Adventures in Ethics and Science

Book review: Intuition.

Allegra Goodman’s novel Intuition was published in 2006, and although I heard very good things about it, I was busy enough with other stuff that I didn’t chase down a copy to read it. Finally, last November, my department chair lent me her copy, insistent that I had to read it when I got a chance — not for any academic purpose, but to do something nice for myself. Between semesters, I finally got a chance to read it.

I have a really good department chair.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I think that part of why I enjoyed it so much is that I came to the book without having read reviews of it that tipped me off as to too many of the details of the plot. My expectations were vague enough that I was surprised at many turns through the 385 pages of the novel.

So, on the assumption that a number of you reading this post may want to read Intuition, I’m going to say very little about particular characters and plot points and focus instead about the features of this novel that really grabbed me.

The main setting is a biomedical research lab, peopled by principal investigators, postdocs, and technicians. Some experiments yield interesting or important results, others seem to be running out of steam, and of course, while the experiments are in progress, it is practically impossible to tell which are which. There is stress about funding, and about getting the results that will make it possible to secure the funding to keep doing research. There are clashes about just how independent postdocs are supposed to be, and about whether the good of the research group ought to come before the good of anyone’s individual project. There are disagreements about how credit should be shared.

Strikingly, many of these disputes are unspoken until things get really bad.

In many ways, this is a novel about human interactions and how they play out in a scientific world that relies on teamwork yet encourages fierce individualism. Many of the characters have rich inner monologues while communicating very little to their coworkers and confidants. They interpret the silences, the terse statements, the questions, what they see, and what they think they see … but their interpretations range from incomplete to dead wrong. They seem fearful of saying too much, and that fear speaks volumes about the way these characters view the scientific environment in which they’re trying to achieve some measure of success.

The novel doesn’t indicate to the reader that one particular character’s viewpoint is authoritative here. Since we are privy to the hopes and fears of many characters, none emerges as hero or villain. We see how each of them, even in operating as a scientist, carries around a history that influences his or her decisions or reactions. We see that the complications of being a human make it impossible for any one of these individuals to be perfectly objective.

And the facts of the central conflict are presented through the eyes of different characters, so the readers aren’t in a position to decide what really happened — which is to say, we’re in pretty much the same place as the characters in the novel on the incident that seems to blow out of control.

I won’t say much about that incident, but I should mention that the events in its aftermath bear more than a passing resemblance to the events around the investigation of Thereza Imanishi-Kari and David Baltimore. If you’re familiar with the details of that investigation — and the reactions that various members of the scientific community and the public voiced as it was going on — you might think these obvious parallels would be a distraction from the plot of Intuition. However, one of the things I liked about the novel is how each of these characters, regardless of their roles, suddenly became more intelligible as humans — each of whom may have an agenda, but none of whom is just her agenda.

Intuition presents a complex — and viscerally real — glimpse at what it is like to be a scientist in a world where being a scientist and being a well-adjusted human often seem to be at odds.


  1. #1 capella
    February 17, 2008

    When I read the novel, I found almost everything about the research lab and its employees to be totally different from what I’ve seen and experienced. I think this is mostly an issue of discipline – breakthroughs in biology, and perhaps high-energy physics, seem to capture the public attention more than anything else, and (presumably coincidentally) to have more of an eternal-postdoc issue, but it really demonstrated to me how broad the experiences and concerns of scientists really are.

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