Stealing the fire: women scientists in fiction

This is the version that was finally accepted by HMS Beagle, a science web-magazine formerly at BioMedNet; it was published in February 1999. The web version has gone where old web pages go.

Working scientists are a relative rarity in mainstream novels and working women scientists even more so. The more usual place for a fictional scientist is in genre fiction: science fiction, detective fiction, horror and thrillers, but as a working woman scientist, I was curious to see how women scientists were portrayed in novels featuring a recognizably contemporary setting.

Certain themes, I noticed, tended to recur:

  1. The drama of science, centering on the possession and integrity of the discovery.
  2. Relationships, and their influence on a woman’s life and work.
  3. The problem of genius: What is genius, and can it be tolerated in a woman?
  4. The withdrawal from science, as portrayed by no fewer than six of these novels.

1. The Drama of Science and the Woman Champion

One measure of present day ambivalence about science is that, whereas formerly the drama of science centred around the making of the discovery, and the obstacles facing its makers, in more recent novels the drama involves the fight to protect that discovery from suppression, exploitation or abuse – even by scientists themselves. In the classic drama of science, the scientists were the carriers of the flame. They were never tempted by self-interest. In the modern drama of science, scientists are tempted, and often fall.

To illustrate, two novels, one looking back to the classic, and one definitely of the modern tradition – Lightsource, by Bari Wood, and Cantor’s Dilemma, by Carl Djerassi.

Emily Brand, protagonist of Lightsource, is a physicist and a heroine. Her invention, a viable fusion reactor, threatens a monolithic company’s monopoly on power-hungry America. When she proves immune to bribery and coercion, she is framed for murder and hunted across the USA by lawmen and assassins. Throughout, she defends herself with elegance and guile, rather than violence, and earns the help and trust of ordinary people.

Cantor’s Dilemma, on the other hand, is the story of two Nobel prizewinners, Professor Isidore Cantor and his protege, Jeremy Stafford. Cantor’s dilemma arises when he discovers that Stafford, who carried out the prizewinning experiment, may have falsified the results. Since neither man wishes to confront the issue, their relationship disintegrates in suspicion and resentment.

In other novels, the woman champion’s victory is far more costly than Emily Brand’s. Pharmaceutical researcher Anne Clewiston (The Clewiston Test) defends her discovery from premature – and dangerous – exploitation at the cost of her marriage, her career, and her reputation. By the end of Brazzaville Beach ethologist Hope Clearwater is an outcast from her scientific community, her work first denounced and then appropriated by her superior. But the ultimate test of integrity is reserved for Rachel Petherington, the elderly palentologist in Sara Maitland’s Three Times Table, for the theory she comes to question is her own.

For a woman who champions the ideal of science – upholding the truth independent of gain or ego – the stakes are both higher and lower than for a man. Already an outsider, she has less to lose. Being less embedded in professional networks and less accustomed to the rewards; she can risk pursuing the truth in a way that, say, an Isidor Cantor or a Jeremy Stafford cannot. But as an outsider, she has fewer allies, and is more vulnerable to complete dispossession.

2. Relationships and the woman scientist

Freud allowed that men were entitled to love and to work. To women, he granted no such right. A hundred years on, women’s work – particularly creative and absorbing work – is still open to question. The discouraging threnody that runs through these novels is that science is a threat to women’s intimate relationships.

Absorption in science makes a woman unavailable to others: Mathematician Phoebe Petherington punishes herself for years for her anger at an interruption while she is studying and hearing “the singing of the spheres”, for the interruption was the news of her father’s sudden death. Achievement in science draws others’ resentment, particularly if the other is a husband eclipsed by his wife (Clark Clewiston in The Clewiston Test; Martin Petherington in Three Times Table). Even if a scientist’s husband is not a rival, marriage and the obligations of domesticity can be too great a burden — archaeologist Elizabeth Butler (The Falling Woman) marries reluctantly, young and pregnant, and goes floridly mad with the frustrations of being a medical student’s wife and mother to a small child.

This pattern is not restricted to novels featuring women scientists. In her book about artistic K¸ nstelromanes, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman, Linda Huf identifies a modern trend in the progress of the woman artist that involves her turning away from the family and/or the lover who fails to respect her work as an artist.

