Intuition by Allegra Goodman

IntuitionI picked this novel up because I’d heard that it offered a realistic portrayal of scientific research. So often in popular entertainment we’re given an exaggerated vision of how science is actually done—there’s either the mad scientist unscrupulously tinkering with nature to satisfy a god complex, or the hero who saves the day with a “scientific” solution that amounts to waving a magic wand. Intuition examines the ways ambition, personality,  and politics can influence research, but avoids painting its characters, and the effects of human fallibility on science, with broad strokes.

Marion Mendelssohn and Sandy Glass run a cancer research lab at the fictional Philpott Institute. For years their contrasting personalities (Marion circumspect and precise, Sandy bombastic and charming) have harmonized in a close working relationship. When one of their postdocs, Cliff Bannaker, begins demonstrating dramatic success in his work administering experimental cancer treatments to mice, Sandy wants to announce and publish the results before they’ve been fully verified to attract publicity and badly needed funding for the lab. Marion’s reluctance to engage the media prematurely begins to create cracks in their partnership. Further controversy ensues when Cliff’s fellow postdoc (and ex), Robin Decker, begins to suspect his results were falsified. How can Robin—not to mention her colleagues—be certain that her suspicions are not colored by personal resentment? Is she willing to pursue those suspicions at the possible cost of her professional future and her friendships?

Scientific discovery and controversy are usually reported in the news with all the subtlety of a banner headline.  (In the novel, the announcement and disputation of Cliff’s results are sensationalized and distorted by the media and grandstanding politicians). In contrast, Intuition tells a story in which both research and human drama proceed as they often do in life: turning points are quiet, revelation is gradual. Yet this is a highly engaging novel. Each of Allegra Goodman’s characters is memorable and relatable despite their flaws, and her sharp observations of them make those small moments resonate with great emotional power. I definitely plan to check out more from this excellent author.

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