Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Solar Flare

The main character and narrator of the novel Solar by Ian McEwan is Michael Beard, a repulsive Nobel Prize- winning physicist who had the stereotypical experience of a flash of brilliance as a young physicist, soon after which he intellectually burned out. Beard drifts into being involved in developing green technology (wind, solar), but he's not too interested in it until he steals the ideas of a postdoc who was having an affair with Beard's 5th wife (an affair she initiated in revenge for her husband's many affairs) but who dies in an accident in Beard's home when he trips over a polar bear skin rug, whose dangers were foreshadowed, soon after Beard returns from a bizarre trip to the Arctic, where he (Beard) encountered an angry polar bear. Is everyone with me so far?

That's just one small part of the book, most of which consists of tale after tale of excess: eating, drinking, lying, stealing, womanizing. It is not a pleasant book, but it is not entirely without its charms. If you can get past the absurd plot and the revolting characters, it's possible to enjoy some of the writing.

Except for one part, which, for me, was even worse than the Polar Bear of Doom scenes:

In the part of the book I particularly loathed, Beard agrees to head up a government committee charged with promoting physics in schools and attracting more students and teachers to physics. He doesn't give the committee much thought when he agrees to be part of it. The committee consists of three physics professors, various school teachers and headmasters, and a professor of "science studies".

At the first meeting, everyone on the committee introduces themselves, and Beard is curious to hear from the professor of science studies because the field is a "novelty" to him. The professor begins by noting that "..she was the only woman in the room and that the committee reflected one of the very problems it might want to address."

Fair enough. Good point. The committee is sympathetic to this. I was sympathetic to this.

The science studies professor, however, goes on to explain a recent research project in which she studied a genetics lab that was trying to isolate a particular gene in lions.

"Her purpose was to demonstrate that this gene, or any gene, was, in the strongest sense, socially constructed. Without the various "entexting" tools the scientists used.. the gene could not be said to exist... The gene was not an objective entity.. It was manufactured by their [the scientists'] hypotheses, their creativity, and their instrumentation.."

Now everyone, including me, thinks she is a blathering idiot, as intended by McEwan. When the science studies professor is done speaking, one of the physicists asks "Do you honestly believe that what you don't know about doesn't exist?"

Beard, as chairman, doesn't want to waste time arguing about whether genes are real or not, so he ends the discussion, and moves along to other items on the agenda, noting vaguely that they will have time to discuss these issues in subsequent meetings.

Later that day, the committee holds a press conference to a group of bored reporters. Tedious questions are asked; tedious answers are given. The committee's aims are worthy; there's nothing newsworthy about it.

But then: "a woman from a midmarket tabloid" asks about the underrepresentation of women in physics. Beard says that the committee will be looking into this to see if there were new ways to address the issue.

All would be well if he had stopped there. But of course he doesn't stop there. He keeps talking.

"He [Beard] believed there were no longer any institutional barriers or prejudices.. And then, because he was boring himself, he added that it might have to be accepted one day that a ceiling had been reached.. It was at least conceivable that they [women] would always remain in a minority.. There might always be more men than women who wanted to work in physics.."

He then goes on to explain that the brains of men and women are different, and that it's not about superiority, merely that there are innate differences in cognitive ability and interests. Boys are better at problem-solving etc.

Does some of this sound familiar?

Anyway, the reporters at the press conference are not particularly energized by these claims, but the professor of science studies is. She expresses her violent revulsion of what Beard has just said, then announces her resignation from the committee. She walks out. The reporters perk up and follow her out.

This is just the start of Beard's trouble with the "women and physics" issue, especially once journalists unearth his long troubled history with women (the many wives, the many affairs). And then it gets worse for him when he participates in a debate about the issue. He is the only Scientist in the debate.

Beard repeats what he said at the press conference; the cognitive differences between men and women etc. He is irritated. He wonders aloud if gravity is also a social construct, and he is booed.

A woman in the audience who rails about Beard's "hegemonic arrogance" speaks in "stern, headmistressy tones". The academic who debates him has "a red and blue frock, with a twittering voice to match". After the debate, Beard thinks he has done OK, considering how boring the twittery woman was.

But things soon go awry, and the plot gets even more farcical. Beard's career is (temporarily) destroyed by hysterical women who, helped considerably by the media, portray him as a sexist Nazi elite hegemonic unfeeling white male. Or something.

Other than a few glimmers here and there in the novel, when the reader might sort of feel some sympathy for Beard because he is, at times, cynical in an amusing way, this is one of the few episodes in which he is portrayed sympathetically. He blunders into this crisis unwittingly. It's true that he is a serial philanderer, but he is not sexist. He was only saying things that were true and scientific, backed up by research. He is just a simple scientist, and is a victim of these crazy women who don't understand science.

