No moos is good news

A Bedside Nature

March 1, 1996

Since 1869, Nature has been supplying a weekly dose of new knowledge about the physical world to an enthusiastic audience. In the 1990s, its pages are mainly filled with the thoughts of professional scientists. But it was not always so. This fascinating selection from Nature, covering the years up to 1953, shows that while scientists' concerns have remained surprisingly static, the professionalisation of the field and the sophistication of science have changed beyond recognition.

If you open up today's Nature, you may well form the impression that most science is now biology, especially molecular biology. A Bedside Nature makes clear that the life sciences have always been central to Nature's concerns. For decades animal intelligence was a recurring theme; there were letters on ingenious pigeons, a sheep that ate tobacco, and whether dogs had a sense of humour or terriers could be taught to count (no).

The journal is today highly international, again continuing a tradition that began with the first issues. In 1870 a "Letter from central Africa" was featured, and all parts of Europe, including Russia, loomed large, as did the United States. World events gave rise to papers on everything from Soviet scientists in the cold war to French studies of prison camp geology and a sad account of the destruction of Polish zoology. During the siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian war, there was surprisingly extended coverage, including many accounts of the heroism of scientists and of the technology, especially ballooning, developed for the fight; and, less acceptable these days, an attempt to resupply Paris with hundreds of cattle, each of which had a nerve cut to prevent the animal making any sound.

The comparatively subtle francophilia escalated during the Great War into out and out anti-Germanism. The Hun, Nature concluded, had never done much worthwhile science, but had devoted devilishly massive resources to inhumane methods of war, especially chemical weapons. Indeed, one correspondent urged making German scientists report their research in French or English as part of their war reparations. Only after 1918 did Nature carry reports of British chemical weapons, along with a plausible defence by the chemist Fritz Haber (who won a Nobel prize in 1918) against charges that the Germans had spent years preparing gas attacks. The war also led to concern over the potential effects of war on the physical and moral capacities of nations, including one letter suggesting that the short stature of the French was caused by bigger Frenchmen dying in battle.

By the 1930s, Nature had things a little straighter, warning early on about attacks on Jewish scientists under the Nazis - and publishing a response by Nobel prizewinning physicist Johannes Stark, who explained that the whole effort was merely an "attempt to curtail the unjustifiably great influence exercised by the Jews".

The contributors were always a formidable array. Darwin, Einstein, Needham and Galton all figure, in Galton's case with crazed attempts to quantify all sorts of subjects, including the number of brush strokes used by portrait painters. More surprising contributors include Newton, if you count the appearance of a previously unknown manuscript in 1945.

A taste for science policy and for the philosophy of science seems to have been present from the beginning. As early as 1870 comes a complaint that France has a science minister and Britain has not - plus ca change. The adjacent entry on the election of fellows of the Royal Society, from a peeved writer signing himself "Not an FRS" is one of a number of contributions from the early days which shows a failing of today's publication: in those days, scientists were ruder and bitchier in print than they now feel free to be.

Another continuing concern is scientific education, especially the belief that the British have too little of this miracle substance. Science was said by one writer to be "all but dead in England" in 1873, a year in which, as so often since, the Germans were praised for their un-British appreciation of the link between "national prosperity" and "original research".

Walter Gratzer of King's College, London must have had a splendid time editing A Bedside Nature. Its chief weakness is its pictures. Many appear, but they are not captioned and rarely relate to the text around them. Otherwise, the book is marvellous - it uses original material to good effect and the awkward task of deciding what to leave out has been performed with skill.

One other complaint: history did not end in 1953, the year of the last excerpt in the book. Why 1953? Before then, Nature had had many important contributions, including the Lisa Meitner/Otto Hahn letter of 1939 on the prospect of nuclear fission; but other scoops like relativity and the expansion of the universe had appeared elsewhere. Then, in 1953, Nature got the unmistakable world-shaker that ends the book: Crick and Watson's one-page article "Molecular structure of nucleic acids", the basis of the whole of modern biology. Today such a paper would be ten times the length and have ten times as many authors but would be hard put to have a tenth of the influence.

Martin Ince is deputy editor, The THES.

A Bedside Nature: Genius and Eccentricity in Science, 1869-1953

Editor - Walter Gratzer
ISBN - 0 333 65131 6
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £19.95
Pages - 266

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