Earlier this week I asked about the best science books of all time.
Today, a related question crossed my mind: what novels do scientists like to read…and why?
A couple of years ago, I took a grad-school English class devoted to postmodern fiction. Six weeks of the thirteen-week semester were devoted to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. And I remember hearing along the way that Gravity’s Rainbow was supposedly huge with engineers and physicists. In one way, this surprised me: I’m a literature nerd by training and temperament–a professional reader, ferchrissake–and I found Gravity’s Rainbow really tough going, almost too confounding to finish. But it also came as no surprise at all: Pynchon’s novel is full of equations, and physics and chemistry terms I had to look up in the dictionary. Maybe my literary background actually put me at a disadvantage. Maybe this was a novel made by a scientist, for scientists. (Pynchon started his undergraduate career at Cornell University, studying Engineering Physics.)
Pynchon writes about the (real-life) German chemical conglomerate I.G. Farben, weaving World War II-era history and wild flights of fancy together into a mind-bending assault: offensive, disgusting, philosophically provocative, socially aware, and scientifically informed. The human characters in the novel, by and large, are flat and one dimensional, but in my opinion the real narrative isn’t about anyone in particular. Instead, it’s the story of the rise of the military-industrial complex–plastics, advanced weaponry, the corporate entities that brought them to us, and the psychology that goes along with.
One of the most interesting things about Gravity’s Rainbow, I thought, is the tension between Pynchon’s obvious fascination with science and technology, and his keen sense of science and technology’s destructive potential.
The novel, come to think of it, is a full-scale epic about science and culture.
Are there any Pynchon fans (or deetractors) in the house?