There are many good reasons why Beard's career as an administrator should have been destroyed, so it is ironic that he is brought down by these events, which, we are supposed to believe, aren't even his fault. The novel is otherwise a relentless, over-the-top depiction of a repulsive person who continually outdoes himself in disgusting behavior. Yet Beard becomes a sort of martyr-scientist, a well-meaning white male scientist attacked by people who have no understanding of Science but who are interested in demonizing men, concocting hysteria, and ignoring the undeniable fact that men and women are different.

I have read several reviews of this book, but none of the ones I read mentioned this particular episode. Some focused on the polar bear theme, and many rave about how well the author did with the "science" aspects of the novel (climate science, physics). Some reviewers, who seem to recognize that the book is a strange collection of disgusting anecdotes, resort to the rather desperate opinion that the book is so bad, it's actually brilliant. Overall, I would say that reviews are mixed but positive; e.g., Solar is not McEwan's best, but compared to what other authors can come up with, at least the ones who are still alive, it's awesome. And so on.

I think the book is a mess. Even so, despite the despicable parody about stupid women who don't understand science and the general unpleasantness of the plot and characters, I seldom regret reading a book, even ones I hate, this one included.


DrDoyenne said...

I just finished reading Solar, too--less than a week ago.

However, I have to disagree with you about the book. I don't think it's a great or brilliant book--as some reviews claim, but I liked it. I liked the writing. And, I liked the Beard character who was hilarious, disgusting, and pitiful--much more interesting than the usual protagonist. Since I know some males in my field who make this character look tame, I didn't find Beard's antics at all unbelievable.

Well, except for the almost disastrous call-of-nature episode in the Arctic--that was pretty far out. On second thought, I've seen people do some pretty stupid things in wilderness settings....

Maybe the book is a "strange collection of disgusting anecdotes"...I recognized only a couple of references to real people...but that didn't detract from the overall satire that I think McEwan was going for.

Maybe I should have been offended by the episode with the female science studies professor and ensuing events... but I wasn't because they were described through the eyes of the Beard character and were consistent with his pompous, egotistic, and periodically clueless behavior.

Maybe I would feel differently if my field was physics...

I've only read one other of McEwan's books (Cement Garden), which I did not like.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I hate tell you this, FSP, but you clearly didn't "hate" the book.

Anonymous said...

The science studies scholar seems to be presenting a very brief (and misrepresentating?) version of Latour and Woolgar's Laboratory Life, only with a gene instead of a peptide. My understanding of the idea of the social construction of facts (for which I tend to take Ian Hacking's middle-path from The Social Construction of What?) is that you don't necessarily deny an underlying reality if you sign on to this--you just deny that there's only one inevitable scientific model of reality. I've read a paper of Latour's which used understanding of horse evolution for this point.

Actually, since I felt that the Sokal hoax was referenced in an earlier part that you described--the scientist managing to spoof himself as a literary scholar--I wonder if McEwan isn't taking things from Hacking's book mentioned above.

Of course, assigning this (not often popular with scientists) view from science and technology studies to the only female in a group so as to trigger a Larry Summers incident... well, the novel as a whole sounds contrived, and it doesn't really address what you didn't like about it.

Anonymous said...

And FSP is back.....good sense has been thrown out of the window.

2 things:

1. seems like we have run out here of real life examples of sexism, real or imagined.Its time to focus on fiction!!!

2. This time the sexism has been demonstrated not by some review or reviews explicitly insulting women, but by the reviewers not referring to this episode. In other words, unless the reviewer is obsessed with the same issues that FSP is, he/she is sexist!!!

Such is the tyranny of feminists!! Unless you are focussed on the same issues we are, you are sexist!

It's strange that FSP never talks about the genocide in Darfur. Some 600,000 people have died there. That makes FSP complicit with the killers.

Also, FSP has never discussed how bad the holocaust was. She has been to Europe and she has never discussed a word about the holocaust. Clearly this makes her a Nazi sympathiser and an anti-Semite.

fse said...

I have read several reviews of this book, but none of the ones I read mentioned this particular episode

If you use a search engine with the terms "solar ian mcewan larry summers" you'll find reviews that mention it. But I'm guessing that most people have said what they wanted to say about the Larry Summers incident by now, and maybe there are other things in the novel that people want to discuss.

I seldom regret reading a book, even ones I hate, this one included

Sounds like an awful book! Is there any reason to read it if one hasn't already?

Anonymous said...

I read an excerpt of this in the New Yorker (the part on Milton) and thought it was hilarious. The Larry Summer-esque bit you describe sounds boorish at best so I will probably give the book a miss.

