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McEuen Spirals a Web of Cornelliana

I tend to prefer literary fiction to page-turning thrillers, but I eagerly scooped up Cornell physics professor Paul McEuen's much-hyped Spiral this week. I was motivated by both the good review the book received in the Times (which gushed over McEuen's science-literate plot) and the fact that a large portion of the book's plot actually takes place on Cornell's campus and in the surrounding Ithaca countryside.

As a page-turning thriller, the book doesn't disappoint. But that's if you enjoy four page chapters, three word sentences, and two-dimensional characterization that guiltily encourage you into an afternoon of reading, complete with some plot stretches and uneven story telling. It's not entirely my cup of tea, but that's why I wouldn't hesitate to say that 'Spiral' it's the best page-turner I've read since The Da Vinci Code. Dan Brown's mega bestseller from seven years ago being the last thriller that I've read...

And while I enjoyed the science behind McEuen's plot -- a brilliant mix of nanotechnology and biology, complete with a Nobel Prize winning Cornell biologist who has spent his lifetime studying the genetics of fungi, a character who seems inspired by the recently deceased Tom Eisner -- it lacked the inspiration of wonder that one can find in the writings of Carl Sagan.

But where Spiral really shines in this alumnus's mind is in its vivid portrayal and characterization of the Cornell and Ithaca experience.

It's enough to convince any reader to conduct their studies at Cornell: Crunchy Ithacans tend lovingly to their fungi gardens and climb the trail to Lucifer Falls at Treman State Park. Upstart underclassmen ask their professors about the potential to commercialize their research. Driven graduate students spend sleepless nights in the lab questing after the next big breakthrough. Students, professors, and townies alike revel in Ithaca's unique mix of natural wonder, spirited academic inquiry, and laid-back enjoyment of life and others.

To be fair, it's only a certain dimension of Cornell's myriad offerings. But in my opinion McEuen highlights the best that Cornell has to offer.

What's more, there's one particular passage in the book that perfectly captures the Cornell ethos, certainly better than other fictionalized representations of Cornell, while whispering echoes of Carl Becker's famous essay on the Cornell Tradition of Freedom and Responsibility:

Cornell was a chimera, both a member of the Ivy League and the New York State agricultural school. Nabokov wrote Lolita here, and Feynman started his scribbling about quantum electrodynamics, but Cornell was also a place where you could get your wheat checked for smut or your cow autopsied.

The campus was perched on a hill overlooking the city of Ithaca, population twenty-nine thousand, tucked between a pair of glacier-carved gorges. It was founded in 1865 by the millionaire and philanthropist Ezra Cornell, founder of Western Union and a freethinker who believed that the practical sciences should be taught with the same zeal as the classics. Cornell had made his money on the telegraph, the new communication technology that had remade society as fundamentally as would the Internet one hundred and fifty years later. He used his fortune to create a new kind of university, utterly different from the religion and tradition bound schools of the era: "An institution where any person could find instruction in any study," a quote that would become the school's motto. Coed and nondenominational from the day it opened, the university graduated its first female student in 1873 and its first African-American in 1897... A person's value, he believed, was set by who they were, not by how others treated them.

The book's portrayal of Cornell isn't perfect. There's a large plot mechanism that revolves around an apparent gorge suicide, and McEuen plays into the lore that Cornell is a suicide school, despite all the statistics that show that Cornell's suicide rate is below the national average. But even if you're not a lover of the techno-thriller genre, Spiral is a must for all Cornellians.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on March 27, 2011 (#)

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