I have recently returned (so yes, I feel the summer is over) from a few days holiday in places far less flat than Cambridge which provided enough time to sink into the unusual bliss of uninterrupted reading. So, rather than do an end-of-year summary of books as seems common, let me share my late summer trio of ‘good reads’. Each very different, each providing food for thought of contrasting kinds.
I will start with Henrietta Heald’s biography of William Armstrong, The Magician of the North. I am ashamed to say how little I knew about this key Victorian engineer from Newcastle before I started. Or indeed about hydraulics, in which he was so influential. I did of course know his name through the companies (such as Armstrong-Siddeley) with which his name was associated, but I had no appreciation of the breadth of his interests (from guns to cranes, from lighting to ships) nor an awareness of the significant role he played in the north of England in the latter half of the nineteenth century. When Armstrong wanted to escape the hurly-burly of his Tyneside factory or scrabbling around with the great and good in London, he retreated to a rural venue in Northumberland, where he built a mansion which evolved from a modest hunting lodge to something huge, incoherent and obviously delightful. This house, known as Cragside, was (and is) at Rothbury. It was therefore a fairly bizarre coincidence that, taking the wrong road out of Alnwick on our travels, we headed off in the direction of Rothbury and saw signs to Cragside itself. I guess if I’d passed the turning a week earlier it would not have impinged on my mind in the same way. This was a book I enjoyed for its content rather than its writing, but it certainly taught me a lot about stuff I feel I should have known about already.
The second book I turned to was very different. A recently released book by Robert McCrum entitled Every Third Thought: on Life, Death, and the Endgame. It is a thoughtful reflective book, focussing particularly on what the author terms ‘brain attacks’, covering various kinds of ailments of the brain from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Diseases to stroke. He himself is a stroke survivor, albeit significantly physically weakened, and he shares his fears and challenges in a moving way. The Guardian review – which was what had prompted me to get the book – talked about it as an ‘assemblage of great quotes’, full of thoughts of death and degeneration. It was not, I should stress, just a gloomy book though! It was movingly written and positive about facing uncertain futures.
I came to it having just come out of a spate of migraines. Reading about brain dysfunction having been through a period of my own malfunctions was interesting. It is so hard to describe to an outsider what it is like to feel one’s brain crumble. The three migraines I’d had in quick succession this past month were mild (at least after taking my Sumatriptan medication), little more than the visual aura (which is admittedly very disturbing) and an inability to think straight: I could sense the usual connections simply not firing up properly. During one of them my speech was noticeably messed up – rather like a severe form of Malapropism. It is extraordinarily disconcerting to know what one wants to say but the words come out totally differently. The worst occasion I had of this was as a child when for about half an hour, whatever I wanted to say came out as a single phrase involving the word ‘dressing gown’ for no apparent reason. I know it will pass, but it is disturbing.
In the spring I’d had a migraine of a different sort, in which I felt as if my brain had split in two (‘heterocrania’ indeed), with the two halves out of sync. I had apparently two trains of thought, only one of which was ‘real’ and I spent several hours chasing imaginary thoughts which didn’t really have any concreteness. In words it looks really strange. In fact, it felt like that too. How can one cope with two different simultaneous strands of ideas which don’t fit together? Not even Google gave me much comfort with anything matching my description (nor indeed did my GP have much to say beyond migraines turn up in many strange guises) so if any reader recognizes what I’m describing I’d be glad to know that I’m not alone. I read McCrum’s account of brain malfunctions with great interest, although there were no precise similarities. I have always felt that a migraine should provide a good insight into the workings of the brain because it is so obvious, from inside, what isn’t working. But it doesn’t seem to be like that and as far as I know the medical grasp of what happens physiologically during an attack (i.e. beyond the phenomenology) is weak.
The third book was very different again, food for thought of a more professional kind. Plastic Fantastic was written by Eugenie Samuel Reich. Subtitled How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World it describes the case of Jan Henrik Schön, a young apparent superstar at Bell Labs around the turn of the century who published fraudulent paper after fraudulent paper based on non-existent nanodevices. His extraordinary productivity had everyone raving, until someone spotted that two figures from different papers, purportedly showing very different data, were actually identical. Once that had been spotted the whole sorry episode rapidly unravelled, tainting some senior scientists en route, although all were ultimately exonerated of any wrongdoing.
What I found so terrifying was just how easy it had seemed to be for him to pull the wool over his colleagues’ eyes. I kept thinking about my own students and postdocs. Could I ever be fooled by the production of data that wasn’t real? Could I ever fail to spot someone inventing a sample (or in his case a device) that couldn’t actually be manufactured? I would like to think it couldn’t happen. Yet the reality is, science is to a large extent built on trust and I can’t say ‘fraud’ is ever my first thought when a student turns up with an interesting set of results. Artefact is much more likely to be my reaction, or the perennial microscopist’s problem of just how ‘typical’ is the area that has been imaged. If you know what you want to find, confirmation bias can sneak its way into the microscopist’s eyes. But I have never made a habit of breathing over my student’s experiments or vetting their lab book day by day. Is that all it would take for a student to create some imaginary data? I sincerely hope not.
I read the book with a fascination of horror, but I didn’t come away with any understanding of why Schön had done what he did. The writing made it look almost as if he never understood why what he had done caused such a furore, or that it pushed him beyond the pale of ever being employed as a scientist again. I was frustrated by reading a meticulously described account of what he did and yet be left so uncertain of the why.
So, a curious, diverse trio to read together in quick succession, but a satisfactory diversity that provided plenty of food for thought during a week’s very pleasant escape up north.