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The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives

California Institute of Technology
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  • Book Reviews
  • Literature


Back of Book V2.indd 37E N G I N E E R I N G & S C I E N C E N O . 22 0 0 8 B o o k s Intuition Dial Press, 2006 385 pages $13.00 Novelists, playwrights, and poets are increasingly attracted by scientific themes—C. P. Snow’s lament about the “Two Cultures” notwithstanding— but attempts at authentic literary portrayals of scientific practice are still rare. Perhaps this is not so surprising; after all, how easy is it to construct a gripping tale out of cleaning glassware and tending to lab rats? In light of the central and pervasive role of science in contemporary society, though, it would be nice to see more authors taking on that challenge. (See the website, which is “dedicated to real laboratory culture and to the portrayal and perceptions of that cul- ture—science, scientists and labs—in fiction, the media and across popular culture.”) Allegra Goodman’s novel Intuition is a significant recent contribution to this genre. It tells the story of a research group led by two senior scientists, Sandy Glass and Marion Mendelssohn, at the fictional Philpott Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and consisting of a number of postdocs (among whom Cliff and Robin play the most important dramatic roles) and technicians. Goodman spent a good deal of time talking with and observing researchers at the Whitehead Institute, and it shows: the book does a good job of depicting the quotidian routine of a re- search lab, the small triumphs and frustrations its members regularly encounter, and the relationships and interactions between them. Furthermore, Goodman does her best to portray all her characters as “real people” (as opposed to the myth of impersonal scientific research- ers) with multiple motiva- tions. I found this aspect much less successful, but that is largely a matter of personal literary taste. I do not care to be told, rather than shown, what the characters are like, and how we are supposed to thin

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