Passionate artists in the laboratory

Passionate Minds
June 5, 1998

Our everyday lives - in home, office, and marketplace - are largely shaped by the consequences, usually unforeseen and unintended, of past scientific advances. But the public in general has little intuitive understanding of the kinds of people that scientists are.

Although British television and radio do a better job in presenting scientific programmes than in any other country, the focus is almost always on the subject matter, and the researchers themselves usually come across as personality-free.

Those of us who are in the business know that our colleagues' intellectual and emotional lives are often as messy as a typical episode of EastEnders. We find the measured formality of the typical science programme misleading and frequently wish that the line between "science programmes" and prime-time drama could be blurrier on the box as it is in life.

Passionate Minds gives us the transcripts of interviews conducted by Lewis Wolpert, as produced for BBC Radio 3 by Alison Richards. They strive, with great success, for just such a blurring of the lines between scientific understanding and the richly varied characters who pursue it. In a revealing misunderstanding, Nature's review of the book mistook the transcripts to be from a television series. I think the depth and texture of the material mark its radio origins. I also think we would all be better off if we could manage to reconcile such depth and texture with the demands of prime-time television; maybe this is an impossible dream.

Twenty-three scientists are interviewed. Read the chapters in any order and the first thing to leap off the page is not just the colour and diversity of personalities, but even more the diversity of approaches to "doing science". Science in schools, in a manner as understandable as it is unfortunate, is too often presented as a recipe for getting answers. The individuals in this book make it vividly clear that they no more paint by numbers than did Rembrandt or Van Gogh. As Richards urges in her introductory chapter: "These conversations show that it is possible for non-scientists to gain a meaningful sense of how scientists 'tick'; or at least as meaningful as the glimpse most of us get from listening to a poet or painter reflect upon their work."

The 23 regrettably include only two women, Nicole Le Douarin and Anne McLaren, both developmental biologists. Le Douarin gives particularly clear expression to what are two of the most interesting themes of this collection. First, explaining that her work ineluctably involves interdisciplinary collaboration, she emphasises that all in the group - especially the postgraduate students - are encouraged to be independent, to preserve the "advantage of coming in uncontaminated with the past". This theme is frequently echoed. James Black, the Nobel laureate who invented beta-blockers and the ulcer drug cimetidine, speaks of the advantages of entering a new field and asking questions that established practitioners regarded as "quite preposterous". Another Nobellist, the immunologist and neurobiologist Gerald Edelman, extols the advantages of "an innocence" that fails to realise just how complicated things really are; without that innocence, he says, he would never have tried to work on the structure of antibody molecules. Gerald Holton, Carlo Rubbia, David Pilbeam and James Lovelock further elaborate the advantages of innocents or outsiders who disregard conventional wisdom and barriers. Disappointingly, however, no one takes up the consequent question: how do we train students to the right balance of freshness of approach against deep acquaintance with established knowledge; how do we steer between the extremes of knowing everything about nothing and nothing about everything?

Second, Le Douarin speaks tellingly of the anxieties and insecurities that hide behind the mask, even - perhaps especially - of the most successful. In reply to Wolpert's question about the pleasure brought by her election as a foreign fellow of the Royal Society and of the United States National Academy of Sciences, she says: "It is very nice, butI people in science are anxious, and especially when you are leading a group, you are anxious about whether you are going to solve a certain number of problems; whether you are working in the right way; whether you are doing well; and whether your projects are good for the future.I I am as anxious now as when I started." Pressed, she elaborates: "I would like it would not be like that, but it is like that. I think that if you are not anxious you are not a researcher, you are not a scientist. Because if you are very quiet and very satisfied, then why try to find what is not known?" Similar thoughts are elsewhere expressed by Murray Gell-Mann, Michael Berridge and Carl Djerassi, although for me Le Douarin's words had the clearest ring of emotional truth. Such anxiety is not what major scientific figures usually project, but few who see their colleagues clearly would doubt its reality and creative importance.

Many of the interviewees speak enthusiastically of the challenge of competition, of the race to be first to a goal of widely recognised importance. McLaren offers a different view: "It doesn't worry me very much if somebody gets a result that I might have got in another few months' work, providing I've got other things in the pipeline." Personally, I would amplify her view: ultimately, what is the point of macho races to goals that all can see and whose achievement is certain? Here, again, the book illuminates the diverse society of scientists, ranging from those who flourish in competitive pursuit of today's clear prizes to those who aspire to set tomorrow's agenda. Neither ambition is ego-effacing.

Wolpert questions McLaren about women in science. She affirms that: "I've been lucky for the whole of my working life. In biology, there hasn't been any discrimination against women that I've ever come across. It's been different in America, but not in this country." This speaks warmly for McLaren's generosity of spirit, but at the same time I think it is both naive about the United Kingdom and uninformed about the United States. Simple statistics about numbers of women in faculty positions, and elsewhere, in science at every level suggest that the US has lessons to teach the UK, whether or not we want to hear them. The paradox which underlies McLaren's comments is that above a certain level gender can become irrelevant in the UK in ways it still cannot in the US; Mrs Thatcher was Mrs Thatcher just as Tony Blair is Tony Blair, whereas I cannot imagine the US electing a woman president in the foreseeable future. To give one example of persisting problems in the UK, in many branches of the Civil Service it is routine practice for lists of candidates for possible promotion to label all women as Miss or Mrs (no similar information about the marital status of males is given, and indeed the information about females is a bit untrustworthy because some married women choose the cryptic designation of Miss, for obvious reasons). When I have protested this practice, I have met with total incomprehension ("no one has complained").

Incidentally, each essay is presaged by a photo, provided by the subject. These range from a precious studio portrait of Djerassi, clasping disembodied female hands to his face, to the usual academic offering (this is what I looked like 10 or 20 years ago, and I wish I still did). The semiotics of these photos could generate an interesting book of itself.

Rising above all these sub-themes, the central message from this collection of fascinating people is of a community committed to their chosen life. Lovelock expresses it with almost cruel clarity: "(Many) people who are nowadays called scientists are not really scientists, any more than advertising copywriters are literary people. They may be able to write beautiful copy, but it's not quite the same thing. They are in a job, a career. A scientist shouldn't be, I think. A scientist is much more like a creative artist, somebody who does it for a vocation. It's the only way of life they want."

This is a wonderful and truly illuminating collection of interviews cum essays. There is apparently an earlier such collection, called A Passion for Science. I am off to buy it.

Sir Robert May is chief scientific adviser to the UK government, on leave from his Royal Society research professorship.

Passionate Minds: The Inner World of Scientists

Editor - Lewis Wolpert and Alison Richards
ISBN - 0 19 854904 0
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £19.99
Pages - 240

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