March 30, 2011

Physics Professor Saves World, in Book

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Seven years after first deciding to write a novel and countless rewrites later, Prof. Paul McEuen, physics, released his first book, Spiral, on Mar. 22 to critical acclaim.“Spiral sounds like something written by Michael Crichton in his prime,” Janet Maslin, a writer for The New York Times, said in her review, referring to the well-known science fiction writer. “It’s actually better than a lot of what Mr. Crichton wrote once his prime was over.”Spiral combines microbiotics and fungal biology to tell the story of a fictional Cornell applied physics professor, Jake Sterling, trying to discover the cause of a murder and prevent a potential disaster resulting from a World War II super-weapon.McEuen said that he has always liked writing and used to read a lot as an undergraduate. The demands of being a science professor, however, limit the time he now has to read on his own, he said.“I stopped reading for fun, and I kind of missed that part of myself, and I think it decided it wanted some attention,” McEuen said.When he went on sabbatical seven years ago, he decided to start writing the book. He said that he originally hoped to complete the novel by the end of his sabbatical.Although McEuen is a nanoscientist, he said his book deals with many areas of science with which he has less familiarity.For technical support, he said he went to Prof. Kathie Hodge, plant pathology and plant microbe-biology. According to Hodge, she taught him about fungal biology, which is prevalent throughout the novel, to “make it seem real.”“I think he picked a really scary thing to put in his book, which was a fungus that could kill people,” Hodge said. “I helped make it convincing.”A central character in the novel, Maggie Connor, was strongly influenced by Hodge, she said.McEuen said he also asked for help from the head of the Cornell University Police Department and an expert at Fort Detrick, a biological weapons research facility for the U.S. government.He said his writing was an opportunity to explore areas of science unrelated to his daily work. “For me that’s part of the fun,” McEuen said. McEuen said he enjoyed the time to delve deep into thing requiring you to step outside your scientific knowledge.”The main character is based on several prominent scientists, McEuen said, including Cornellians Freeman Dyson, Thomas Eisner and Hans Bethe.“I had tremendous respect for these grand old men of science, and I really wanted to make homage to them” he said.McEuen chose to set the story at Cornell because of the “interesting superposition” between the natural and the unnatural, he added. He said he loved the combination of high technology mixed with a very rural setting.Most of the main characters are named after McEuen’s five adopted dogs from the Cayuga Dog Rescue, which his wife runs.The hardest part of writing his novel was sticking with it, McEuen said. After struggling to get an agent and publisher, he learned from experience that you get a lot of “nos” before you get a “yes,” he said.Another big challenge he faced was actually learning how to write a novel and taking the time to develop the craft, he said. The novel went through so many rewrites and changes that people who read the early drafts could barely recognize the finished product, McEuen said.But the success of Spiral so far has been much greater than McEuen expected. A film group, Chockstone Pictures, has even optioned the book, buying the rights to turn it into a movie, according to McEuen. McEuen has consulted with the screenwriter to develop a screenplay.McEuen is also in the formative stages of a second novel. The new novel is likely to focus on synthetic biologies, he said, but it could turn out extremely different if the last book is any guide.

Original Author: Rebecca Friedman