I have to admit, though, that I once took a grad seminar in something like "science studies" - I was the only science student in the room. The part about entexting the gene sounds *exactly* like what we discussed in that class, so much so that I wonder if McEwan was quoting one of my instructors. I remember one of the other students turning to me after I made a comment and said with contempt, "Do you honestly believe that genes really exist?!" How could I be such a deluded fool. It was a depressing experience for me, and is perhaps one reason why I found the passage on Milton so amusing. And yes, I do think humanities are easier.

Anonymous said...

Here is an article from Der Spiegel whereby the German Green Party is declaring publicly that men should be reformed. I never see FSP talk about this.,1518,689136,00.html

Anonymous said...

In the future, could you write your blog entirely from my point of view instead of your own? You are always writing about your experiences as a professor, a scientist, and a female, but that's not what I want to read about. I read your blog every day and I really hate it, especially when you write about your experiences and opinions. Also keep these things in mind:

- Don't write about fiction. This makes me think that you don't have anything real to write about.

- Don't write about your real experiences, because I don't agree with them. Even when you are not writing about women and science, I know you are secretly thinking about that and the next day a post on that topic could appear and I will have to write a comment telling you what a stupid female you are.

Anonymous said...

Anon @ 9:11 -- I can't let the humanities comment pass by. Yeah, a lot of the humanities has been infected by the postmodern virus, but not all of us. Mainstream philosophy has fought hard against this kind of stuff, and we've paid the price for it -- it's nearly impossible for us to get humanities grants because our work is judged by people who are against the very idea of truth and who think we're "quaint" because we still believe in logic. But it's hard for us to get science funding or even respect, because we're mentally lumped together with the rest of the humanities. Try formalizing Descartes' proof for the existence of God in predicate logic, and I doubt you'll find it easy.

Isabel said...

"a repulsive Nobel Prize- winning physicist who had the stereotypical experience of a flash of brilliance as a young physicist, soon after which he intellectually burned out..A woman in the audience...speaks in "stern, headmistressy tones". The academic who debates him has "a red and blue frock, with a twittering voice to match...The novel is otherwise a relentless, over-the-top depiction of a repulsive person who continually outdoes himself in disgusting behavior. "

Hmm, early flash of scientific brilliance, sexist descriptions of women that include fashion criticism and that make the women sound overly intimidating (see "The Double Helix"), a long career of mediocrity and offensive remarks and incidents, ultimately undone by this offensive (in his case racist as well) attitude, Beard sounds like a send up of James Watson.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous at 10:43 - anonymous at 9:11 here. You're right, I took philosophy as an undergrad and it officially kicked my ass. But I'll stand by my "easy" comment for many other fields of the humanities that ... out of sheer cowardice ... I won't mention here. (And I was a humanities major, so am not completely ignorant).

Anonymous said...

Anon @9:48

I actually love FSP's blog. I think a couple of days back...I commented on how nice and insightful her posts are...and helpful young academics like me.

I just mentioned that FSP has a blind spot when it comes to gender. And in fact, it is feminists in general who want the world to be run the way they see it....with every word that comes out of someone's mouth and now every fiction book that is written and everyone who reviews subject to feminist pre-approval.

A blog is different from a personal diary. A blog is written implicitly as an invitation to others to comment on your views and the purpose of the anonymity is to help people express their ideas as openly as possible. That is clearly not how the feminist world works. Similar things can be said for movements like PETA and Code Pink.

Cloud said...

I doubt I'll make time to read this book. There are so many other options on my "to read" stack.

The idea that men and women's brains are just inherently different is nicely debunked in a book called "Pink Brain, Blue Brain", but a neuroscientist named Lise Eliot. The book is written for parents and educators and includes a lot of ideas about how to keep the small innate differences that the science does indicate exist from being amplified into larger differences based on experience. However, she also summarizes the evidence for and against innate differences in various cognitive categories.

Anonymous said...

This is anon @ 10:43: Thank you to anon @ 9:11. I admit I'm somewhat oversensitive to generalizations about the humanities.

Anon @ 11:28: so what do you make of the fact that FSP allows your comments and those of others who disagree with her to be posted? Either she isn't part of the feminist world, or your generalization about that world is false.

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous 9:48 thank you I laughed my ass off when I read that. I needed that today. Especially "In the future, could you write your blog entirely from my point of view instead of your own? " HAR

Also, I have to defend the philosophers too. Philosophy 100 absolutely kicked my ass. It wasn't until I hit 300-level math classes that I had to try that hard. And I feel that everything I learned in Phil 100 was completely essential. Everybody should have to take philosophy in high school and in college (in my ideal world).

yolio said...

