Warning: There are a few minor spoilers for the book “The Love Hypothesis” by Ali Hazelwood (though hopefully nothing that would impede your enjoyment of the book should you choose to read it). There are also a few spoilers for “Contact” by Carl Sagan.
Do you know what getting a Ph.D. is like? If you do, feel free to drop a comment or two educating me about the trials and tribulations of higher learning. If you do not know what it’s like, well then, congratulations, my friend. You and I are in the same boat. A few years back, it hit me that I was interested in getting a Ph.D. – I enjoyed learning and researching, and I had a lot of questions that I wanted to ask. However, I was found the whole process intimidating because I didn’t really know what it was like. The only example I had was of a friend who went to Cambridge for some smart science thing, and while I am certain that woman will go on to save the world, I knew I was more likely to get eaten by a shark than get into Cambridge. For years I felt like there was an unscalable wall between me and higher education.
This is where “The Love Hypothesis,” a contemporary romance novel by Ali Hazelwood, comes into play. The story is about a 3rd year Ph.D. candidate, Olive Smith, who finds herself in a fake relationship with the notoriously intimidating professor, Dr. Adam Carlsen. It’s a cute story – Adam and Olive continually find themselves in awkward situations where they must continue their ruse, and while playing their respective roles, they fall in love.
I like romance novels, although admitting you like romance novels can feel like a shameful secret. “Oh, gross, you like stories where nice things happen to the female characters? What next, are you going to admit that sometimes you feel the need for love? Pathetic.”
This, in turn, makes me feel defensive. “No, I promise I love books where terrible things happen to women and the story is slow and miserable. Reading about bad things happening to people is the best way to pass my free time!”
I do not like screaming from the tallest mountain that I love romance novels, but they shouldn’t be a secret because they’re enjoyable escapism. I usually treat them the same way I do any fantasy novel, but that does not mean the characters are unrealistic or the story cliche. Also, just because a book contains cruelty, suffering, or misery doesn’t mean it’s good. Sometimes the real challenge is creating something good and beautiful that makes people happy. A truly special book can also open your mind to new thoughts and experiences.
“The Love Hypothesis” is one of those rare books that function as fun escapism, but it also takes a critical look at academia. I was struck by the attention to detail in Hazelwood’s book. Most of the story takes place at Stanford University, and all major characters are practicing scientists. The characters work in laboratories, dissect lab mice, fret over research funding, and reference published articles to validate their concerns about sun exposure. The novel’s climax takes place at a science conference in Boston, in which Olive gives a presentation about her research.
If you’re worried, the book never gets too technical, nor does it detail lab mice or PCR machines. However, it does create a compelling origin story for Olive’s scientific journey. Before the events of the book, Olive’s mother passed away from pancreatic cancer. A horrible illness detected far too late, stealing her mother and only family from her. Her research is driven by this tragedy – she wants to improve the method for testing for pancreatic cancer by looking at blood biomarkers. Olive states her research and intended goal clearly and concisely so that even non-scientists would understand what she’s working on and why it’s so important to her. As someone who lost a parent to cancer, the thought of studying the illness that took my mom’s life seems like the worst kind of self-immolation, but it’s a valid reason for our main character. Hazelwood created a personal story to give meaning to Olive’s research. She’s not just a scientist – she’s a young woman who lost a loved one and is galvanized to help others.
The book also makes another point that I do not want to gloss over: Science is hard work. There is a lot of trial and error, testing, research, frustration, and anxiety over the quality of your work. Adam Carlsen, the brilliant young professor, drowning in grant money, still went through phases of self-doubt and continues to work hard to achieve results in his field of computational biology. These are not movie scientists who become experts in thermonuclear astrophysics in a single night. Nor do they reference Star Wars every twenty seconds as if to scream from the top of the world, “I’m a nerd! I do science and like science things!” These scientists are far more realistic. They deal with common workplace struggles, like low pay and crappy office equipment. They are people.
I give all credit for this refreshing portrayal of scientists to the author, Ali Hazelwood. In addition to being a New York Times Bestselling Author, Hazelwood has a Ph.D. in Neuroscience. Unfortunately, I could not find too much about her non-romance work, but in one interview, she describes herself as more of a “fancy statistician than a lab biologist,” and her author biography says that she works as a professor. She has a few non-romantic publications about brain science floating around that I could not locate, possibly because “Ali Hazelwood” is a pen name.
