In which I learn of Lowland lab lit

As Editor of, I often receive interesting emails in the magazine’s Inbox. By far the most common are from readers letting us know about specimens of lab lit (realistic mainstream fiction featuring scientists as central characters) that we may have missed. Our curated List of novels currently stands at a bit more than a hundred, with about ten in the current inspection queue and more being suggested every month. Nearly every novel listed is written in English, but this is not deliberate: we can only report what we know about, and all suggestions we’ve had to date (aside from Daniel Kehlmans’s Die Vermessung der Welt) have been for English language titles.

Last month, however, we received an engaging email from Lennert Coumans, a Dutch masters student of immunology at Maastricht University, alerting us to the existence of the novel Impact Factor by Paul Brand, a pediatrician and researcher in Zwolle. Although the title is in English (presumably because the concept of the impact factor is a universal evil), the rest of it is penned in Dutch with no apparent translation available. The novel, Lennert reported, is about a female PhD student whose life swerves into chaos after a night of passion with an unscrupulous colleague at a scientific meeting.

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Naturally I was hooked – but alas, the book was no longer available on Amazon. At this point Lennert stepped up to the plate, offering to bring me a copy on his upcoming holiday in London. My Dutch is fairly passable after a four-year stint in Amsterdam, though I’ve never tried to read more than the local rag, De Volkskrant, in that tongue. But what better opportunity to try?

The handoff occurred yesterday in The Olde Mitre (hat tip to Matt for the recommendation) with soaking wet feet over a few pints of Adnam’s Broadside, followed by an unsuccessful but very damp attempt to assuage Lennert’s girlfriend’s sudden acute craving for pannenkoeken in Soho. On the Tube trip home, I couldn’t resist having a quick peek at the opening scene: in which our heroine, Marieke, feeling sexually restless (like “a free bird”) after a brief, unfulfilling relationship with a cove called Max, is standing coyly at her poster, scoping out all the male scientists passing by…

Don’t tell him about your data, sweetheart. He’s not worth it.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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30 Responses to In which I learn of Lowland lab lit

  1. Eva Amsen says:

    Oooh! When you’re done, can I borrow it? (If it’s any good)
    And I think “impact factor” might be Dutch OR English. The words impact and factor are the same, so it could be either language.

  2. Henry Gee says:

    Impact Factor is such a great title. Can’t imagine why it hasn’t been used before.

  3. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Of course! Natuurlijk! I failed to appreciate that ‘impact’ and ‘factor’ were both Dutch words. I just assumed, because most other labby words are English in Dutch scientific lingo, that this was similar. (and yes, you can borrow it!)

  4. Richard P. Grant says:

    I can’t quite see Article Level Metrics working as a book, though.

  5. Henry Gee says:

    Harry Potter and the Release Of Calcium From Intracellular Stores has a certain ring to it, though, don’t you think?

  6. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Oddly, the prologue of the book is a fake editorial from a fictional journal talking in great detail about about article-level and journal-level metrics – I am struggling to understand why anyone would launch a book like that, given the barriers that science-y novels need to overcome. Far better to dive right into the poster session cruising scene.

  7. Richard P. Grant says:

    Perhaps his publisher made him do it.

  8. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Smacks more to me of authorial conceit overcoming common sense – as it doesn’t seem a very commercial choice. On the other hand, the back-cover blurb is pretty enticing, and a lot of people do tend to skip prologues.

  9. Richard P. Grant says:

    You must admit, it’s a good excuse. I might have to use it.
    “You missed a meeting yesterday.”
    “My publisher made me do it.”

  10. Alyssa Gilbert says:

    Oh – the book sounds hot! You’ll have to write a short summary when you’re done if you have the time.

  11. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I will for sure – though it’s going to take me a long time to read it. I plan on looking up words I don’t know instead of guessing from context, just to make it more of a learning experience.

  12. Elizabeth Moritz says:

    Drats, now I really wish I had delved a bit more into the Dutch side of my family besides the occasional reading of Poppy Pig’s adventures as a child.
    This one sounds really good!

