Pop science, DIY sociology and explaining headless frogs

Egg and Ego
March 26, 1999

Most of the stories we read about science are well-meant fictions. Popular writers give us research without the boring bits - every chapter reveals a brilliant idea, if not a breakthrough. Journal articles present new results as a seamless garment, with never a dropped stitch or a loose thread. Jonathan Slack wants to portray scientific work as it really is: the hard slog and the competition; the making and breaking of reputations; the fight for grants and space in the journals; the struggles with bureaucracy; the vicissitudes of the experimental life.

The problem, of course, is that he has to put back the boring bits. His solution is to alternate chapters about aspects of the scientific career with tales about his own field, developmental biology. It does not quite work.

The science, leading up to the elucidation of the genes that control aspects of development in organisms as diverse as flies and humans, is some of the most exciting of the last couple of decades. Slack's treatment, however, is competent rather than compelling. And the stories he relates about the institutional workings of research, while they ring true, are mildly interesting rather than revelatory.

The result is a book uneasily poised between pop science and do-it-yourself sociology. He tries valiantly not to make the duller aspects of science dull to read about - but the result too often seems facetious. There is some amusement in Slack's stories about how to sell a commentary article to Nature, or what it is like when Horizon reports that you are making headless frogs. There is rather less in most of the others.

The limitation lies in his autobiographical approach, combined with lax editing. One biologist's life does not really yield enough good stories to keep up the interest, and too many of those included here seem as mundane as the aspects of research they are supposed to epitomise. I am sure his intended audience of would-be biologists will learn something about what their future holds if they read this book, though I hope they do not acquire the contempt for the public and its views that Slack occasionally shows.

But there is little in the book to appeal to the general reader. A pity. William Cooper's splendid novel The Struggles of Albert Woods is rather dated now, but until the life sciences find their David Lodge, or their Douglas Coupland, I think even the biology students would do as well to turn to a few of the other non-fiction works that capture something of the doing of science. June Goodfield's An Imagined World or Steven Rose's The Making of Memory both depict the researcher's point of view well. We certainly need still more accounts of the varieties of scientific experience, and Slack's is a worthy effort, but a minor addition to the genre.

Jon Turney is senior lecturer in science communication, University College London.

Egg and Ego: An Almost True Story of Life in the Biology Lab

Author - J. M. W. Slack
ISBN - 0 387 98560 3
Publisher - Springer
Price - £19.00
Pages - 195

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