Cambridge writer Mathew Pearl is a pro at recreating mid-19th century settings for his mystery novels. He’s also adept at bringing literary figures like Charles Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe to life – even as he kills them off. Planning the Civil-war era version of an air traffic disaster was a bit more complicated, but he did it for his new novel “The Technologists.”
Set during the early days of MIT, the book veers away from Pearl’s literary themes and instead follows a group of sleuthing young scientists. At a Tuesday night book launch party at the MIT Museum, Pearl described his premise as he signed books.
“As the first group of student is preparing to graduate from MIT, a series of technological disasters start happening around Boston that forces them to uncover the source to save lives and save MIT,” he said.
As he talked, Debbie Douglas, the Museum’s Curator of Science and Technology, slid an open book his way and asked him to sign it for the university president.
“It’s h..o..c..k.? he asked — to get it right for Susan Hockfield.
He spent a lot of time in the MIT archives to make sure he got everything else in the book right. Like his first best-seller — The Dante Club — the new book features fictionalized versions of historical figures, like Ellen Swallow, MIT’s first female graduate.
For Douglas, that’s one of the fun parts of The Technologists.
“It was an epiphany to hear words coming out of the mouths of people I’ve spent 20 years studying,” she said. “I know a lot about (MIT founder) William Barton Rogers and Robert Richards (class of 1868) and Ellen Swallow. But never once did I have to put clothes on them, make them walk down the street and figure out what they ate for breakfast.”
To make the story worke, Pearl had to devise scientific disasters, including a mass failure of navigational devices that leads to a catastrophic pile-up of Boston Harbor boats. Then he had to weave the science behind the events into the story.
“That was the most intimidating part of it and I almost gave up a couple of times,” he said. “I am not a scientist.”
But, his characters are. They now join the ranks of MIT-linked characters in the film Good Will Hunting, the book Bringing Down the House, the play Rent and the song “White and Nerdy” by Weird Al Yankovic.
And the book offers a theme that resonates today as society copes with arrival of the digital age. Pearl said worry about impact of rapidly changing technology is a constant: “There is always a tension about what science might add to our lives and what it would take away. “