  13. Åsa Karlström says:

    hm… I see a translation team make the book into English quick. (Jenny, Eva and someone else rfom the Dutch section?). A bit like the latest Harry Potter book was translated into Swedish (several translators) in order to keep the “illegal copies” out of the making. (the translators didn’t like it though, and it did put a lot of work to the editor for “fluency and context”.)
    anyway, it sounds positively ingriguing. I just wish I could read Dutch…

  14. Eva Amsen says:

    “it’s going to take me a long time to read it. I plan on looking up words I don’t know”
    Skip those words! If they were important you’d already know them. Read faster, I want to read it next!

  15. Richard P. Grant says:

    Hey lady, join the queue.

  16. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I was talking with the Dutch folks during the handover and I was saying I knew most of the basic words in Dutch but when it came to describing something unusual – and here I pointed to the weird sort of wooden pedestal thing on top of the round table in the bar, “like this” – was where I came up short. But then I realized I didn’t know what the wooden pedestal-like thing was called in English either! It was quite good for putting olives on, though it was a bit high for convenience.

  17. Richard Wintle says:

    Are you learning Dutch, Richard?
    I’m beginning to think that finding new LabLit is a bit like prospecting for abandoned Ferraris in old barns. I can’t imagine how to go about finding something “previously unreported” to add to the lexicon oeuvre curated list.

  18. Richard Wintle says:

    P.S. Regarding Dutch and English, I have fond memories of a couple of Dutch postdocs conversing in my PhD lab, in (to me) incomprehensible gibberish, punctuated with familiar terms like “lysis buffer” and “probe”. Very reminiscent of listening to French language radio here in Canadiana.

  19. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I think I found 4 new candidates just today, in a “science in fiction” display at Foyle in Westfield Mall. I need to delve more deeply into their synopses to decide if they really fit the bill, but they seemed promising.

  20. Stephen Curry says:

    Nothing particular to add to this Dutch-fest. But à propos lablit, I started Arcadia today and was seduced by the very first line!

  21. Frank Norman says:

    Shame you can’t get it as an ebook and then magically translate it on the fly …

  22. Alejandro Correa says:

    I will read the book, Jenny, I rely in your perception. I hope you hook me or I be angry with you.

  23. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Stephen, thanks for reminding me to make a plug for Fiction Lab, 1 March at 7 PM at the Ri. We’re reading the play Arcadia by Tom Stoppard, which is short and sweet. I’ve just ordered my copy from Amazon…

  24. Stephen Curry says:

    I’ve finished it now – fabulous. As you’d expect from Stoppard, very, very funny and teeming with ideas.
    That first line I mentioned was spoken by 13 year-old Lady Thomasina Coverly to her 22 year old tutor:
    “Septimus, what is carnal embrace?”

  25. Heather Etchevers says:

    Hm. Why does the bad guy have to be an American scientist? Hmph.

  26. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Obviously the author needed the sexiest possible homme fatale so an American was the obvious choice!

  27. Ian Brooks says:

    A chum of mine is Dutch & a scientist, so if you’re looking for translators let me know 🙂

  28. Lennert Coumans says:

    Hey Jennifer, I’m pleasently surprised to see our meeting at your blog here! Lovely post, and I’m also glad so many other viewers are enthusiastic about the book. Can’t wait hearing from you (and the rest) whether you liked it.
    ps – the quest for pancakes was a difficult one, we couldn’t find any that evening after you went home, so she had to wait till next morning when we had them for breakfast, haha.

  29. Richard P. Grant says:

    Lennert! Nice to see you here!
    Just after we left you, we found the crepe place we’d been looking for all along—with empty seats. Bah!

  30. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Lennert, I have only had time to read the first few pages of the main story and already I am intrigued. The rest will probably have to wait for holiday when I can devote some time to it!
    Meanwhile I’m positively zipping through Tom Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia’ for next Fiction Lab – as delightful as expected. (Which came first, that or AS Byatt’s ‘Possession’? I’m seeing a lot of parallels…It’s also a bit David Lodgeian…)