by Allegra Goodman
Year published: 2006
Category: science thriller; LabLit
Tech rating (out of 5):
At a private research institute in the shadow of Harvard University, a post-doctoral fellow is suffocating from a lack of results in his work. When his cancer experiments suddenly suggest a breakthrough, everything changes—and not necessarily for the better.
Okay, so I lied. Technically Intuition isn’t a thriller. (Hence no star rating.) But it is one heck of a page-turner, and such a powerful science-themed novel that I had to bring it to the attention of science thriller fans.
Intuition is an incredible story of laboratory culture, psychology and politics. The cancer lab in which it is set is led by two principle investigators with very different temperaments, a source of friction later when the going gets rough. The lab is populated by fascinating, well-realized characters–post-docs and technicians—with honest and complex motivations.
The central plot revolves around Cliff, a post-doctoral fellow who has been trapped for years by the frustrating, incremental, and ultimately maddening nature of molecular/cellular research in biology. He knows he is smart and capable. Others have made great discoveries; why can’t he? His former girlfriend Robin, also a post-doc in the lab, understands. But when Cliff’s research takes off and electrifies the entire group, Robin feels cheated. She develops doubts about the accuracy of Cliff’s findings when she cannot reproduce them. The author wonderfully conveys the muddied motives of a real person: is Robin jealous? Malicious? An honest whistleblower? Is she right?
Ultimately, reading Intuition is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. You can tell it’s going to end badly, but you can’t wait to see exactly how. But it never veers off into melodrama, and the consequences of people’s actions are both more and less severe than you might expect.
I know the world Goodman is describing—I went to Harvard and I have a Ph.D. in immunology—and by God, she nailed it. How she did it, I have no idea; Goodman has no scientific background as far as I can tell. She researched this book, but she must have remarkable intuition of her own to understand people so well.
Superb glimpse of life in the hidden world of university research labs.
Read this book if: you’ve ever worked in a research lab. Double, if you have a graduate degree in the biological sciences. Triple, if you studied at Harvard or MIT.