Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Carbon Dreams: Science and Fiction

I've been reading (well, re-reading) Carbon Dreams these past few days, by Susan Gaines, another of my favorite books.

This isn't science fiction at all.  It's science and fiction -- a book about a scientist, a geochemist, Tina Arenas, who is working with a newly discovered lifeform, picoplankton, using them to plot temperature changes during the Cretaceous era  and the Eocene.

All this really heats up, however, when Arenas's work turns out to have implications for the global warming debate.  (The book is set in the early 80's.)  Arenas is initially not much interested in this debate, since it has little to do with her research area -- she is interested in the picoplankton, after all, and the temperature changes in the Cretaceous era. These minor fluctuations over these brief few years in this century here, this is none of her affair; she is not up on that literature, and has no opinion on it.

This is the main reasons to love this book: the picture it gives of academic life is so perfectly accurate.  This is what life among academics is like.  (Even the politics -- yes, this is how we bumble and back-stab and plot.)  And this is how we work, too.

This brings in the novel's other plot strand -- Arenas's life outside the academy.  Her father wants her to marry and have children; her boyfriend, Chip, a lovely man, an organic farmer, involved (intensely) in his community (it is Chip who pushes Arenas to take global warming more seriously, though it is also clear that he doesn't really know what he's talking about most of the time -- that's another thing I like about the book, how sweetly it gives is the scientist's view of the non-scientist) Chip wants Arenas to give just a little less time to her science and a little more time to her life with him and his farm.

The novel has four women scientists as characters -- three as main characters: Tina Arenas, Sylvia Orloff, Katherine, and a woman who never appears, one of Orloff's graduate students.  This woman vanishes halfway through the novel -- she gets pregnant, and Orloff will not give her time off to have the child, so she drops out of graduate school.  Arenas is appalled, not at Orloff, but at the graduate student.  Katherine, on the other hand, notes that male scientists don't have to quit science to have kids.  (In fact, most of the highest ranking scientists at their institute are men with wives and children at home, a fact the novel notes in passing a few times.)

Katherine, Tina's best friend, also quits serious science to get married and take a job in a Navy lab -- a job that's not doing actual research, from Arenas's point of view, but one that will let her have a life.

Near the end of the book, Arenas gets pregnant; near the end of the book, she presents a groundbreaking paper at a scientific conference; near the end of the book, she is offered an amazing job, a continent away from Chip and his farm (the farm he has been building for ten years now, which he has finally gotten profitable).  This book asks hard questions, real questions, about what women have to do to have their own lives.

And -- though bear in mind that I am not a scientist -- it writes about science, what it is like to do science, what it like to be a scientist, wonderfully.

I am only sad that Susan Gaines has not (yet) written another book.

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