Ever since C. P. Snow famously lamented the "gulf of mutual incomprehension" between scientific and humanistic thinkers, there has been no shortage of cultural hand-wringing about the scientific illiteracy of politicians and the public, or the cultural obtuseness
of scientists. television and other forms of mass media have made technical ideas more broadly available than they were in snow’s day (it’s day (it’s hard to avoid the prime-time flurry of DNA testing and MRI and CT scans). Yet recent questions raised about such issues as stem-cell research and the teaching of evolution reveal a nagging perception of science as a social or cultural threat. (And of course surveys continue to show large gaps in what the educated public actually knows of biology, chemistry, and physics.)
Against this backdrop, literary writers who assimilate technical material into their work face a particular dilemma; in some sense, it is they who have inherited Snow’s challenge in its purest form—to create a space in which the "two cultures" can talk with each other.
From the polymathic bravura of Richard Powers’s Galatea 2.2, which dares readers to confront consciousness’s complexity, to the dour lyricism of Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, which casts science as an alluringly dreamy, ethereal enterprise, there have been a number of brilliant novels dealing with scientific ideas. But few writers have bridged the two cultures (or belied Snow’s schema) with as much apparent ease as Thomas McMahon (1943–99), a former biophysics professor at Harvard University and the author of four strikingly original novels—Principles of American Nuclear Chemistry (1970), McKay’s Bees (1979), Loving Little Egypt (1987), and Ira Foxglove (written before the others, but published posthumously, in 2004)—in addition to two books of nonfiction and numerous scientific articles and papers. McMahon was a whimsical, understated writer (and by most accounts a shy, modest man), which may be one of the reasons he is so much less well known than he deserves to be. His later novels, increasingly wry and exaggerated, bear a family resemblance to those of Kurt Vonnegut and to certain of Saul Bellow’s works. Yet there is an underlying sweetness to McMahon’s writing, a wholehearted engagement with those elements of scientific wonder that most resemble artistic creativity: how ideas come out of the blue and must be tested (in the mind or in the physical world); how experiments are most intriguing before they produce conclusions; and how finished creations, no matter how useful, have a way of falling short. The reprinting of these novels by the University of Chicago Press comes at a charged moment, when the very intricacy of the natural world and the human mind (which science and art have labored assiduously to reveal) is held aloft as evidence of a conclusion unprovable by either scientists
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In McMahon’s posthumous novel, Ira Foxglove, which reads as an unassuming, literary-scientific manifesto, a middle-aged inventor says:
As far as I can tell, ideas always show up like that, absolutely free. And very often in a nearly final form. . . . What you do have to do is test them, with your education or with your experience, to see whether they’re any good. You can go to school or grow old learning how to test ideas. That takes hard work. But no one can teach you how to get them. They come for nothing.
McMahon’s openness to fresh ideas was evident in both his scientific and his literary work. Born in 1943, he grew up surrounded by technological thinking: His mother was a chemist for DuPont, his father a research physicist who went on to be president of Arthur D. Little, a management, technology, and environmental consulting group. As a teenager in Massachusetts, fascinated with planes, he rode his bike to the Bedford airport, where he performed odd jobs in exchange for flying lessons. He earned a private pilot’s license before he could drive a car. Over summer breaks in college, he apprenticed himself to Bernard Vonnegut—an atmospheric scientist and the older brother of novelist Kurt—and worked with a team studying the electric discharge of thunderclouds in the New Mexican desert.
At the same time, McMahon nurtured a strong interest in writing. When he began his doctoral studies in aeronautical engineering at the Massachusetts Instititute of Technology, he persuaded his department to allow him to minor in English, and he cross-registered for a writing workshop at Harvard. Most of his debut novel, Principles of American Nuclear Chemistry—which traces the coming-of-age of a young boy in Los Alamos, New Mexico, during the height of the Manhattan Project—was written during the course of that class.