3. The problem of genius

Genius is an accolade rarely accorded women, or not until they are safely dead. Of the books I am discussing, only Emily Brand’s genius is untroubled and uncensured: she is a threat only to the wicked. Otherwise, genius is more penalized than privileged; should a woman refuse to limit herself, she pays the price in social censure.

Miriam Berg (Small Changes) is completing her Ph.D. thesis in computer science. In a nocturnal blaze of inspiration she conceives an approach to a hitherto unsolved problem. She presents her bold idea as a seminar: “She could not even complete setting out her idea before the attacks began. She seemed to have hit a bare nerve in almost everyone … Fred was hardly able to be polite. The idea seemed to affect him personally … Ted … said how he thought is was wonderfully fascinating to presume to solve in half an hour what was in essence an insoluble problem … She had been sure the idea was exciting, but the excitement had been fury.” (Small Changes, p. 364)

Saving St. Germ is a portrait of a woman in the process of discovery. Esme Charbonneau is socially inept, volatile, outspoken and oblivious to her own feelings and those of others. She claims privileges normally reserved for men – exemption from common duties to tend her great work, the right to be outspoken, freewheeling and intolerant of fools and timewasters. Her conceptual deconstruction of the world which leads to her breakthrough runs parallel to the disintegrating structures of her life, as her preoccupation costs her her social credibility as wife, teacher and mother to her daughter.

4. The withdrawal from science

Of these women scientists, six will have left science by the end of their novels. Two champions, Anne Clewiston and Hope Clearwater, are outcasts from the scientific community, while the brilliant Esme Charbonneau’s standing remains in doubt.

After Miriam’s Berg seminar she approaches her boss for support. He warns her that “you don’t want people to feel you can get supported on a project of your own because Neil [her husband – higher in the company heirarchy] threw his weight around,” and advises her to work on her idea in her own time. Neil offers her neither professional nor personal support. Instead, he takes advantage of their closeness and her neediness to propose that they should have a baby. Once their daughter is born, father and mother find an abundance of excellent reasons why Miriam should not return to work. By the closing chapters Miriam is aware that, “I’ve lost my confidence by attrition, that beautiful technical arrogance.”

Catherine Buckingham (An Accomplished Woman) never has the chance to begin. She is raised “without a net” by her entymologist uncle, exploring widely, asking questions and devising her own explanations for natural and social phenomena. But it is the late nineteen thirties, and when her uncle disappears in wartime France, and she must make her own way, she is utterly unprepared for the assault of convention, with its immovable expectations that a woman is destined for marriage. Isolated, without any means of articulating her experience, she nearly dies of influenza and self-neglect. In spirit, she does die. She is last seen years later, a wealthy, well-groomed widow, making empty small talk with strangers.

Miriam Berg and Catherine Buckingham both suffer an attrition of confidence, a gradual loss of their identities as scientists. Phoebe Petherington rejects mathematics because it absorbs her to the exclusion of all else, even the duties of womanhood, and Esme Charbonneau’s student Rocky Salinas walks away when she sees the price her priviledged mentor has paid, and realises the scientific establishment will never accept her as a woman, a lesbian and a Latina.

Steady attrition is a feature of womens’ real life experience in science, from the girls who turn away from mathematics and computing in junior high to the steady decline in percentages of women going from undergraduate to graduate training and up through the grades in academia or industry. Even today, sixty percent may not be too high an estimate.

The novels

William Boyd, Brazzaville Beach, 1990. (Penguin Books, 1991)

Carl Djerassi, Cantor’s Dilemma, 1989. (Macdonald and Co (Publishers) Ltd., London, 1990.)

Carol Muskes Dukes, Saving St. Germ, 1993. (Penguin, USA.)

Sara Maitland, Three Times Table, 1990. (Virago Press, 1991)

Pat Murphy, The Falling Woman, 1986. (Headline Book Publishing, U.K., 1988)

Marge Piercy, Small Changes, 1972, 1973. (Fawcett Crest, 1974.)

Nancy Price, An Accomplished Woman, 1979. (Signet, NEL, 1980.)

Kate Wilhelm, The Clewiston Test, 1976. (Arrow Books, Hutchinson, London, 1979).

Bari Wood, Lightsource, 1985. (Signet, NEL, 1985).