating torpedoes, which, I confess, blow my mind. Given the current introduction into service of energy weapons that burn people’s skin or make them want to throw up, and none of this seems so odd. One of my son’s Marine friends is talking about Navy rail-guns, which in turn reminds me of a friend who worked on SR-71’s and told stories about them leaking fuel all over while unconcerned maintenance folks had their lunches nearby, as well as how the plates in their skins actually did not connect because they expanded at speed from frictional heat to fill in the gaps. I was assured by an ‘expert’ that my friend had not been within 100 miles of an SR-71 and that no ground crew would allow such things. Well, time has proven him wrong. I saw the SR-71 up close for the first time in Seattle and saw the gaps for myself (you have to look for them, though, since they are mostly covered by a thin strip of metal).

  24. Clarence E. Causey III

    Sir Fred Hoyle also wrote some science fiction.

  25. Bruce of Newcastle

    Astrophysicist Greg Benford’s “Timescape” is a classic in the environmental disaster field. Rollicking story too.

    David Brin (physics/space science) also, although he gets a bit preachy in some of his novels. Uplift War is excellent.

  26. I’m a huge fan of Michael Crichton – all his books. What’s amazing to me is how much real science and deep research goes into each of them. He really was knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects: from genetics to virtual reality; climate science, information theory, Japanese business culture, myths and historical narrative, even sexual harassment in the workplace. Most of his books are fiction, but thoroughly rooted in scholarship. I don’t know many authors of fiction who include a reference list in their books.

    Dr. Wetzel, you said, “Fiction is about informed speculation. So I welcome all criticisms.” I disagree with almost everything you say here, unfortunately, so I’m not sure where to begin. But you did say one thing I agree with: “Crichton’s ‘State of Fear’ may have aided the downturn of faith in climate science.”

    Climate science should not be about faith, of course; it should be about truth. So I think this is a wonderful outcome.

    • My beef with Crichton is his unabashed cherry-picking of the science that supported his case. It is a political trick applied to science. Smother the facts that don’t agree with your pre-conception. It’s frequently used here.

      The ‘debate’ about what the science means is for politicians. The ‘facts’ are an accumulation of experience which are poorly interpreted by anyone attempting to simplify them for the purpose of supporting a pre-conceived conclusion.

      My postion: I believe we can afford to be uncertain. I do not vigorously defend a position other than to insist on open mindedness.

      • “My postion: I believe we can afford to be uncertain. I do not vigorously defend a position other than to insist on open mindedness.”

        Well, cool … I wholeheartedly agree with that.

        What’s most interesting about Crichton – and you may not be aware of this – is that he didn’t come into the climate science debate with pre-conceived notions. Or rather, his notions before doing the research was that AGW was a serious problem. It was only after he investigated the matter that he discovered how weak the argument for AGW was. He was frankly astonished by this discovery.

        That is why Crichton – and people like Richard Feynman, for example – are heroes of mine. They are true scientists, in that they let the research and the evidence determine the theory, and try very hard not to get that the wrong way around. As Feynman said, you must try very hard not to fool anyone, and the person whom it is easiest to fool is yourself.

        None of this “facts being fixed around the policy” blather. It’s very refreshing.

      • Dr. Wetzel,
        The problem is not if Dr. Crichton was cherry picking. The problem is you guys having sour grapes.
        But I am going to look into your book. I think post-human is an area of good story telling.
        Vernor Vinge, an academic, explores that compellingly in “Across Real Time”.

      • For the sake of argument, I’ll accept that in the peculiar world of opinion-mongering it is okay for Crichton to cherry pick his data in order to support his position. But …

        To address what you perceive as ‘sour grapes’: Most people don’t do a good job of vetting their sources of trusted information. They are as likely to be swayed by cleverly-crafted rhetoric as by facts. Rather than sour grapes, what you are sensing from me (and likely from others) is a difference in the perceived value of certain opinions.

        Michael Crichton spent a few years perusing climate science research as an intelligent lay person and came to the conclusion that fear-mongers were distorting the facts about AGW. I actually agree with him on that.

        Dr. Curry (to use an example) has spent a lifetime immersed in climate science research, and has scrupulously evolved her conclusions as more information, knowledge and wisdom became available to her.

        The difference between these two people is two-fold. The first is in the value of their opinion on the subject of AGW. The second is in how they chose to act on their opinions.

        In my opinion Crichton’s State of Fear has had the unintended effect of wrongly damaging the credibility of the institution/tradition of scientific inquiry. He had a lot of help from others and from subsequent events such as Climate-gate, but the weight of his opinion was important simply because of the size of his ‘captive’ audience.