I worry that this archetype of the silly vengeful female feminist scholar is at risk of becoming entrenched in fiction. It is obvious that this archetype pretty well describes what a large number of male scientists think of smart women. I hate to see this jerky perspective be legitimized in fiction.

Kea said...

I don't get this. It seems to me that he is writing about the women from Beard's point of view, and assuming that the reader is intelligent enough to know Beard needs a reality check. After all, the internet has provided classy Gender 101 tutorials (and feminist science blogs) for some years now. And it sounds a lot like the real life Watson. But, I admit that I have not read the book ...

As for him being 'over the top' ... er, no. I've met plenty of guys in my field (theoretical physics) like this. And don't forget, in theoretical physics the chances are that ALL the women a guy knows are either (i) support staff or (ii) well behaved wives and girlfriends.

Alex said...

It's funny to think that scientists in 2010 would really feel threatened by postmodern critics of science. Yeah, in the 1990's there were the "Science Wars" and the Sokal Hoax and all that. But most of that went away in the 2000's, probably because the most politically influential enemies of science were (mostly but not exclusively) from a political and religious faction that hated postmodernists at least as much as they hated scientists.

Yeah, some academic scientists (much like the fictional character) feel threatened by proponents of affirmative action, diversity, feminism or whatever term you want to use for it. However, if you want to give a white male scientist a nemesis who threatens him from that angle, you don't need to make her a postmodernist questioning whether the physical world exists. There are plenty of people who would be on the opposite side from him in regard to race, gender, class, etc. without questioning the existence of the material world.

In other words: If we're going to relive the 1990's, I want some X-Files and grunge rock and a tech bubble to go with it. Reliving old 1990's kulturkampf in a bad economy is just no fun.

Anonymous said...

Why is writing a critique of a book, if you are a woman, automatically some sort of feminist act?

Oh, I forgot: "I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat." -- Rebecca West

Anonymous said...

I have finally renounced my beliefs and come to see the light of feminism. Interestingly, feminism answers the question of why there are (and always will be) fewer women scientists. Prominent feminists have
declared that "science is a male rape of female nature". Surely women are not going to participate in rape, are they?

Sandra Harding, currently a UCLA professor, has made it easier for us:

"Newton's Principia is a rape manual".

Now I see the cruelty of men. In the Principia, the evil white dude Newton developed calculus with a special emphasis on techniques for raping women. And calculus is the gateway for anyone into the theoretical sciences. Damn them... bloody male rapists!!!

To make life worse, another white dude ...some bastard called Beethoven wrote sexist sonatas and sexist symphonies.

And finally this bloody Einstein guy comes along and, according to feminist Luce Irigaray, proves this utterly sexist E=mc^2 crap.

Seriously, with sexist physical laws and sexist mathematical rules dominating the world, women scientists cant seem to get a break.

Alex said...

To anon at 6:02 pm-

The Science Warriors of the 1990's just called, and they're angry that you stole their straw-woman.

If we must relive the Science Wars, I want 3% unemployment (or whatever it was) and I want the radio stations to start playing All 90's Weekends. And I want Chris Carter to redo the X-Files so the conspiracy makes sense this time.

These are non-negotiable demands.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I'll read this novel, it sounds too much like real life of which I get plenty of already (apart from the polar bear incident.)

gravitysrainbow said...

First time posting here, thanks for the blog. (If it's relevant, I have both a physics and a history degree from a university consistently ranked top-20 or better globally. And I'm a "science studies" person.)

@ tsutanai, probably this is a parody of Evelyn Fox Keller's, Century of the Gene (Harvard, 2000). It's an unfortunate choice for a parody because she's a brilliant woman. PhD in theoretical physics from Harvard, Emeritus Prof. at MIT, etc. I highly recommend the book.

I won't get in to whether one field is harder than the other, or the science wars stuff.

@Isabel, I think that's a great point, and it might give McEwan a break on the depictions. We'd probably have to go deeper into FSP's arguing that this is a place where we're supposed to feel sympathy for Beard. Is it a parody of Watson, or is McEwan slipping into Watson's shoes?


Zeelia said...

I cringe at the phrase "social construct" even used in fiction with regards to science after a brief experience as a scientist in the liberal arts. Post-modern studies as ruined so much of that discipline for me with their absurd assertions that non-scientists buy. For a good academic novel, try Nabokov's Pnin. Very funny. I find it disturbing that the word feminist is still such an ugly word to people commenting on this blog. The f-word conjures such a hateful stereotype. I could say that I'm a humanist, but who isn't going to say that. I still say that I'm a feminist and think of myself as a positive example of such a word. I'm tired of feminists who speak out against things like ad campaigns that use gang rape imagery to sell jeans being stereotypes as men hating lunatics. Stereotypes are not something educated people should hold on to.