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Best Science Books Redux

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?


  1. #1 Sean Carroll
    April 7, 2006

    Gravity’s Rainbow is one of my all-time favorite books. But let’s face it, the occasional equations are not the reason why it is tough going! Mason & Dixon is also an amazing book with some scientific themes.

    There are a lot of world-class authors with a deep interest in science — Tom Stoppard and Jeanette Winterson are two other great examples. I suspect that scientists aren’t nearly as familiar with their works as they might be.

  2. #2 Rob Knop
    April 7, 2006

    I loved The Crying of Lot 49 by Pynchon; we read it in my Freshman-year English class, and I was one of (a minority) who loved it. It’s a great conspiracy-theory book, but does have some bits about Maxwell’s demon in it.

    I started Gravity’s Rainbow many years ago, but never got more than a few pages in. I’m a huge Physics nerd, so I suppose I should give it another try.

    Most of the “fun” reading I do is very much in the popcorn mode. Yeah, some of the books are “good” books, but mostly I’m reading it for the story and for getting me thinking about wacky stuff where I don’t have to worry about being as responsible as I must be when doing “real” science.

    I read a lot of Heinlein “juveniles” when I was 12 or thereabouts; the first one I remember reading was “Have Space Suit, Will Travel.” I also read a lot of Agatha Christie novels around that time, as well as Tolkien and things like the Le Guin Earthsea trilogy. In graduate school (already on my way to being a Physicist), I read the Canon of Larry Niven and Isaac Asimov; my favorite authors at the time were probably Charles Sheffield and Robert J. Sawyer.

  3. #3 SkookumPlanet
    April 7, 2006

    Pynchon is great, but a huge commitment. I’ve read three, but only one since college, and Gravity’s Rainbow is the most intimidating. Vineland is set in northern California in coastal redwood country, my favorite area of the state. Naturally I had to read it.

    Pynchon Story. Pynchon apparently lived there and possibly the bay area, incognito, while researching and writing the novel, at least a first draft. The time frame, which I forget, is roughly suspected because a well-thought-of weekly newspaper up north, in tiny, rural Philo, in this time span received a long series of bizarre letters to the editor from someone claiming to be [from memory] a senior-citizen, homeless bag-lady living under a bridge somewhere near Philo. The content, I vaguely recall, was all over the map, often political, and infused with abundant details unlikely to reside in a bag-lady’s mind. The entire enterprise sounds like a Pynchon story.

    For Pynchon fans here’s a nugget I stumbled across on the net, perhaps an unknown, secret Pynchon novel, From Asininity to Assassination by Pyro Atomic Bomb/Marion A. Feany/Thomas Pynchon, Metropolitan Press, Portland, OR, 1981. A two-layer pseudonym! How more Pynchon can it get?

    I’ll throw in my favorite novel which is an extended social science metaphor, Ursula Leguin’s Always Coming Home.

    LeGuin’s pushed her characteristic anthropological approach to it’s structural extreme. The post-apocalypse story is a collection of field notes and texts including visual and impeccably accurate oral material — a file cabinet — as novel. The original editions were boxed with a cassette tape of fables, poems, songs, and sacred chanting in a language she invented for these people, the Kesh. And the Kesh are embedded within the natural landscape of California’s Napa Valley sometime in the nebulous future. A CD’s now available with the original tape content.

    In an Amazon review I note that ACH is highly evocative of bay area “ecosystems and pre-contact Native American culture. She’s nailed them. Sit on a shaded, worn redwood deck bordering a bay laurel or redwood grove, gaze out at the dry, yellow, August hills of the California coast range, and it’s easy to see, feel, and smell the ancient stone and redwood Kesh family great houses. Easy.”

    It’s not as difficult as Pynchon, but still a tough read. The book’s chopped up, non-linear format will turn many people off, and it’s flawed. Still, I’ve read it three times. It’s remembered not as a sequential story-line but floats as emotion of ideal living in an ideal landscape. Just as it would in real life.

  4. #4 Monte Davis
    April 8, 2006

    It can’t hurt to start with the title. Biblically, the first rainbow is supposed to have been a promise (“I won’t flood the world again”) and, inevitably, a warning (“Keep in mind that I could“).

    So what might gravity’s rainbow — a ballistic parabola, the V-2’s path after brennschluss, a conic section that could be an orbit but intersects the earth — be?

    For a lot of science & technology minded moderns, the urge to transcend the world — an urge that used to take religious forms — morphed into the urge to spaceflight. We could explore, expand, evolve without limit.

    Unfortunately, 99% of the resources and motivation that actually developed that technology, built that hardware, didn’t come from idealism about space. It came from the desire to blow things up fast from far away: first at Peenemunde (setting for some of the novel’s best slapstick)… then, with nuclear warheads to make it “worthwhile,” the ICBM race of the 1950s.

    You want an Ark? You want to fly away from this nasty self-destructive world to the Radiant Future? Fine; the machines you’ll use are also precisely the most advanced expression of the urge to self-destruction. Never mind yer planet-killer asteroid; we methodically, painstakingly, expensively built the most immediate threat hanging over our own heads. Among many many other things it does, Gravity’s Rainbow rubs our noses in that.

  5. #5 quicksilver
    May 28, 2006

    This is just a test to see if I have access to this GR blog!

  6. #6 quicksilver
    May 28, 2006

    and this is just another test to see if I have access; thanks, y’all, for your patience w/ me.

  7. #7 quicksilver
    May 29, 2006

    I do, I do! And, I’m restarting GR after years. I think lot 49, V, & Vineland are the mosty wonderful reads since, well, James joyce, at least. This time, I’ll lay back and get through, let GR become itself. What I love about Pynchon is his invisibility, just like mah’ other hero, Bob Dylan. Nobody knows!