McMahon had never been to Los Alamos, and he was too young to have witnessed the Manhattan Project. But for Principles, he drew in part on the memory of the exuberant summers he’d spent with Bernard Vonnegut in the desert. As he recalled in a 1981 interview with Harvard Magazine, "The whole experience of being in New Mexico on a scientific expedition made a deep impression on me. We had to work all the time, everyone was always in a terrible rush, but there was also an opportunity for plenty of pleasure in each other’s company."
The novel’s thirteen-year-old protagonist, Tim MacLaurin, discovers this kind of intensity, or "group love of science," firsthand. His father, a thermodynamics expert, joins the bomb-making enterprise in 1943. Estranged from his wife, he brings the boy with him to Los Alamos, along with an alluring mistress named Maryann, who stirs the son as much as she does the father. On the mesa, an impassioned spirit of collaboration, iconoclasm, and self-sacrifice prevails. Late at night, as a senior scientist from Copenhagen muses, "they eat Velveeta cheese on crackers and they make terrible tea in their tubulated retorts. What makes them willing to work so hard for so long when the chances of making an atomic bomb are still small?"
The scientists of the Manhattan Project, like residents of an artists’ colony, combine fervent work with bawdy after-hours release. Indeed, they are naively, almost cartoonishly high-spirited; it’s a portrayal that shouldn’t quite work but does. Skirting the edge of sentimentality and preciousness, McMahon infuses the historical setting—the primitive conditions and sometimes-tense relationship between freewheeling scientists and the military—with an appealing whimsy. "The real truth was that we were having a ball," Timmy’s father remembers later.
In a typical episode, a few researchers drive down to Santa Fe, where they enjoy green pepper enchiladas and play pinball on a barely functional pinball machine, "amused by the similarity of the spring-operated ball launching mechanism to the detonation gun they were presently considering." When the machine breaks down, they flip it over, fix it, and offer to buy it from the proprietor, recklessly alluding to classified work on the bomb.
But their wildness leads to an intuitive leap. Later that night, in Los Alamos, a drunken altercation with the military police escalates to violence, and one scientist, smashed in the mouth with a rifle butt, is thrown in a jail cell for the night. There he experiences a vision, rising up through a "starry, starry wilderness" and, before passing out, has a miraculous scientific epiphany (though he later struggles to remember what it was).
The unfettered creativity and near-manic invention are rarely burdened with broader questions about the moral implications of the bomb. (This careless attitude surfaces in nonfiction accounts such as Richard Rhodes’s Making of the Atomic Bomb, as well, although McMahon emphasizes the scientists’ innocence.) Members of the project, many of them refugees from Europe, believed Hitler’s atomic research to be further along than it was. And, just as important, they were also seduced by the theoretical and technical challenges before them. "When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it," J. Robert Oppenheimer famously reflected.
When McMahon does focus on technical details, his descriptions are, as Snow noted in a review of the novel, "impeccable." Principles’s second chapter—"From My Father’s Files: Proceedings of the Third Metallurgical Projects Seminar, 3/1/43"—offers an unusually concise and accurate review of atomic physics to that date: the discovery of neutrons; the splitting of uranium-235 atoms; the ongoing challenge of separating U-235 from its isotope, U-238, which interferes with fission. For the most part, however, McMahon chooses not to underscore the technical fine points bedeviling the bomb project; he does not fetishize information, as, say, Powers is wont to do (if often to great effect). Instead he focuses on the feeling, or mood, associated with this world-changing, collaborative feat. His interest is in the runner’s high of discovery and invention. And ever present in his writing is a naive desire not only for the enterprise of science to reveal itself as fantastical but for its ecstatic overtones to infuse the better part of living.
McMahon tells the story from a child’s point of view, a conceit that acts as a natural filter; so while the novel inhabits a complex nerve center of Big Science, we are presented with the most resonant technical questions the scientists ask—questions at once childlike and profound: How will the bomb go off? How will its energy ripple out through space? And, most intriguing, Is there any chance that the bomb’s energy will cause the atmosphere itself to ignite?
