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Scientist, Novelist: A Tradition of One

April 15, 1987|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Among the axioms espoused by Thomas McMahon is that the writing of fiction and the practice of applied science are fundamentally incompatible endeavors. "Orthogonal activities," in fact, is how novelist/scientist McMahon dismissed the partnership of science and literature. In the tradition of scientists and novelists, McMahon said, there is no tradition.

"Zero," he said. "Name one."

Name one other than himself, is what McMahon should have said. Tall and lanky, the 43-year-old Harvard professor holds the university's prestigious Gordon McKay professorship in applied mechanics, and in addition, carries the rank of professor of biology. His specialty is biomechanics, a cross between biology and mechanical engineering. A tinker since childhood, McMahon translated his fascination with movement and the physiology of locomotion into the invention (with Harvard colleague Peter Greene) of the Harvard track, "on which people can run faster than on any other (indoor) surface."

Every day, McMahon bicycles the 14 miles between his home in Wellesley and his office just opposite the venerable University Museum here. He churns out scholarly articles, teaches undergraduate and graduate classes and sometimes subs as a physics instructor at the nearby Perkins School for the Blind. Two books by McMahon, "Muscles, Reflexes and Locomotion," and "On Size and Life" (co-authored with John Tyler Bonner), attempt to explain scientific issues to a broad popular audience. McMahon has written for the PBS-TV series "Nova," and in his spare time, consults for Nike athletic shoes. He also writes novels.

To McMahon, the latter fact is roughly akin to admitting some genetic anomaly. "I never say I am a novelist," he said in the quiet, even voice that sounds like it came out of one of the quirky characters of his own creation. "Oh, I never do. It's an invisible part of me."

So much so, McMahon said, that "the people who encounter me in my role as an applied scientist are very unlikely to know that I write novels." He shifted slightly in his big wooden chair. "I try to keep it sort of under wraps here."

Already, as a graduate student at MIT, McMahon's theoretically incompatible combustion of energies was blasting the test tubes of convention. His doctoral project involved a heart-assist device that went on to bolster aortas and help save lives around the world. His other postgraduate endeavor was a work of fiction that Little, Brown snapped up almost instantly. "Principles of American Nuclear Chemistry: A Novel," it was called, lest anyone be inclined to confuse it with anything so antithetical as a thesis in nuclear chemistry.

That book dealt with the scientists who developed the atomic bomb at Los Alamos. His second novel, "McKay's Bees" (Harper & Row), drew upon McMahon's fascination with muscles and movement, focusing on characters with motor handicaps. Now, in "Loving Little Egypt" (Viking), McMahon at once takes on the mysteries of the telephone system, lionizes the genius of invention, explores the particular and private world of blind people and addresses the well-documented rivalry between Thomas Alva Edison and Alexander Graham Bell.

Early Days of the Phone

Seven years in the writing and research, "Loving Little Egypt" transports the phone freaks of the 1960s to the early days of the telephone system. These were the folks, it will be remembered, who wreaked electronic havoc on Ma Bell, starting with such relatively harmless pranks as dropping dimes into the phone with a string and retrieving them immediately afterward, and progressing to more brazen forms of phone Bolshevism. Because McMahon recalled that "at least in the beginning," many of those telephonic radicals were blind, hero Mourly Vold's visual impairment plays a key role in the story.

Like E. L. Doctorow, to whom McMahon acknowledges a major literary debt, many of his characters are actual historical figures transported into a fictional setting. Amazingly, even someone with the totally improbable name of Mourly Vold turns out to have been a real person, "a promising younger colleague" of Sigmund Freud, McMahon said.

That rather arcane fact did emerge from conversation with a Harvard colleague. "We have a funny names club," McMahon said, suggesting the image of two Harvard professors who gleefully collect odd appellations.

But the vast majority of his associates, McMahon said, would no doubt react with complete astonishment to learn what he does with those names.

"Scientists and engineers are impatient with fiction in general, particularly with modern fiction," McMahon said. "If you gave them a questionnaire, and asked them to name two writers, you might be able to get them to say that Shakespeare was a good writer, and 'whoever it was who wrote "Moby Dick" ' (and they could not remember who)."

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