Friday, April 19, 2024

Scientists who were also great novelists

EcologyScientists who were also great novelists


Recently, statistician Andrew Gelman discussed Norman Mailer’s remark that:

Not once in the twentieth century . . . has a single politician, actor, athlete, or surgeon emerged as a first-rate novelist, despite the dismayingly huge breadth of experience each profession affords.

Which got me wondering: who are the scientists who were/are also great novelists?

Presumably, the list of candidates is going to be pretty short. Great novels by anyone are rare; great novels by scientists are going to be much rarer still. Especially if you define “great” narrowly (e.g., “your novel will still be widely read, studied, and discussed more than a century after it was published.”) I do think great novels by scientists might be less rare than great novels by, say, politicians, actors, or athletes. But still rare.

Anyway, here are some opening bids for “scientists who were/are also great novelists”:

There are several strong candidates on this list of great sci-fi novelists who were/are also scientists (Isaac Asimov, David Brin, Peter Watts…). Although the list also includes several people whom I personally wouldn’t count as “scientists,” due to lack of any graduate degree or professional career in science. YMMV on whether an undergraduate degree in science makes you a “scientist.” See also this list, which is more a list of “novelists who had/have some science background, including some who were/are scientists.”*

Paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson was a great scientist; he was one of the architects of the Modern Synthesis. His sci-fi novella, The Dechronization of Sam Magruder, was unpublished in his lifetime. His daughter found the manuscript 10 years after his death and arranged for its publication. FWIW, it seems to have been fairly well-received by readers on Goodreads. YMMV on whether it rises to the level of a “great” novella, though. You’d probably have to define “great” pretty broadly.

Have any scientists written great non-sci-fi novels? I’m not sure. Here are the candidates I thought of off the top of my head:

Barbara Kingsolver is definitely a great novelist who doesn’t write sci-fi. She’s won a bunch of prestigious awards for her novels, including a Pulitzer Prize. But YMMV on whether she counts as an ex-scientist for purposes of this post. She has a master’s degree in ecology, and worked briefly as a science writer for the University of Arizona before quitting to focus full-time on fiction and poetry. Personally, I don’t think she quite counts as an ex-scientist.

E. O. Wilson was a great scientist, but YMMV on whether he wrote a great novel. His novel, Anthill, seems to have been fairly well-received by both readers on Goodreads, and by no less a reviewer than Barbara Kingsolver. Not sure it rises to the level of “great” novel, though.

Chemist Carl Djerassi was instrumental to the development of oral contraceptives. He’s also written five novels (as well as numerous plays, short stories, and poems). His novels get mixed reviews on Goodreads, and from professional reviewers. I don’t know that any of them rise to the level of “great”.

Who have I missed? This is one of those posts that functions purely as a discussion prompt for commenters. Past “discussion prompt” posts have led to some of our best comment threads (for instance). Take it away commenters! No pressure. 🙂

p.s. See also our old post on the greatest scientist-politicians in history. It’s easier to come up with scientists who became at least modestly successful sci-fi novelists than it is to come up with scientists who became at least modestly successful national-level politicians. Which is no surprise. Being a scientist can help you write and speculate plausibly about science and scientists, which can come in handy when writing novels. But nothing about being a scientist seems like particularly good preparation for a career in national-level politics.

p.p.s. If you insist on referring jokingly to a certain recent case that I bet, like, half of you are thinking of, it had better be a really funny joke. No just dropping a link in the comments and calling it a day!

*From which I learned that novelist and ecology prof Ekaterina Sedia and I overlapped at Rutgers during our PhDs, though we were on different campuses. It was a long time ago; I don’t recall if we ever met.

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