I am looking not for documentaries or biographies, those are easier to find, but for well written fictionalized but realistic portrayals of scientists and their work. These are hard to search for because of the large number of hits about science fiction and scientific literature, and because scientists often appear in film and fiction riddled with cliches and stereotypes like "mad scientist" (Dr. Strangelove), "hero scientist" (Day After Tomorrow), "boy genius" (Numbers) or "comic relief nerd" (Big Bang Theory).

The 20th century witnessed great advances in nuclear physics, molecular biology, organic chemistry, geology, archaeology, aerospace and software engineering, etc. I am particularly interested in works about the second half of 20th century, when science became more of a collective enterprise, that convey the "air of the times". What it "felt like" to be a regular scientist (not Einstein, Nash or Crick and Watson) living and working on projects at a university, a research lab, or a field expedition during those times.

In a 2008 Scientific American article We Need More Novels about Real Scientists Mark Alpert mentions Roger’s Version by John Updike, and Intuition by Allegra Goodman. Any other suggestions?


2 Answers 2


Good serious fiction about scientists is extremely rare.

One example is the novel by Sinclair Lewis, Arrowsmith (1925). It is about a medical scientist, a regular one, not a Nobel prize winner, and I know professional medical scientists who consider it realistic and praise it.

I do not know of a single good movie or a novel about a physicist, astronomer or mathematician. Which is not so surprising: the life of most of these people is very ordinary, and does not contain events that can be effectively shown in the movies or novels.

Well, there is a movie "Einstein and Eddington", which is tolerable.

There are several good biographies, of real, famous people, but this is not what you are asking about. There are also several excellent and very interesting autobiographies of 20th century mathematicians (Walter Rudin, Laurent Schwartz, Andre Weil), and Richard Feynmann, of course. They really read like novels.

  • $\begingroup$ Gathering evidence, wrecking your brains over it and discovering new things, racing to be the first, clashes of ideas and egos, balancing work and personal life, seems like enough material for a writer who is interested. A problem may be that few have enough background in science to be comfortable. I thought that Soviet literature might be one place to look, especially since physics was so popular in 1960s, wasn't "social realism" about "generalized depiction" of "ordinary people"? $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Mar 4, 2015 at 18:19
  • $\begingroup$ There was a Soviet movie about physicists that won Crystal Globe in 1962 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nine_Days_in_One_Year, Dudintsev's White Garments gave "air of the times" in Soviet biology around 1948. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Mar 4, 2015 at 18:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Conifold: You are right, there are few decent novels in Soviet literature, I did not recommend them because I do not know whether they have been translated. The good author is Daniil Granin. He wrote on scientists working in Soviet Union in 1960-th. $\endgroup$ Mar 4, 2015 at 20:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Conifold: Yes, Dudincev too. But this is more about prosecution of scientists than normal scientific work. $\endgroup$ Mar 4, 2015 at 20:21

"Good Will Hunting" is a reasonable portrayal of modern mathematics; not so much the boy genius portrayal but the Gerald Lambeau portrayal, his office and general demeanour. Also, there's another graduate student of Lambeau as part of the supporting cast, whom I thought gave a really good performance. Bit of a pity these two roles have not been recognized for their authencity.


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