The definition of science should be simple, right? Working by the scientific method, science should be that which is provable. That's one approach, anyway. But as followed to the bitter end by the characters in Allegra Goodman's Intuition, it proves only one thing: In science, as elsewhere, truth can be elusive. Set in the mid-'80s at a financially strapped Boston cancer-research facility, Intuition features a handful of characters working toward a common goal via different means.
It's an incestuous environment almost by necessity, a place where co-workers, forced to spend all their time together, easily become friends, lovers, and enemies. As Intuition opens, two post-doc researchers aren't sure where they stand. Robin Decker pursues a study that seems to be taking her nowhere at a tedious pace. Her relationship with Cliff Bannaker falters, then fails, just as his own research into a cancer-fighting virus begins to yield results. Bolstered by the efforts of lab co-director Sandy Glass—a shameless promoter who goes public with the findings, against the counsel of his professional partner—Cliff winds up at the center of a publicity storm that seems to herald a brilliant career. Or would, that is, if not for Robin's suspicions that the results aren't quite what they appear.
Reduced to its bare details, the plot needs only a sprinkling of hit men to set up a page-turning thriller. But Goodman takes a more patient approach, dwelling on the details of lab life and her characters' nuances as the story inches slowly toward disaster. Goodman writes with a generous spirit that nevertheless lets no one off easy and recognizes that good intentions only go so far; though set 20 years ago in an environment that's practically a world unto itself, its probe into the danger of blurred facts and the taking of untested theoretical concepts out into the world at large nonetheless reads as exceptionally timely. But Goodman doesn't stop there. However right Robin might be to raise her questions, Goodman clouds the purity of her motives and suggests that Robin might not even be able to admit them to herself. Internal truths can be difficult to pin down too.