        Crichton chose to stoop to the level of his percieved fear mongering opponents–never a Noble choice.

        Curry remains circumspect and equanimous. To reiterate, Aristotle called it phronesis and it is often translated as ‘practical wisdom’ – a pursuit that transcends the divide between science and politics.

        So for me, the choice of whose voice should carry more weight is abundantly clear.

      • It strikes me that Crichton’s aims include illuminating the misdemeanors and shortcomings of the CAGW community for the general public, while Dr. Curry’s efforts are generally for consumption by insiders and more importantly, policy makers. Both are more legitimate than either Gore or Hansen, IMO. Or, for that matter, Michael Moore.

      • Mark, your point is important. It is much simpler to tear down an argument than to construct a sturdier one. I do not see the positive contribution in Crichton’s work.

      • Nullius in Verba

        Tearing down a wrong argument is a positive contribution. It improves the average accuracy of what remains.

      • I can’t believe you guys are arguing the merits of Crichtonian fiction in terms of science.

        The guy had one storyline (man has technology he doesn’t understand and Bad Things happen) and that’s about it. Compare “The Andromeda Strain”, “Westworld”, and “Jurassic Park”. Same story in each.

      • Wow – cool overview. (no sarcasm intended here) You make a case that I should to be thanking Crichton for supporting the thesis of my book that technology and human nature operate at cross purposes. The other books do it, though I wonder if Crichton intended the overriding theme you posit or rather he was just a one trick pony. But in State of Fear Crichton’s ‘blunt instrument’ traumatizes so much viable tissue along the way.

      • Hmmmmm……Crichton, poli-genius, MD, PhD, massively successful vs. self-declared internet expert.
        To which one to lend credibility?
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Crichton

      • I am not arguing about any “science” in State of Fear, nor whether Crichton was a good/bad novelist or other such navel gazing

        Rather, this:

        >It is the constant drip of catastrophic fear-mongering by the unhinged greenie groups (not the scientists) to which Crichton was attributing the State of Fear<

        Now be a courageous little boy and deal with the real issue here

      • Circular reasoning?

        Presume an argument is wrong, tear it down, voila! See – it is wrong!

      • So testing hypothesis is no longer part of the program?
        And how much easier is it to find confirmation for something one has already decided must be correct?
        History shows that the latter is far more common than the former.

      • I agree entirely, but I have to ask why you used the word ‘average?’

      • Dr. Wetzel,
        Thank you for your thoughtful reply.
        I would offer some brief observations and then I ahve to go do some Christmas preparations.
        1- Calling people like Crichton, who are in fact technically educated and accomplished, ‘lay person’ is not very useful. It seems dodgy and defensive.
        2- IRT his few years of research, I would suggest that he came to climate science lie a well prepared immigrant to a new country and saw things with fresh eyes, whose perceptions were not influenced by the consensus.
        3- I hope you are not going into the defensive mode that AGW is just fine if everyone will leave it alone.. But when you talk about the ease of tearing down, vs. replacing, an argument, you seem to be suggesting a whole new way of looking at science. Or one at least not seen outside of Lysenkoism and UFO researchers’.
        Can you clarify your thoughts on that further?

      • happy to clarify, hunter:

        1. choose your prefered term. I percieve a spectrum of degrees of expertise on a subject, and judge the value of a commentary based on the qualifications of the commentator rather than on their skills as a disputant.

        2. fresh perspective is the lifeblood of both public debate and science. That’s the intent of this blog, if I understand it. Crichton’s input has that attribute along with many, many others by which I judge its value. Do you have evidence that the opinions of Crichton are truly independent as opposed to being influenced by those opposing the IPCC consensus? The familiar themes that he employs are far from original.

        3. Respectfully, I’m not talking about scientific inquiry here, I’m talking about political dialogue. Crichton did no science in the AGW field that I’m aware of.

      • Dr. W,
        Thank you for your reply.
        As to point 1- A rose is still a rose, but names do have power. I would consider somone like Crichton to be a very well informed and credible opinion on science. Certianly if people like Gore can make movies that are used as class instructional material, then someone like Crichton, who has actually done science and taught at the University level is worth calling more than a lay person.
        2- I am not sure of your question. Are you implying that anyone has opinions that are not influenced by others? Or are you implying that Crichton was part of a deliberate effort to give climate scinece a bad time?
        3- I would agree on this. There is precious little science in the ‘climate change’ movement. Certainly no more than there was in the eugenics movement.