Atomic physics inevitably loses its innocence in the Manhattan Project, and its painful coming-of-age is conflated with Timmy’s own. When Maryann and another girl take him for a summer afternoon dip in a brook, undress him, and wrap him
in blue crepe paper—"They help, support, moisten, wrap, tie, blue, and fondle me"—the reader begins to connect the quiet boy with the broken, weeping adult he will become. And when, years later, Tim continues to grieve for the bohemian Maryann, it is clear that he is also mourning the loss of exuberance and semiorgasmic wonder that characterized physics at Los Alamos. As he tells his father, "You’re inventing things, flying. And I’m frightened because I know this will never happen to me." Or, as he says to Maryann, in his imagination, "You and the Los Alamos days in science are really over. Scientific work only threatens us now. It never accepts our love, the way it did then." Indeed, McMahon gets away with this kind of sentimentality. And to watch him do so—in simple, declarative turns, without irony—is one of the chief pleasures accorded readers of this novel.
As a tale of original sin in science, Principles echoes predecessors such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, H. G. Wells’s Invisible Man, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stories "Rappaccini’s Daughter" and "The Birthmark," among others. Yet McMahon is not interested in the rhetoric of good and evil, as some of his literary forebears were, and as most science-fiction writers continue to be. He never highlights the ugliest consequences of the Manhattan Project; the carnage at Hiroshima goes essentially unmentioned. (Even Oppenheimer, by contrast, spoke of the bomb in more apocalyptic terms, declaring that "the physicists have known sin" and, quoting the Bhagavad Gita, "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.") Instead, Principles concerns itself with internally submerged forms of grief and dissolution, particularly as they play out in Timmy’s later life.
McMahon began his Ph.D. with a focus on aeronautical engineering (having spent much of his adolescence worshipping airplanes and detailing thunderclouds). But as his thoughts on the interface of physics and the military matured—and as he worked on a Defense Department–funded project to make helicopters quieter, for stealthier attack—his ethical concerns intensified. Principles "is how I feel about science," he told the Christian Science Monitor in 1970. "Physics now is a desert. Mostly, it’s a lot of gifted people categorizing molecules. Or a lot of people making weapons . . . That is what my generation of physicists has inherited." This was during the Vietnam War, and he came to realize that aeronautical work would be particularly difficult to divorce from its military applications.
Slowly, then, McMahon searched out a new direction within science, taking an interdisciplinary turn that was highly unusual at the time. He began to focus on applying physics to physiology, treating the body itself as a machine that could be understood through the physicist’s processes of modeling and experimentation. Under the tutelage of MIT’s Ascher Shapiro, a pioneer in biomedical engineering, he concentrated on physiological fluid mechanics, audited a year of classes at Harvard Medical School, and completed a doctoral thesis on a new heart-assist device, a small balloon pump that could be inserted to ease the flow of blood. (If McMahon saw in biomedical work a kind of redemption for physics, he was in good company: Several members of the Manhattan Project turned to biology following the war, most famously Leo Szilard, who was also one of the most vocal critics of the bomb.)
Soon thereafter, McMahon was recruited to Harvard, where he helped to develop the biomedical-engineering program. He told friends that if he did not get tenure, he would like to move up to Vermont, to repair farm tractors for a living and keep bees and chickens—which he and his wife, Carol, liked to do on their property in Wellesley. He did receive tenure, though, in 1977—twice over, as the Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Mechanics and as professor of biology. And in 1979, he published his second novel, McKay’s Bees, in which he created a fictional—and rather buffoonish—version of the nineteenth-century businessman and philanthropist after whom his Harvard professorship was named.
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McMahon clearly took an impish delight in the richness and strangeness of the natural world, including its human inhabitants. His fictional McKay, prone to grand and ridiculous ideas and inspired by a treatise on beekeeping by the loopy Reverend L. L. Langstroth, decides to head west with a small band of devotees (including his wife, Catherine, and her brother, Colin); he plans to found a new city called Equilibrium, Kansas, where he hopes to make his fortune cultivating bees for honey:
Gordon McKay based his plan for a new city in the West on bees because of their energy. One never finds them disappointed or confused; they have their plans and they have their hopes and they love their work. In the morning, from the moment the sun touches the hives and warms them, the bees come forward and jump into the air.