That being said, I feel comfortable claiming that “The Love Hypothesis” is her most widely-read work to date. I would also like to claim that “The Love Hypothsis” is one of the most widely-read books by a scientist, even though it was only released in September 2021. As of March 27th, 2022, “The Love Hypothesis,” has over 378k ratings on Goodreads, and that number is increasing. I assume not all of those readers are scientists. For comparison, I looked up a few other popular books by neuroscientists to see how many reviews their books had (Note: these screenshots were taken on 3.27.2022 and may have fluctuated in the past weeks).
The most popular books by other neuroscientists do not have nearly the same rankings, nor are they enjoyed to the same extent as Hazelwood’s book. Some might find this comparison unfair because I’m comparing a contemporary romance novel to scientific nonfiction books. Still, the purpose of my comparison is that I was curious how many people read one book over the other. If one goal of science communication is to share your message with as wide an audience as possible, including people outside of your field, Hazelwood accomplished this goal.
Also, I could not find any other fiction books written by neuroscientists, but please drop them in the comments if you know of any. However, I do know of a popular book written by a famous Ph.D. that may be worth considering for comparison: “Contact” by Dr. Carl Sagan.
“Contact” is a hard science fiction novel published in 1985 about a scientist who makes first contact with alien life and its resulting effect on society. Sagan’s book was massively popular – selling almost two million copies within the first two years of being published. The book was later adapted into an award-winning film called “Contact” starring Jodie Foster.
Carl Sagan is one of the most legendary science communicators and a personal hero to many scientists. His Ph.D. dissertation on the Physical Studies of the Planets in the astronomy department at the University of Chicago. I highly recommend reading any of his books or watching “Cosmos.” As “Contact” came out in the 1980s, well before Goodreads, I think it’s fair that his book does not have nearly the same number of reviews as “The Love Hypothesis.” However, I also want to remind readers that while science fiction is popular, romance is the genre that tends to come out on top.
There aren’t too many similarities between “The Love Hypothesis” and “Contact.” Both books star female protagonists who work in science, and their work is influenced by familial love (Olive Smith in medical biology and Ellie Arroway in radio astronomy). “Contact” is a work of hard science fiction that imagines first contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, whereas “The Love Hypothesis” is about two scientists falling in love. “Contact” also focuses more on the sociopolitical ramifications of first contact and what that means from a global and ideological perspective. In contrast, “The Love Hypothesis” has a scene where the main character is forced to smear sunscreen on Dr. Adam Carlsen’s sexy naked back. I’d recommend “Contact” to anyone interested because it’s a phenomenal story. However, if pressed, I’m sure I know a lot more people who’d rather read about the sexy sunscreen incident than ponder the origins of the universe. There’s a reason that contemporary and historical romance novels account for the most book sales.
As romance novels are one of the most popular genres of literature, consistently responsible for high book sales, I think Hazelwood deserves some credit for delivering a science-heavy story in a cute package. Although I doubt Hazelwood was trying to educate us on the nature of academia, she still managed to present scientists in a realistic setting, which is the closest some of us will ever get to lab work. Furthermore, she used her keen insight and experiences to bring the process of science to many new eyes. For that alone, I think that makes “The Love Hypothesis” a compelling example of effective science communication.
As for other scientists, I think there may be a compelling case here. I do not want to claim that “The Love Hypothesis” is more popular than “Contact” or any other book written by a scientist, as I do not have the data to verify that. I found analyzing the Goodreads rankings an interesting way to gauge current popularity, but I’m certain there are other more accurate methods. As romance novels are so incredibly popular, especially compared to other book genres, I will claim that they are certainly worth considering as a vehicle for science communication.
“The Love Hypothesis” has not been out for a year yet, and it is possible that sales will slow and people will lose interest. However, Hazelwood has more work in the pipeline: several short stories in her “STEMinist novellas” series are set for release this spring and summer. She also has another novel is coming out in August 2022, “Love on the Brain,” which features two scientists forced to work together on a project. And yes, I do plan on reading all of them.
So if you’re a scientist and have some trouble getting the word out about your research, maybe you should consider stuffing it into a romance novel. Picture this: a grumpy climate-change scientist and an optimistic mycologist team up to go to a Flat Earth convention and deprogram as many conspiracy theorists as possible. Along the way, shenanigans happen, and the two fall in love. Also, there’s only one room left at the hotel and only one bed. So what are these two scientists going to do?
I’ll let you come up with the rest.