Intuition by Allegra Goodman
True confession: Intuition is not my favorite Allegra Goodman title (I remain most partial to Kaaterskill Falls and recently enjoyed The Cookbook Collector). That said, Intuition proved to be a highly useful tool as I happened to read it just before I picked up 2011 nonfiction Pulitzer Prize winner, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Without Intuition, I’m certain I couldn’t have appreciated Maladies with the same depth. Not to mention, every time a new chapter in Maladies begins with its many epigraphs, I couldn’t help chuckle over Intuition’s Kate and her nixed Shakespearean mouse quote.
So if I had give you one sentence about Intuition, here it is: Rashomon set in a Cambridge science lab. It even has a character named Akira (as in the legendary Kurosawa, who directed the classic film).
The scene is the Philpott Institute; the alleged crime is too-good-to-be-true-results in a cancer trial for a virus that “transform[s] cancer cells into normal cells.”
The characters are many. Cliff, the discovering scientist, disobeys direct orders after numerous failed attempts and just before he’s fired, earns himself glory. Robin, eight years his senior in both age and post-doc experience, dumps Cliff for his selfishness (although the word ‘jealousy’ also fits). Sandy and Marion (not a couple, at least not romantically) who jointly run the lab are respectively thrilled and cautious. Those are just the main foursome; others include an ex-pat Chinese colleague worried about his visa, a Sri Lankan American roommate waiting for his wedding, various spouses and partners, and a rotating group of administrators, adjudicators, interns, and office staff.
Cliff and Robin are lovers. Cliff and Robin split. Robin is angry. Robin begins to question Cliff’s (scientific) methods. Robin finds discrepancies in Cliff’s data. She goes to Sandy and Marion, but their response doesn’t satisfy, so she takes her complaints to the draconian Office of Research Integrity in Science at the National Institute of Health. Robin has her story. Cliff has his. Marion and Sandy have another. Fellow researchers have their own versions. So what really happened? Who’s telling the truth? How will we ever know? It’s Rashomon in a petri dish …
While Intuition humanizes the little known world of scientific research (soap operas ain’t got nothin’ on labs!), Robin’s obsessive search for truth and justice – covering 350+ pages, or more than 13.5 hours stuck to your ears – drags on at least a hundred page too long. Other than that … well, let the experiments begin!