      • 1. Al Gore cherry-picked too, though he did so with a little more grace IMHO. Al Gore has a bully pulpit that dwarfs Crichton’s. Both are laypersons. I resurrect that term now after looking it up. The definition: one who is not a professional (i.e. in climate science). To be clear, I am a retired professional in that field (25 years NASA GSFC).

        2. I simply do not know whether Crichton was colluding with other anti-AGW forces, simply ‘piling on’ by borrowing their rhetoric, or narcissistically considered himself an original. I’d guess the middle option.

        3. Hmmm … clever little twist and associative dig. Personally I prefer to avoid playing those games.

      • re 1 Crichton will be read long after dwarf Vice President Gore ceases even being an end-note: name a USA vice president from Melville´s lifetime. {A conviction and jail time for fraud might prolong Al´s name recognition, among lawyers.}

        re 2 ¨Do not presume to be able to read someone else’s mind.¨ Someone´s suggestion, above. Dr. Wetzler, Crichton´s 2004 work was researched early in the development of this disaster: few would claim he was piling on.

      • Dr. Wetzel, #3 was not meant as a clever dig. It is a sad observation of the status quo.
        Climate science is no more immune to social manias than any other part of society.
        By the way, I am going to order your book and read it. I like reading fictional work by working scientists.

      • Thank you, hunter. Feedback is most welcome – you seem lucid and very well-read. A formal review, if you’re willing. You can find me on LibraryThing or Amazon (under the pen name).

      • Dr. W,
        Just received your book by mail.
        I will put in the list.
        Interesting commitment you make for your profits, by the way.

      • There is a potential of pigeonholing in that observation, which would lead to erroneous conclusions. Enjoy.

      • Dr. W,
        No pigeonholing intended, and I will be careful to not make any conclusions from it. I do admire commitments to charities, however.

      • Dr. Wetzel,
        For a variety of reasons, I am just now getting to your book.
        I hope to have it read over the next week or so, as time is very precious right now.
        The first bits look rather interesting.
        Are you finished with numbers 2 & 3 yet?

      • randomengineer

        My beef with Crichton is his unabashed cherry-picking of the science that supported his case.

        Crichton’s target wasn’t SCIENCE, but advocates who take the name of science to do Fortune Telling. In his books the antagonist is someone who ought to know better who makes a choice, and then the outcome of that choice is explored. Cripes, even “Timeline” was looking most closely at the people who went back in time and decided to stay and be demigods by virtue of their knowledge. He wasn’t slamming scientists for discovering quantum foam and wasn’t advocating that quantum foam was too difficult for man to deal with (rebutting here the often claimed shallow silliness re Crichtons one trick pony theme being that man invents technology he’s too stupid to use.)

        Crichton wasn’t cherry picking. If I see CO2 = GHG but posit that the IPCC scenario are overstated, is that cherrypicking? No. Egads, the man is entitled to an opinion.

    • Dr. W.;
      It is evident from your prolix précis that you are going to be preaching to the converted — i.e., the Deep Green Misanthrope sub-population. I’m glad of it, actually; it is immediately clear that Crichton is 5X the writer and integrator of information that you are, and as a consequence they’ll be suffering through hundreds of pages of turgid tripe.

      Excellent!

      • I just read his home page and it may be a worthwhile book. I will read some samples and see if it is dimensional as his site implies.
        His critique of Chrichton is standard sour grapes from academics and I discount it nearly completely. Discounting or ignoring artist’s personal opinions, lives or beliefs is frankly the only way to enjoy art in general.
        I let the work stand or fall on its own, whether it is a movie, painting, music or writing.

      • Brian, my book doesn’t bludgeon anyone with its premise. I have simply spent three decades building a fictional world based on the premises listed above, then set in them a tale of epic quest and adventure.

        I appreciate that you considered it worth your effort to offer commentary, but would hope that most people read a little more than this thread before assigning a relative factor to my skills as a writer and integrator of information.

    • I’m with you, Ted. It’s a shame Michael did not live long enough to see the human-caused warming theme fall apart…leaving the rabid, militant, self-hating progressive activists bitterly clinging to their hockey sticks and imaginary consensus…and wondering what happened to the beautiful greeny world they were trying to conjure.
      No pressure.

  27. Judith,

    I find without the imagination of writers be it fiction, science, horror, romance, etc. to be able to open the mind to possiblilites and the what if factor. A good story of a book is one that the writer researched well and can give a differing view point that can be researched for the facts behind the scene.
    Current physics theories do not hold up when you research what they had in knowledge back then. How they came to their conclusions without current measurements and technology.
    Good theories for THAT time considering what society was back then and who was the power over society at THAT time period.

