‘Paul Nurse believes in heroes of science’ was a line in my Twitter feed one morning recently ‘and so do I’ continued Roger Highfield, who gave the Wilkins-Bernal-Medawar Prize Lecture at the Royal Society on this very topic last year. I don’t agree with Roger, as will be very apparent from uncoordinated articles he and I coincidentally wrote in the Daily Telegraph in successive weeks, also last year. Furthermore, I think that this viewpoint has its dangers when applied in science education, for instance. However, reading the BBC story on which Roger based his statement, I don’t think the President of the Royal Society said precisely what was being attributed to him. It is yet another stage in myth making to translate Paul’s words
There are often big teams involved, but recognising individuals does have an impact that I’m afraid recognising groups or individuals does not.
into ‘believing in heroes‘. I would interpret what Paul said as a translation of the reality that people want to believe in the heroic myth, not that he himself necessarily does. Maybe he would be happy with Roger’s rephrasing, but I wouldn’t count on it.
That is the trouble with myths: they evolve to suit the audience. They have a comforting feel-good factor (if they aren’t too blood-thirsty and revolting). Think of the Odysseus-like man (I fear they do tend to be male) who triumphs over adversity single-handedly and returns to claim the prize – in his case his wife of long-standing – slaughtering any inconvenient rivals in the process. That is the stuff of ‘heroes’. The fact that Odysseus couldn’t have achieved what he did without the help of the stray god or goddess along the way as well as a shipload of companions/crew conveniently gets forgotten.
That crewload of companions are the rest of the team who, in the scientist-as-hero myth get forgotten too. As often as not these will be the students who do the actual legwork and who may (or may not) play a direct role in the whole creative process. My own view is that they almost invariably do. It is by supervisor and student(s) talking together, analysing, tearing up results, talking, pointing out the possibility of artefacts, discovering the hypothesis didn’t fit the data, talking, meandering along in the dark, talking (about the darkness), starting the process again, changing the parameters, talking….until finally the lightbulb moment occurs that is equally part of the myth. That Eureka moment is not a single act of switching on the light, it is usually a long drawn out process, with blind allies and half-truths the inevitable acquaintances encountered along the way.
It is too easy for the story being written up to be described with the captain as the only important individual on board, and the rest just a load of hired hands without a brain between them. Unfortunately this is almost exactly the analogy that Tony Hewish (winner of the 1974 Nobel Prize) drew when asked some years ago about whether it was reasonable that Jocelyn Bell Burnell was not included in the Prize. She was his student, the person who had actually spotted the traces of pulsars and who, after an extended period of observation, recognized them as not just noise. Being the ‘captain of the ship’ was the precise phrase Hewish used on the BBC’s programme Beautiful Minds about Jocelyn, leaving to the imagination what subordinate and unimportant role he felt the student had actually played. He did not, in my view, come well out of that interview.
As I mentioned in my last post, I have been reading Nicholas Harberd‘s lively account of a year in the life of a thale-cress plant, and the thoughts that accompanied his study in natural history as he struggled to unblock his creative mind (Seed to Seed). This book is not exactly written in Nicholas-as-hero mode, and I’m sure that’s not how he conceived it, but his students are curiously lacking as a source of inspiration, critique or even discussion. This I think is owing to the ‘conceit’ in which he has written his book as a diary of his own doings and the thoughts he had, coupled with the accompanying emotions along the way. Since the main focus is a single Aradopsis thalania plant in a graveyard somewhere near Norwich, it is perhaps hard to have a second focus based in his lab at the John Innes. Nevertheless this book, written as he himself says ‘to show how science can enhance our vision of the world‘ for the lay-reader is thereby potentially misleading about the way research is carried out. Harberd states in his introduction
My intention was to try to capture a sense of the scientific process within a more general picture of a mind that is engaged with it. Feelings are recorded – and feelings are things that we scientists are often overly constrained in expressing.
Much though I have enjoyed the book, much though I applaud the fact that he is honest enough to discuss feelings, including at some length how he felt ‘stuck’ for so long with no new promising avenue of research in sight for much of the year, I do wonder if his students really were so irrelevant to his discovering the next exciting line of enquiry he was going to follow as is implicitly suggested. By doing this he omits so much of what makes research rewarding.
When I wrote my piece for the Telegraph last year, stimulated by watching Stephen Hawking’s Grand Designs on the Discovery Channel, I was very conscious of the mounting pressure that the Nobel Prize should be awarded to Peter Higgs. As I wrote then
But it’s not just theorists who contributed to the “discovery” of the Higgs Boson. None of them would be in the running for the prize if it weren’t for the multi-disciplinary, international teams that built the LHC. Such large teams are increasingly typical of the way the major breakthroughs are being made.
In the event Higgs did share the prize with another theorist Francois Englert and the prize stimulated much comment about the rightness or the wrongness of this pairing winning or whether some experimentalist such as Lyn Evans (or indeed the whole of CERN) collectively should have been included. This indeed was the question that Paul Nurse was in essence answering in the BBC piece I mention above. The debate about whether theorists or experimentalists should be judged as the ‘winners’ of such a prize was excellently dissected in a piece on scurvy by Vanessa Heggie – that is a different issue again. But in the case of Higgs I think it is important to realise how many people contributed to the eventual discovery, even if the Nobel Prize itself is not the mechanism to do this. Hence programmes about Peter Higgs should not, as they do seem to tend to, situate themselves at the hagiographic lone-man-has-great-thought-that-solves-everything end of the spectrum. That is not the way to inform the general public watching of how science is really done and we should not allow ourselves – or them – to fall into such heroic traps.