McKay buys a steamboat called the Princess. He acquires a pair of alligators, "for the purpose of breeding," and turns them loose to copulate on the hurricane deck of the boat. He and his Yankee troupe are taken for abolitionists and their boat set afire and stranded in the mud. In the wake of this debacle, the group picks up two boys from the mudflats and hires a new pilot named William Sewall, who collects butterflies for naturalists and once sold shaved ice to the wealthy in Havana, Cuba, until an outbreak of yellow fever made his commodity too necessary not to be given away for free. This takes us to about page thirty, by which point it is clear that McMahon’s overflowing enumeration of human, biological, and mechanical peculiarities—not unlike naturalists’ sketches or case studies—will largely define the novel’s structure, and that his facility for sustained abundance, for quirky upon quirkier detail, will accumulate into a tour de force.
The technical details that McMahon relishes include the design of Langstroth’s "movable-comb hive"; the details of the "funicular railway powered not by steam but by water," which Colin invents and builds for his paralyzed lover (shot in the spine by accident) to carry her upstairs; and the diverse anatomies and behaviors of Kansas’s beetle population, including the "aquatic haliplids and the predaceous diving beetles, the Dytiscidae." Information here, as in Principles, is subordinate to the emotional lives of the characters. But it’s clear that McMahon finds mid-nineteenth-century biology less morally troubling, as well as less technically complex, than mid-twentieth-century physics. Thus, details can be deployed more freely without overburdening the text, and facts themselves can more readily shape-shift, taking on the coloration of a fictional landscape.
In a scientific context, of course, factual information evokes a specific set of expectations. As early philosophers of science such as Francis Bacon pointed out, facts in science are expected to be accurate, objective, verifiable; they command a certain authority. And the aim of scientific language is to demystify or capture all the parameters and measurements of some object or phenomenon, as unambiguously as possible. Imported into fiction, however, science can be made to undergo a multiplication of meaning and associations; it can come to resemble a chameleon in a new environment—largely blending into a new, emotional landscape, but at the same time becoming very much an animating subject of that landscape. Scientific facts can serve in part as objective correlatives for the inner, emotional lives of characters, yet they also carry with them some measure of external authority that sets them to work in a different way from other kinds of imagery: McKay’s bees, with their beautiful, elaborate anatomies, function in part as a metaphor for industry and technological optimism. Colin’s elaborate work on the funicular, with its water valves, counterweights, and pump handle, serves in part to concretize his painstaking courtship of the paralyzed Bernadette. And then there are the functional and anatomical descriptions of beetles turned up by Sewall in his brooding investigations of the Kansas landscape. Consider the following passage:
Sewall filled his collecting boxes with flowering grasses and butterflies, but the beetles still distracted him powerfully. He had never before captured or even seen any of the genus Brachinus, the bombardier beetles, but now he encountered a community of them. These beetles, like many others, carry at the hind end of their body little sacs in which a bad-smelling fluid is secreted. The fluid may be released for defense against other insects, but in the case of the bombardier beetles the fluid changes to a gas within the sac, and escapes with the sound of a gun. The vapor which issues out after the explosion even looks like smoke. After the beetle has created an explosion in the face of his attacker and blinded him with smoke, he runs away. Sewall captured six specimens of Brachinus one fortunate afternoon, and was shot at thousands of times for his trouble.