    This then leads us to piling on theories onto bad science to generate todays problems of understanding how the planet and solar system mechanically operates.

  28. CS Lewis’ science fiction trilogy, especially the finale, That Hideous Strength, has some scientists one would prefer not to meet in a dark laboratory. In the non-fiction The Abolition of Man Lewis explains the deep concerns he has about ‘men without chests’ – those who think they can remake man himself based on rationality alone – and suggests, more positively, that a renewed science could be a source of answers to the problems we face.

  29. My favorite science fiction is written by hard science academics and scientists.
    Sagan, Bear, Benford, Rucker, Vinge, Asimov, Clarke, Chricton, to name a few.
    Heinlein was not a scientist, but he was technically trained and worked in science research during WWII. So perhaps he belongs on the list?
    I think Benford, in the two early books of his Galactic Center series, captures a feel for scientists working together and how consensus forms and is tested harshly.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galactic_Center_Saga

    • Thank you for reminding me of Bear – a fine writer!

      • You are very welcome. I re-read ‘Forge of God’ and ‘Anvil of Stars’ every few years. And wish he would write something to let us know what happens to a bunch of kids after ending an interstellar war in a xenocidal gotterdamerung.

      • Is this an Ender in-joke?

      • Chip,
        Good catch. ;^)
        Ender’s Game is only apocalyptic from the pov of the victims…..which I am pretty sure was the point of the book (how to treat the other).
        It just struck me that Joe Haldemann, with his great riff on ‘Starship Troopers’ also explored this in his extraordinary ‘The Forever War’.
        But it is clear that SF is deeply rooted in reinterpreting apocalypse themes. I recall how SF short stories used ‘nuclear winter’ so frequently when it was the doom de jeur. Now of course it is ‘climate change’.
        Benford has written serious essays about using cryo-preservation to sample eco-systems to preserve them from cliamte change, blending science with science fictional themes, for example.

  30. Here books by an author that is an actual scientist and they have nothing to with Climate Science:

    Travis S. Taylor—”Doc” Taylor to his friends—is the author of Warp Speed, The Quantum Connection, and the forthcoming One Day on Mars for Baen. He has a Doctorate in Optical Science and Engineering, a master’s degree in Physics, a master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering, all from the University of Alabama in Huntsville; a master’s degree in Astronomy from the University of Western Sydney, and a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Auburn University.

    Dr. Taylor has worked on various programs for the Department of Defense and NASA for the past sixteen years. He’s currently working on several advanced propulsion concepts, very large space telescopes, space-based beamed energy systems, and next generation space launch concepts. In his copious spare time, Doc Travis is also a black belt martial artist, a private pilot, a SCUBA diver, races mountain bikes, competed in triathlons, and has been the lead singer and rhythm guitarist of several hard rock bands.

    http://www.webscription.net/s-101-travis-s-taylor.aspx

    You can buy his books from the link above and see a video interview with him. You might also recognize him from the History Channel’s “The Universe” series.

    He has also been a co author with NYT Best selling author John Ringo and you can (legally) download or read online his books from this link below:
    http://baencd.thefifthimperium.com/18-EyeoftheStormCD/EyeoftheStormCD/

  31. As often happens, Wikipedia was there first:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climate_change_in_popular_culture#Literature

    The particular novel I had in mind was
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallen_Angels_%28science_fiction_novel%29

    –in which a new ice age is precipitated by excessively-zealous anthro-emissions control. An idea that has some scientific respectability — see. for example,
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plows,_Plagues_and_Petroleum

    Ruddiman thinks that AGW may well be preventing the onset of another glaciation, and makes quite a nice (if very speculative) case for it. A very cool book, highly recommended.

    I don’t know who had the idea first, but Larry Niven wrote an essay on the topic many years ago. I don’t have it at hand, and can’t find it online — anyone?

    Happy reading–
    Peter D. Tillman

  32. Has anyone besides me watched (or even heard of) “The Fire Next Time”?

    • Nope.
      The best apocalyptic fantasy I have read is Greg Bear’s ‘Forge of God’.
      The mini-series you are talking about looks……

  33. Misread the tread as …

    Scientists in friction

    Seth speaks out in today’s AP ‘science’ journalism article, 2010’s world gone wild: Quakes, floods, blizzards For example, they report that “The charity Oxfam says 21,000 of this year’s disaster deaths are weather related.”

    Hmm. … (Considering global traffic fatalities)

    a realistic estimate of global road deaths is between 750,000 and 880,000 for the year 1999

    2010 was a very mild year indeed.
    … Either that or Oxfam needs a better PR spin meister.

