I didn't think I was one of those people for whom a book (fiction or non-science non-fiction) was ruined because of 'bad science' in it, but maybe I am. My husband is definitely one of those people. He will throw down a novel upon encountering a sentence -- or even a phrase -- that shows ignorance of some scientific principle or event. It ruins the book for him completely, and he loses all faith in the author as someone with worthwhile things to say, even in a novel. I am more accepting of 'bad science' in literature, but have encountered a few recent examples that gave me pause.
There is a lot of goofy science in "Special Topics in Calamity Physics" (Marisha Pessl), but I didn't mind that. The whole book is an over-the-top crazy jumble of analogies, scientific and otherwise. On the other hand, I recently stopped reading an award-winning biography of a non-scientist because the author had a section on an ancillary scientific issue, and it was so wrong it was absurd. I stopped reading the book after that section, even though it wasn't important to the overall content of the book. Perhaps I had a negative reaction because it was a non-fiction book -- if the author got that part wrong, what about the rest of it? Didn't the author show that part of the text to a scientist for checking?
On a few occasions in the past decade, I have been contacted by fiction-writers asking me questions about my field of science so that they could get a particular scene, concept, or scientific character 'right'. I enjoy doing this, especially if it increases the visibility of science and scientists in an accessible and fun way. Alas, most of these books have been thrillers, and the scientists have been evil men using their brilliant brains to acquire power and/or money, not caring if they destroyed some or all of the world in the process.
By chance, a few years after one of these books was published, I visited a particular university that was mentioned by name in the book, and asked people there about the book. They hastened to assure me that their department chair was not actually a homicidal maniac out to destroy the world, nor did he manipulate grad students or prey on women students. I wasn't sure whether to admit having seen this novel in manuscript form, in case people thought I had approved of the ghastly depiction of science and scientists. In fact, the author ignored essentially all of my advice, and fortunately I am not acknowledged by name in that book, although I read and commented on several chapters .. which makes me wonder if other examples of 'bad science' or misconceptions about academia in books are there despite advice to the contrary.
5 weeks ago