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Book Review: Sex-crazed scientists run amok in 'How I Won a Nobel Prize'

by Maren Longbella, Star Tribune | September 16, 2023 at 10:00 p.m. | Updated September 21, 2023 at 3:44 p.m.
"How I Won a Nobel Prize," by Julius Taranto. (Little, Brown/TNS)

"How I Won a Nobel Prize" by Julius Taranto; Little, Brown (304 pages, $27)

High-temperature superconductivity, Markov-chain quantum Monte Carlo algorithm, Josephson interactions -- intimidated yet? Don't be. Even though Julius Taranto peppers physics terminology throughout his debut novel (those can be found in the first 10 pages alone), "How I Won a Nobel Prize" is not daunting in the least.

Did my eyes sometimes skitter over the more deeply scientific passages? Sure, but then I would slow down, go back, reread and occasionally Google as I extracted layers of meaning in this comic tale. It straddles the present and a not-so-implausible future in pursuit of cracking high-temperature superconductivity, a way to "move energy freely, without losing heat in transit" -- allowing for a sustainable global power grid, server farms that don't need cooling and so on, ultimately saving the planet.

Cornell graduate student Helen wants in, but brilliant as she is, she knows she needs the collaboration of mentor/adviser Perry Smoot, the "S" in the ZEST model, the most comprehensive accounting of superconductivity available: "I had been told I might have the capacity to improve ZEST, even render it general -- the kind of thing that would mean a Nobel of my own." Then Smoot is forced to resign over an inappropriate relationship with a student. He packs his bags for the Rubin Institute Plymouth (RIP) and asks Helen to follow him.

But RIP isn't just any institute on an island in the North Atlantic: "The popular vision, at the beginning, was of an academic prison colony where the worst-behaved of great minds would live out their days, closed off from the pleasures of civilized life." Instead, it has turned into "a libertarian, libertine dream: bottomless funding, unencumbered by institutional regulations. ... It was Sandals for Scandals with tax-exempt status." It's a place protesters have come to call Rape Island.

What's an ambitious female physicist to do?

Helen goes where she can do her best work, of course, and the fallout of that decision -- from the moment Helen and her husband, Hew, clap eyes on the island -- is what Taranto tracks to often hilarious effect. As they arrive at RIP by ferry, looming above everything is "an enormous, rounded beige tower." The "throbbing center of the Institute" was "unmistakably a phallus. It was known as the Endowment."

Taranto also mines character names for humor and their aptronymic qualities, letting his inner Charles Dickens loose. Helen may be a light in the world of science, but will she inadvertently start a metaphorical war? Smoot's name fittingly conjures the unit of measurement created during a 1958 fraternity pledging event. And there are writer Leopold Lens and Buckminster Witherspoon Rubin, the man behind the institute.

The absurdity is striking, but the ethical cost of doing business with compromised individuals is never far from Taranto's mind. Is the outcome worth that cost? It's no surprise the book was originally titled "The Moral Offset" and that the conclusions drawn are literally explosive. As such, Taranto sometimes teeters on a polemic tightrope, but he avoids losing his balance as he keeps his eye on the prize. Best of all? No quiz afterward.

Print Headline: Book Review: Sex-crazed scientists run amok in 'How I Won a Nobel Prize'


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