  34. Someone ese has referred to astronomer Fred Hoyle. His Black Cloud and Ossian’s Ride both portray scientists as elite, tough and authoritarian.

    He could write, though.

  35. ¨The French Lieutenant’s Woman, ¨ Fowles, led me to read his ¨The Tree.¨ The latter, an essay, examines eternal myths and lore at a personal level: great reading for inquirers. The former, a scientist learning how to lose.

  36. Barrett, Andrea, ¨Ship Fever¨
    Science, medicine, immigration: another gripping tale.

  37. Funny you should post this. I was thinking of doing a piece on scientists in movies. 2012 is an interesting one.

  38. Dr. Strangelove

    Dr. Curry,

    I beg to disagree. Dr. Strangelove was neither evil nor genius. He was just weird and unemotional or too rational. Btw, I wasn’t born yet when that movie came out. The inspiration for Dr. Strangelove character was John von Neumann. The famous mathematician might be more qualified as “evil genius.” He formulated the Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.) policy that justified the stockpiling of nuclear weapons.

    My favorite sci-fi is Carl Sagan’s Contact. It’s fiction but based on the real life of astronomer Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute. It’s a realistic portrayal of the struggles of a female scientist in the male-dominated scientific community.

  39. Finally a topic I can weigh in on. :-)
    I’ve been a scifi and science nut for years.
    In I Robot there is a female scientist who pops up in many of the stories – Susan Calvin. And she is not at all like the Susan Calvin portrayed in the movie. The problem with the movie is they tried to bring in too much of the Robot novels (and even a little bit of the Foundation novels near the end) into the movie and Calvin gets side lined. In I Robot she is the main hero in most of the stories.
    In short there are literally thousands of scientists both good, bad and just plain human (or maybe not) in this genera.
    Good reading
    Anything by Asimov or Clarke
    Heinlein
    Verne
    HG Wells
    Campbell
    Vogt
    Blish
    Dick
    Niven
    The list is almost endless.

  40. Ah, but for an accurate online depiction of scientists, one can hardly omit http://www.girlgeniusonline.com/comic.php from any complete list of fiction.

    Okay, maybe ‘depiction’ is not the appropriate word.

  41. My introduction to the potential power of the genre of “science in fiction” comes from Carl Djerassi, who is currently Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry at Stanford University and is best known for his contribution to the development of the first oral contraception pill.

    Ah! Carl Djerassi! How can we forget? Those were the days, weren’t they, Judith?

  42. Geir in Norway

    I am amazed by the anglocentrism of you folks. There exists literature in other countries than England or the US. However much there is, the ultimate author of fiction containing science is Polish Stanislaw Lem (I did purposely not call it science-fiction though he wrote a lot of that too). The book in English translation called His Master’s Voice is one of the utterly few novels about scientists working seriously as scientists. And it is enormously brilliant and fascinating for a research scientist like I used to be. Forget about the “Mad Inventor” (the extrovert fanatic and evil stereotype) and the “Mad Professor” (the introvert stereotype living only in his own world seeing nothing around him), although those stereotypes will continue to induce writings for centuries.

  43. People who enjoy my short story Energy Independence would probably enjoy my novels Hartz String Theory </i) and Endangered Species

    Energy Independence

  44. Speaking of fiction, what passes for reality from the anti-AGW think-tanks is even weirder…

    “They make this stuff up as they go along,” said Myron Ebell, director of the Center of Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “If this theory is true, a necessary consequence is that there will be less severe winter storms because arctic air masses will not be as cold.”

    According to Ebell, if the Arctic was getting warmer, the air rushing south would also be warm.

    Real smart there, Myron.

  45. has anyone heard of The Small Back Room by Nigel Balchin – set during the Second World War. Ir deals with decision-making in bureaucracies, how power-struggles for funding can pervert good science, thengrowth of policy-based evidence-making, and it shows a scientist who is actually a deeply-flawed person. It is a very good read despite the very dry precis I have given.

  46. I remember being very distressed by a novel by C.P. Snow that I read nearly 50 years ago while I was an undergrduate. Not science fiction, but a novel about scientists, The Search involved a climax in which a scientist discovers an error in the work of a younger colleague that would have set back that doctoral candidate’s attainment of his degree, and the older scientist ultimately decides not to expose the error, figuring it would come to light later when the younger scientist was established and be corrected then when it wouldn’t harm his career. I felt very betrayed by Snow’s handling of this as if it were morally acceptable.
    Still, it was and is otherwise a good read for the workings of scientists.