By Katherine Bouton, The New York Times, May 21, 2012
“Science is not for the meek and mild,” Michael Brooks writes in this entertaining new book. “It is red in tooth and claw; its very ideas and breakthroughs are subject to the law of the survival of the fittest. Good scientists must strive to overthrow, undermine and destroy their colleagues’ reputations.”
The “radicals” of his title are scientists with an unwavering belief in the truth of their ideas and no compunction about breaking the rules to prove it. They fight, they try to block colleagues’ progress, they commit fraud, they deceive and manipulate others.
And, more than occasionally, they rely on illicit substances and fever dreams. Kary Mullis, who won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for creating the polymerase chain reaction, credited his breakthrough to regular use of hallucinogenic drugs. Nikola Tesla had to be shaken out of a catatonic state after he saw a vision in the setting sun that inspired the first self-starting alternating-current motor.
Then there is self-experimentation that no medical review board would approve if it were done on others. The Australian physician Barry Marshall discovered the cause of many gastric problems, including ulcers, by drinking the suspected bacteria “in a cloudy, brown, bug-nourishing broth.” Three days later he began to feel strangely bloated; five days later he was vomiting and his breath smelled putrid. Finally and luckily, his own immune system dealt with the infection. He won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2005.
Scientists overlook inconvenient results, writes Mr. Brooks, a British science writer who holds a doctorate in quantum physics and writes a weekly column for The New Statesman. They ignore data that conflict with their ideas. Einstein, for example, bristled at criticism of his papers, withdrawing one submitted to The Physical Review after an anonymous peer reviewer pointed out an error. He published the paper elsewhere, Mr. Brooks writes, “complete with the mistake.”
Why then, do we think of the scientist today as someone who is logical, trustworthy and slightly dull? Mr. Brooks tells us that this was a deliberate postwar makeover on the part of scientific groups like the Royal Society.
World War II left an unpleasant image of science — madmen constructing apocalyptic weapons in a secret lab in New Mexico, developing lethal nerve gas and testing it on Allied soldiers, conducting gruesome medical and biological experiments.
This would not do, and the scientific establishment rallied to promote a reassuring countermessage: Scientists were responsible and safe. Science existed to serve the people. As the biologist Jacob Bronowski put it, a decade after Hiroshima, the scientist became “the monk of our age, timid, thwarted, anxious to be asked to help.”
But timidity has its downside, as we see now in the face of the unprecedented threat from global climate change. For all their risk-taking and backbiting behind closed doors, when scientists come together to speak as a group they “naturally, instinctively, make a concerted effort not to be alarmist,” as Mr. Brooks puts it. The postwar image of the humble public servant — scientists should advise government when asked, but not seek to influence it — does a disservice.
Quoting Michael Nelson and John Vucetich in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mr. Brooks writes: “It is a perversion of democracy to muffle the voice of the most knowledgeable among us and consequently amplify the voice of those with the greatest ignorance.” The only morally acceptable position, says Dr. Nelson, a philosopher at Michigan State University, is for scientists to speak up. “When scientists reject advocacy as a principle, they reject a fundamental aspect of their citizenship.”
The radicals of our time are scientists like Carl Sagan and James Hansen, who openly defied the hemming and hawing of the establishment to point out directly to the public, rather than only to their peers, the weakness of the contrarian claims.
As for the roguish behavior Mr. Brooks chronicles with such relish, “history, they say, is written by the winners.” And the scientists he celebrates were all winners. Michael Fuller, the technician who built Crick and Watson’s famous model of DNA, has seen 26 colleagues at Cambridge win Nobel Prizes over the past 58 years. The secret of their success? “Incredible egos. They just know, somehow, despite what anyone says, that they are right.”
In an epilogue, Mr. Brooks writes that his research surprised him. When he began the book he thought he was exploring science’s “dark side.” Rather, it became apparent that “anything goes” is a virtue — the secret of science’s success. “Free Radicals” is an exuberant tour through the world of scientists behaving badly.