7 “Lab Lit” books for scientists-at-heart

I recently started my PhD in neuroscience unofficially, so I’ve found myself gravitating to books featuring grad students or other scientists-in-training, especially women. Books that are part wry humor and observation, part memoir, part novel, and part academia.

Some have stood out to me as being honest about the grad student experience, and others have stood out to me for their memoir aspects, or their experiences in being scientists in labs, who are as much their own lab rats as the ones they study.

Chemistry

Three years into her graduate studies at a demanding Boston university, the unnamed narrator finds her love for chemistry is more hypothesis than reality. She’s tormented by her failed research–and reminded of her delays… most of all by her Chinese parents, who have always expected nothing short of excellence from her throughout her life. But there’s another, nonscientific question looming: the marriage proposal from her devoted boyfriend, a fellow scientist…

For the first time, she’s confronted with a question she won’t find the answer to in a textbook: What do I really want?

The Memory Artists

Noel Burun has synesthesia and hypermnesia: he sees words in vibrant explosions of colors and shapes. But for all his…abilities, he is confronted every day with a reality that is as sad as it is ironic: his beloved mother, Stella, is stricken with Alzheimer’s disease, her memory slowly slipping into the quicksands of oblivion. The Memory Artists follows Noel, helped by a motley cast of friends, on his quest to find a cure for his mother’s affliction.

Orfeo

Seventy-year old avant-garde composer Peter Els opens the door one evening to find the police outside. His DIY microbiology lab – the latest experiment in his lifelong attempt to extract music from rich patterns beyond the ear’s ability to hear – has come to the attention of Homeland Security. Panicked by the raid on his house, Els flees and turns fugitive, waiting for the evidence to clear him and for the alarm surrounding his activities to blow over. But alarm turns to national hysteria, as the government promises a panicked nation that the ‘Bioterrorist Bach’ will be found and brought to trial…

Inspired Sleep: A Novel

These days, Bonnie Saks is lucky to gets four consecutive hours of shut-eye, what with her bed-wetting young son, her unfinished doctoral thesis, her meager teaching salary, and the fact that she’s pregnant by a lover about as reliable as her ex-husband.

Meanwhile, Ian Ogelvie, an ambitious young research scientist, is setting up a study of a promising new sleep aid. Their chance encounter forms the backdrop for this richly exuberant portrait of contemporary America, encompassing everything from the slippery evasions of love to the intricate network that binds together the pharmaceutical industry, managed care, and a shadow population of lost, sleepless souls.

Galatea 2.2

After years of living abroad, a young writer, Richard, returns to the United States to take up the position of Humanist-in-Residence at the Centre for the Study of Advanced Sciences.

There he encounters Philip Lentz, a brilliant and outspoken cognitive neurologist who involves him in an outlandish and irresistible experiment: to train a neural net of computers – Helen – to model the human brain through reading a canonical list of Great Books. Through repeated tutorials, the machine grows gradually more worldly, until she demands to know her own age, sex, race and reason for existing…

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Dr. Alfred Jones is a henpecked, slightly pompous middle-aged scientist at the National Centre for Fisheries Excellence in London when he is approached by a mysterious sheikh about an outlandish plan to introduce the sport of salmon fishing into the Yemen. Dr. Jones refuses, but the project, however scientifically absurd, catches the eye of British politicians, who pressure him to work on it.

His diaries of the Yemen Salmon Project, from beginning to glorious, tragic end, form the narrative backbone of this novel; interspersed throughout are government memos, e-mails, letters, and interview transcripts that deftly capture the absurdity of bureaucratic dysfunction.

Thinks . . .

The story unfolds in the alternating voices of Ralph Messenger, the director of the Holt Belling Center for Cognitive Science at the University of Gloucester in England, and Helen Reed, a recently widowed novelist who has taken up a post as writer-in-residence at Gloucester.

Ralph, who is much in demand as a pundit on developments in artificial intelligence, believes that computers may one day be conscious; Helen believes that literary fiction constitutes the richest record of human consciousness. The two are mutually attracted and fascinated by their differences, but Helen resists Ralph’s bold advances on moral principles.

The standoff between them is shattered by a series of events and discoveries that dramatically confirm the truth of Ralph’s dictum that “we can never know for certain what another person is thinking”.

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