This passage begins and ends with Sewall moving through the landscape (and it is followed and preceded by other elements of the setting and story—the evening thunderstorms that scare the coyotes, the interactions of the settlers with the local Native Americans, the ongoing work with the bees). But in the center of the paragraph lie several sentences of factual information about the bombardier beetle, partly foreground and partly background, partly subject and partly object. The data serve in part as a laden image of the settlers’ own quasi-comical striving; their physical and emotional vulnerability; their small, sometimes absurd defense mechanisms. Beetle lore animates most, if not all, of Sewall’s meditations on mortality. He both identifies with the beetles (as fellow vulnerable creatures) and regrets that he will not live long enough to capture and classify them comprehensively (as a scientific master)—a nice tension for a character struggling to find his own place in the natural order. Scientific learning, as McMahon skillfully handles it, is partly but not entirely aestheticized. The material retains just enough of its stolidity to give Sewall’s inner struggles an appealing traction.
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Part of what makes McMahon’s use of the natural world successful is that he portrays so much of it. He lingers rather lovingly over information, often at the expense of plot or narrative propulsion, which are rarely priorities in his fiction. He clearly takes pleasure in abundance. Yet literary fecundity is also underwritten, at least in part, by some of the biology that the novel is engaged with—especially evolutionary theory. (As McMahon surely would have known, the bombardier beetle has long been a contested figure in the fight between evolutionists and their opponents, who claim that the chemical defenses described above are too complex to have developed through natural selection.) Sewall grapples with the notion that species change over time, a conclusion that both compels him as a naturalist and challenges his beliefs as a Christian. And when, much by chance, he comes across an early draft of Darwin’s Origin of Species, his observations seem to comment in part on the novel’s own philosophical and literary approach:
Darwin closed over him from above. He fell through the layers, and at each layer the greenness of the book increased, until its arguments were no longer arguments over specific grasses or finches or tortoises, but arguments over the greenness of every living thing, its sexual purpose, and its mortal nature. . . . A man is related to his God by prayer, but he is related to his mate only by fornication. . . . And yet Darwin’s suggestion was that the world is made better and more elaborate by its concupiscence, its randiness.
Fecundity characterized McMahon’s own scientific work, as well. Like his fiction, his technical research was energetically varied and often quite original. On matters pertaining to bones and trees, lizards, raindrops, sprinters, muscles, respiration, and the heart, he frequently addressed puzzles that other scientists hadn’t even thought to define. In an early paper, published in Science, he presented a mathematical model of rowing crews, explaining the surprisingly small differences in speed among boats with different numbers of oarsmen. Soon thereafter, he explored why trees and vertebrates grow to the size and proportion that they do (in part because of their elastic properties). He explained how the relatively large basilisk, or Jesus Christ lizard, can run on water (by running very quickly, so that water does not have time to pour over the tops of its wide feet and weigh them down).
McMahon also designed a new, more flexible track for Harvard, discovering an optimal springiness that would both reduce the risk of injury for and increase the speed of runners. He consulted on shoe design for Nike, modeled the internal mechanics of bone, and invented padding that would reduce the risk of hip fractures from falls; he studied the elasticity of the heart, in an effort to determine when cardiac aneurysms would occur. At the time of his death, he was planning to figure out how ants can walk upside down on the ceiling. He was "quite literally everywhere in biomechanics," wrote colleagues Robert Howe and Richard Kronauer in a tribute published after his death in the Annual Review of Biomedical Engineering.
McMahon had a particular gift for finding the mathematical kernel of a complex phenomenon. Some of his work was done within traditional laboratory settings, but his most interesting results seem to have emerged from creative, even idiosyncratic, experimentation. While working on the Harvard track project, for instance, he photographed students running on enormous pillows (a model of an exaggeratedly pliant surface). When studying the mechanical properties of trees, he and his wife went out into the woods with a stopwatch, shook tree trunks, and measured the resulting oscillations. As Howe told me recently, McMahon "wasn’t afraid to do goofy experiments if they led to good science." In fact, his career serves as a reminder of the sometimes-fine line between brilliance and childlike indulgence.
