Sunday, July 29, 2012

Solar Redux

Some time ago I read the novel, Solar, by Ian McEwan, which chronicles the shenanigans of the anti-hero, Michael Beard, a fictional Nobel Prize Laureate and all-around despicable character (although I was strangely sympathetic to his predicaments).  I wrote a comment on another blog about this novel.  If you read the post and the related comments, you'll see that there was a lot of arguing by people who had not read the novel. The discussion devolved into a back-and-forth about a description in the novel of an encounter between Beard and a feminist and his ultimate downfall by committing a blunder very reminiscent of the Larry Summers incident.

Anyway, I just came across an interview with McEwan in which he talks to Matt Ridley of The Gardian about the inspiration for the character of Beard.  I've always suspected that this character was patterned after a real scientist and Nobel Prize winner and pondered who it might be.  Apparently, I was right, although it seems that it was not a single person but a group of scientists who inspired this character.  In this interview, McEwan reveals some details about his encounter with the real people who inspired him, but understandably was not as forthcoming with specific names.

At the beginning of the interview, Ridley remarks that the novel's lead character, Beard, is corrupt and, among other indiscretions, steals an idea from someone else and predictably asks McEwan if he thinks science is corrupt.  McEwan's response is, no, that he does not believe this and then proceeds to describe a climate change conference he was invited to, one which had organized a group of 35 Nobel Laureates to speak. 

McEwan characterizes these scientists as "big beasts of the scientific jungle", "all men", "super alpha males", "men of a certain age" (meaning that they were past their prime).  McEwan was invited to give a speech, as a sort of an "after dinner mint", as he wittily describes his experience.  He colorfully describes the scene as being analogous to a watering hole in comes an elephant or rhinoceros or some other majestic animal...the huge who had control of big institutions and budgets, but who had not done any significant research since their twenties. He was then struck with the idea of writing about a character who was like this...a scientist who was "living in his own shadow".  Great idea and one I think worked well in this novel.

McEwan goes on to say that he could not help but think about these men (the non-fictional ones) and the later climate change summit he attended in Copenhagen. He characterized this as an international gathering of supposedly rational minds in collision with what are clearly enormous egos.  He attributes the failures of this summit, at least in part, to the ego-driven behavior of such alpha male types.  While at this summit, McEwan received the proofs of his novel and decided to add a scene in which Michael Beard is invited to speak at Copenhagen because the character would love to speak in front of such a gathering of international power players.

The author suggests that climate change poses a unique challenge for which humans must bring all their intelligence and creativity to bear, but fail because of other aspects of their nature.  This dichotomy is encapsulated in the novel. I think this is an important point to understand about the novel and the need to create a character like Beard, as opposed to a hero(ine) of science.  The latter would not only have made for a very boring novel, it would not have allowed the exploration of how the egos of these alpha males roaming the jungle of science are impacting society and society's ability to deal with major problems.

Image Credit: NASA

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