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How I Won a Nobel Prize


How I Won a Nobel Prize

What underlies HOW I WON A NOBEL PRIZE is a model --- well, not just one model, you understand, but the large grouping of models and theories that predict the climate of the planet will change for the worse due to human activity. That’s the bottom layer, what everything else depends on. Because to counter climate change, what we need is (well, among other things) a more efficient electrical grid, which would be helped tremendously by the discovery of some sort of metal or alloy or substance (I am getting in over my head here scientifically) that would conduct electricity more efficiently without the loss of energy to heat.

A group of very nice South Korean scientists recently claimed to have found that a form of lead would do the trick, which caused a great deal of excitement that fizzled out when people realized that it wasn’t so. But if it had been so, those scientists would have been escorted to Stockholm and given the Nobel Prize. It would have been richly deserved because they would have helped solve the climate change issue I was talking about a minute ago. I hope this is clear.

"HOW I WON A NOBEL PRIZE is a sprightly read that manages to leap lightly over its overly pretentious and leaden subject matter."

So how do you find the metal or alloy or substance that would win you the Nobel Prize? Again, we turn to the idea of the model. If you could develop a computer model, using artificial intelligence, that would run hundreds of thousands of subatomic structures of said substances to determine if they would be good candidates for superconductivity, you would at least --- even if you failed --- save a good bit of time in determining, like Thomas Edison, which of the proposed solutions didn’t work. And you might find one that does. To be that person, you would have to be phenomenally good at mathematics, coding, physics and all of that knowledge I avoided in college.

Julius Taranto manages to do two things with all of this. First, he synthesizes a main character, Helen, who understands all of the above and can explain it with aplomb to the otherwise baffled reader. She has, at least to an extent, the ability to operate as a person in the world. Secondly, he situates Helen outside of what otherwise would be her natural habitat --- the university research laboratory, which for the reader would be intolerably boring and blah. (Taranto initially places Helen at Cornell as if to underline the point.)

So if you can’t have your protagonist in a normal university, where do you put her? Taranto borrows an idea from physics: you have matter and anti-matter, so you can have a university and an anti-university. His creation, the Rubin Institute Plymouth (RIP), is advertised as having no human resources department and no diversity, inclusion or equity staff. It also doesn’t have a campus, being stuck in the middle of a (fictional) island in the middle of the Long Island Sound. It doesn’t have a network of influential alumni, or a large pack of boosters that support the football team, because it doesn’t have a football team. It has one very large cylindrical tower, which Taranto shamelessly exploits for more than its fair share of childish yuks.

RIP is not completely the university of Opposite Land. There are faculty (all of them displaced from their former perches by the mechanism of “cancel culture”), students (bright, attractive scholars, all attending tuition-free), and a supercomputer that can turn out an amazing number of petaflops, which (I just checked) is a real thing. (Part of the book’s fun is trying to figure out which part of the torrent of technical language is real and which is made-up.)

HOW I WON A NOBEL PRIZE has very discrete pleasures for disparate readers. It is primarily meant as a satire of modern American university politics and can be appreciated on that level. There is a good bit about the process of scientific discovery, the ebb and flow of which manages to exactly match Helen’s emotional mood, or vice versa. There is the story of the relationship between Helen and her off-and-on quasi-husband, which is desultory and asymptotically approaching dreariness. (The process of how Helen deals with her feelings about possibly ending the relationship is the most revealing thing about the book.)

What I think Taranto is getting at is to try to develop a literary model to address the most recent iteration of the culture wars, focusing on cancel culture. There’s an argument to be made as to whether he succeeds or fails, and there’s an argument to be made as to whether he has portrayed either side fairly or honestly. There’s an argument for everything these days, of course, and Taranto deftly weaves through them. And despite the weight of argumentation, political discourse and satiric meaning, he manages to put a conductive charge into the movement of the plot (if not a superconductive one).

HOW I WON A NOBEL PRIZE is a sprightly read that manages to leap lightly over its overly pretentious and leaden subject matter.

Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on September 15, 2023

How I Won a Nobel Prize
by Julius Taranto

  • Publication Date: September 12, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • ISBN-10: 0316513075
  • ISBN-13: 9780316513074