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Book smart


Novelist Thomas Pynchon shows that science and art can combine, with mutual benefit.

Some writers use metaphors in science. Some go further and make a metaphor of science itself — not the practical art of observation and empirical testing, but the often-tricky concepts at the heart of the pursuit. Such writing is difficult, and scientists and non-scientists alike can struggle with the result. But when done well, the language of research and the grammar of the natural world can sing a song as sweet as anything in literature. The supposed differences between the two cultures dissolve, leaving only those who get it and those who do not.

Many of those who do — both scientists and non-scientists — will be eagerly awaiting the latest book from Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge (Penguin). It is reviewed on page 312 by Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena who is himself a writer and a self-confessed Pynchon fan. Set against the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 in New York, Bleeding Edge is one of Pynchon’s more straightforward books. As Carroll notes, it is “told linearly, from the point of view of an acknowledged main character, with something approximating an explicit goal”.

That itself is a description of science, albeit a misleading one. Despite the appeal of a simple narrative, of cause and effect, and the dogged pursuit of truth by heroic individuals, most Nature readers will know — and no doubt lament — that science is not like that. Pynchon knows that too, and revels in our attempts to impose order on a chaotic, unruly reality.

Pynchon, Carroll notes, often uses imagery and symbolism from science and engineering. Stephen Hawking says that he was told that each equation printed in a popular-science book would halve its readership, so imagine the reaction of the editor on receiving the manuscript of Pynchon’s 1973 classic novel Gravity’s Rainbow (Viking), complete with a description of the first elements of the Poisson distribution. Organic chemistry, behaviour modification, double integrals and rocket dynamics all underpin both that story and the language that Pynchon chooses to tell it.

Some physicists consider Pynchon one of their own. The author studied for (but never finished) a degree in engineering physics at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and worked as a technical writer for the aerospace company Boeing. Biologists have credited his idea of a ‘counterforce’ — an organizing principle (also known as life) that counters the universal descent into entropy — as the spark that ignited their careers.

Those who get it see something special in Pynchon’s work. There are few novelists who can claim to successfully unite the two cultures, but Pynchon does it by dispensing with metaphor and turning to science itself.

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Book smart. Nature 501, 282 (2013).

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