Brilliant Novel Captures ‘The Signature of Science’

By SciBooks 15/12/2013 3


by Christine Jasonsigi

REVIEW: The Signature of all Things
by Elizabeth Gilbert

Viking, 2013
RRP $32.00

Like many people I adore a bit of fiction, and my particular penchant is for fantastic stories that have the power to take me away. The Signature of All Things, the latest novel from Elizabeth Gilbert, fits this bill to a T. But it has so many additional dimensions that tickled my fancy, that I feel compelled to write about them here. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise was that this novel turned out to be wonderful ‘science fiction’. Not aliens and time travel, but a lovely and compelling story about a woman scientist. Mind you, I tend not to be a reader of scientist’s biographies, female or male, because they typically lack a certain ethereal nature that I require in my pleasure reading. I do, however, enjoy stories about women, though not the chick flick genre, like Gilbert’s most popular production to date Eat, Pray, Love. But stories about women who go out of bounds, especially those who integrate themselves into the male-dominated world. I enjoy these because I can make common cause with the main character, and I can see how they did it; what their struggles were and the tools they marshalled to cope, irrespective of whether they ultimately succeeded or failed. And The Signature of All things does not disappoint.

The prose is delightful, elegant, and so perfectly pitched that the story and characters spring to life, blossom, and come into their own almost miraculously. The main character is Alma Whittaker, the only daughter to Henry Whittaker, a self-made success who started life as a thief and then employee of none other than Sir Joseph Banks. Alma’s inherently curious nature, fostered and honed by the inquiry-inspired and level-headed, often staunch, teachings of her mother, sculpted her into a full-fledged scientist, a botanist, at an early age. The tale weaves together the fictitious life of the main character with the actual science of the time (19th century). It includes appearances of famous scientific theories and breakthroughs as well as the scientists who made them, including the likes of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. And Gilbert’s descriptions of the science, at times conceptually difficult, are not only well-described, but spot-on. There is no dumbing down here, and yet the information is absorbed by the reader with ease.

The Signature of All Things, through the story of Alma Whittaker, also provides an excellent glimpse into the life of a scientist and the world that scientists work in – its quirky and dysfunctional characters, its sometimes staid rules of tradition, its hard-won battles to be the first, and the struggle to corral one’s passion for science into a focused form suitable for success. But this is not just a novel about a scientist, and herein lies its brilliance. It’s a novel about a woman who happens to be a scientist. A talented and struggling scientist, yes, but also a woman, plagued by real life female problems: issues of physical attractiveness, sexual satisfaction, identity, love, relationships, men. It succeeds in hitting so many, seemingly disparate, chords at the same time, but instead of a cacophony,  a lovely symphony for the mind has been created.

To me this is quintessential science communication, because it doesn’t appear to be sciencey at all. Indeed, selling it as a ‘science fiction’ novel may put off some of its most important readers – everyday people who like a good read. It showcases the rather unexplored technique of using fiction for imparting science facts and science process, whilst simultaneously telling the story of what it is to be human. The Signature of All Things is a delightful tale that is at once captivating, informative and fantastic.

Read it over the holidays! You won’t be disappointed.

Christine Jasoni is  senior lecturer in Anatomy at the University of Otago and Director of the Otago Neuroscience degree programme. Her research group investigates how a mother’s health during pregnancy affects the long-term mental health and behaviour of her offspring. In addition to research and teaching, Christine has a passion for science communication  – check out blog The Nervy Nomad on Sciblogs


3 Responses to “Brilliant Novel Captures ‘The Signature of Science’”

  • Bought it on the strength of your review and can hardly put it down, but I must say I was flummoxed by the names of the New Zealand boys bought by Cook’ sailors – Tibura and Gowah (!??) and the idea of Joseph Banks building William Herschel a 40 ft telescope (“a curious contrivance by which, put into the water, you can see the bottom to a great depth, where it is clear” ) for astronomical purposes is bizarre. Still, as you promised, I am not disappointed!

  • I don’t think Banks actually built the telescope, but he certainly persuaded the king to provide Herschel with funds to begin building a 40-foot instrument. (“The Georgian Star” is a most excellent read.)

  • That makes more sense. Though Banks is cited as inventing a ‘sea telescope’, he isn’t known as a telescope maker. William was the foremost telescope builder and mirror maker of his day and the 40 ft a most ambitious project – one that didn’t really work – it was quite a pain to use, unwieldy, needed resurfacing all the time etc. Not the only ‘scope (or observatory) to suffer an ignominious end – think of the Great Melbourne Telescope and Tycho Brahe’s Uraniborg.