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Novel Spirals around Real Cornell Characters

Paul McEuen Spiral

She may seem an unlikely character for a fictional thriller, but mycologist Kathie Hodge, MS ’93, PhD ’98, is just that, in a new novel written by physics professor Paul McEuen. Spiral, a nearly eight-year endeavor that hit American bookstores on March 22, is a scientific thriller about a fungal organism that’s the key to a terrible biological weapon dating back to World War II. McEuen, who is director of the Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science, says he was inspired after reading about ergot poisoning during the Middle Ages and the French Revolution, and its possible role in the Salem Witch Trials.

After poring over undergraduate biology textbooks, McEuen met Hodge, associate professor in the Department of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology, and asked for her help with the science. As he continued to write, she greatly influenced the development of a central character, Maggie Connor.

Hodge is not the only Cornell professor featured. Protagonist Liam Connor, an elder statesman in his field, is a fictional mash-up of mathematician Freeman Dyson and recently deceased chemical ecologist Thomas Eisner, with a sprinkling of deceased Nobel laureate physicist Hans Bethe, McEuen says.

The novel is also set at Cornell, and the pages are peppered with other Ithaca references, from the Cayuga Dog Rescue organization to a nature preserve in Ellis Hollow. It has already been sold in 16 countries, and McEuen is working with a screenwriter on a screenplay adaptation, because the book has been optioned for film by Chockstone Pictures.