The best novels that integrate science in accurate, or at least plausible, and creative ways

Arri Eisen Author Of The Enlightened Gene: Biology, Buddhism, and the Convergence That Explains the World
By Arri Eisen

Who am I?

I am a scientist with a love for fiction, and I’m very intrigued by and like to explore the intersections of science with the rest of the world— art, fiction, race, religion, life, and death.  I bring these intersections into my teaching and writing. Over the past 30 years, I’ve taught Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns, undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, physicians and professors at Emory University, cadets at the Air Force Academy, and the general public. Why does science matter? Why is it beautiful? Dangerous? It’s the novelists who tell us best.


I wrote...

The Enlightened Gene: Biology, Buddhism, and the Convergence That Explains the World

By Arri Eisen, Yungdrung Konchok,

Book cover of The Enlightened Gene: Biology, Buddhism, and the Convergence That Explains the World

What is my book about?

Karma and epigenetics?  Sentient beings and the microbiome? This book tells the story of how, at the Dalai Lama’s request, modern science is being integrated into the curriculum of Tibetan Buddhist monastic universities— this curriculum’s first significant change in 600 years.

We tell this story through the eyes of us two very different authors who helped initiate the project now in its fifteenth year— a Jewish, white biochemist from the American South and a Buddhist monk who grew up herding yak on the Tibetan plateau. How all of us— teachers and students— think about science, life, and teaching and learning is transformed.

The books I picked & why

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The Gold Bug Variations

By Richard Powers,

Book cover of The Gold Bug Variations

Why this book?

All of Powers’ books are brilliant, for all kinds of reasons. I remember this book when it first came out decades ago. First of all, it’s just great entertainment, a great story with rich characters. Then, at the same time, Powers captures the beauty of science and discovery as he immerses the reader in the time after the discovery of the double-helical structure of DNA when there was a mad rush to figure out how DNA could encode proteins. Powers captures it all and gets the science right and brings in similarities between the DNA code and music and captures what it’s like working in a lab. How is this possible?


Darwin's Radio

By Greg Bear,

Book cover of Darwin's Radio

Why this book?

I guess this book is officially qualified as ‘science fiction’ but I think of it instead as great fiction that appreciates and then grabs the very edges of our current knowledge and extends them like a wild rubber band in ways that captivate. Bear takes some of the guesses and hints about what lies within the 95% of our DNA that at first seems to have no clear ‘purpose’ and imagines it is part of a sensor that is able to catalyze the creation of new versions of life in response to the kinds of dramatic stressors— climate change, etc— that humans have made for ourselves. 


Parable of the Sower

By Octavia E. Butler,

Book cover of Parable of the Sower

Why this book?

Here is a writer with unlimited brilliance and imagination, who transports us into places where we have been or are forcing ourselves to go as a species. With colorful threads of science, race, memory, human potential, and apocalypse, Butler weaves a spellbinding tale. You keep hoping she’s not right about where we’re headed, but you’re terrified she is.


1984

By George Orwell,

Book cover of 1984

Why this book?

Science and technology seem so great— the internet, social media, self-driving cars, websites about great books. . . but how about the downside? The dark side? Well, in his classic from 72 years ago, Orwell— if you step outside, read the news, or turn on your computer — might’ve gotten it about right.


Frankenstein

By Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley,

Book cover of Frankenstein

Why this book?

Okay, so there’s not exactly any real science here, but that’s not the point. What is? Well, that not only is this book a milestone, a future-shaping venture that opened the door for so many others into fiction about science, that also challenges and warns and imagines science in momentous ways, but also that it was written by a teenager in 1818-19.


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