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The scientists, engineers, and inventors who people McMahon’s novels are a multifarious bunch, ranging from the meticulous Colin to the deeply thoughtful Sewall to the comical Langstroth, who stays up all night working on a beekeeping treatise, periodically rubbing his face in "a dish of fresh snow." There is often a legible dichotomy between those who pursue knowledge and invention for their own sakes, and those whose main drive is commercial or military. Yet this gap between the curious and the opportunistic, the scientist-artist and the profiteer—McMahon’s own version of the two cultures, perhaps—becomes nicely muddied in his most fully realized novel, Loving Little Egypt.
In this novel, set in the 1920s, a half-blind physics prodigy named Mourly Vold (aka Little Egypt) uses a jury-rigged telephone to investigate the structure of the national networks and to establish a virtual chat room, or "party line," where dozens of blind children hang out. When he discovers a flaw in the phone company’s new, automated switching system, he seeks to warn the children (through letters and pranks) about their vulnerability to saboteurs—at which point he is readily taken for one.
Mourly’s penchant for mimicry, his rogue experiments, and the simple insights he extracts from complex phenomena are all rendered by McMahon with undisguised enthusiasm (and surely reflect, with some exaggeration, the spirit of his own work). When Mourly needs a mentor, he travels north to meet Alexander Graham Bell, also a quirky, lone practitioner, and the two enter into friendship and embark on a collaboration, their first creation being a thunderstorm detector, a (fairly useless) electrical device that causes a clapper to strike when a thunderstorm is on its way.
McMahon’s focus on history makes sense, given his attraction (after Principles, at least) to eccentric characters who worked mostly on their own rather than in large labs. Influenced no doubt by E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, McMahon allows famous figures—Bell, William Randolph Hearst, Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison—to mingle with fictional characters. Most assured is the satirical depiction of Edison, who has been hired to investigate the "telephone vandals" by Hearst (who claims they are Red agents, plotting to undermine America’s communications). McMahon paints Edison as an incurious media hound and profiteer, not a scientist-poet. As he told the Boston Globe Magazine in 1987, "I read a number of biographies of Edison, and I discovered that he was never really interested in the scientific principles behind the things that he worked on. He was dedicated to making money, and to getting there before the other guy." Still, when portraying an inventor, even one he claims not to admire, McMahon seems unable not to discover an inherent lyricism or appealing profligacy in the actual research.
In McMahon’s wry telling, Edison’s invention of the electric lightbulb goes like this: Edison takes a long train ride west, accompanied by members of the media who "were under orders from their editors to regard [his] ravings as news." Sitting on a "small velvet cushion," he brags that he has "obtained the secret of a practical electric light," (which, at this point, is wholly false). The exaggeration grows, and "by the time he returned to his laboratory in New Jersey, it was clear to everyone but Edison that this time his big mouth had really gotten him into trouble."
With pressure mounting, Edison must make good on his promise. He eventually does so, through brute force of trial and error: "[He] tried some six thousand materials [for use in the lightbulb] including filaments from wild grasses, horse’s hooves, jackass hides, hog’s bristles, and a strip cut from his own (not very clean) linen handkerchief." The list continues, and the more ridiculous Edison’s materials become, the more human and sympathetic he seems.
Clearly, McMahon wishes to celebrate erroneous flights of fancy and wild goose chases in science and technology. After all, most scientists and inventors—McMahon included, presumably—spend a substantial portion of their time on calculations and experiments that ultimately don’t pan out. Yet published science does not speak to this; it is concerned with final results and certainties, not with the poignancy and emotion of process, the moments when thinking can feel, all too fleetingly, like flying. McMahon told Boston Magazine in 1981, "There are certain kinds of emotions that never come into play when you’re in the lab. Irony. Pathos. If C. P. Snow were here, he would want to talk about this."
Fiction, on the other hand, can celebrate precisely these digressions, uncertainties, and mistakes as a way of achieving a finished literary product. McMahon’s novels demonstrate a particular appreciation for the ways in which small flaws lie at the core of our humanness—and can be said to underwrite our evolved existence as a species. The physician and writer Lewis Thomas, who also attempted to bridge the two cultures, understood this, too: "The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. Without this special attribute we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music."
Amanda Schaffer writes frequently on science for the online magazine Slate.