In which a discovery is retrospectively chased but not quite captured

The history of our fair profession is riddled with stories. First and foremost are the journal articles themselves, which seek – in their own characteristically arid way – to describe an incremental advance and thereby place it into the context of wider knowledge. But these are not, in many ways, the truest or most interesting stories that science has to tell. Behind every journal article is a drama enacted by a cast of characters on a high-pressure international stage. And for every sentence that makes it into a paper, there must be thousands for which there is no room. Inevitably shunted to the background are the narrative details that would bring these discoveries to life, breath color and meaning and passion into the collective human acts that resulted in each official snapshot of hard-won knowledge. That such papers do not – or cannot – flesh out the narrative has been a cause for chagrin as much as humor with some of my LabLit authors.

Rapt: Even the PRS likes a good story

When you strip away the formal scientific record, all that is left are the stories of the people who were part of creating it. Of course some scientists write autobiographies, but our collective library of scientific tales is primarily a verbal one: pub stories, rumors, speculations, fading memories, back-stabbing mutterings, second-hand accounts and urban myth. We know that even first-hand retrospective accounting is bound to be flawed and incomplete, warped by the perspective. Like snowflakes or Henry Gee’s anecdotes, no two are likely to be alike. And as scientists age, especially those who have made pivotal discoveries, we risk losing their crucial stories. This is why projects such as The People’s Archive, and others like it, are so important.

Last night I enjoyed the privilege of dining at the Royal Society with a small group of scientists who’d been invited to celebrate a public lecture given just before by Eric Kandel, professor at Columbia University and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2000. I was already primed to think about scientific memory thanks to the contents of Kandel’s excellent talk: an account of the neural systems and molecular mechanisms that contribute to learning and long-term storage. After the desserts were cleared away, Kandel tapped on his glass, uncharacteristically serious, and began to reminisce about the story behind the key discovery typically attributed to him. Was it this way, he asked; or was it that? Did this post-doc or graduate student make a key finding that pushed the momentum in the right direction? Did that colleague give up too soon, paving the way for someone else to take up the slack? One by one, the other men around the table who had been involved in the narrative began to offer their own accounts: Tim Bliss, John O’Keefe, Richard Morris, tossing the ball back and forth and seeing where it led.

I’m not sure if anything conclusive was decided in this spontaneous reexamination of reality, but it was a magical moment for me, and for the rest of the table too, to judge by our hushed attention – unexpected witnesses to a reassessment of history.

At one point I leaned over to Martin Rees, on my right, and whispered that it was a shame nobody had brought along a tape recorder. He nodded solemnly, then whispered back that it was a good thing I was taking notes.

I look at these now, and they are nothing: just a few random scrawls, dead on the page. The real story has been imported into my short-term memory, firing up second messengers and action potentials somewhere deep in my hypothalamus. But it will never be the same as the living, breathing moment that has already passed.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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56 Responses to In which a discovery is retrospectively chased but not quite captured

  1. Martin Fenner says:

    This is a fascinating story, I can almost feel the excitement of being there. Much more interesting than reading the results of all that as a paper.
    You link to the People’s Archive reminds me of a video I watched earlier today. It’s a video (in German) with the 85-year-old physicist Max Planck from 1942. The occasion: Today is his 150th birthday. I couldn’t quite put myself together to write a blog post about this, but then I don’t really know anything about theoretical physics.

  2. Henry Gee says:

    What a lovely post, Jenny. I am wracking my brains for a good (if flawed) anecdote … but they have all evaporated, like summer snowflakes.

  3. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks, guys. I think some of the best accounts from scientists have little to do with the scientific discoveries. One of my favorites remains Richard Feynmann, on the process, not the facts and figures.
    Aside from philosophy, how they got there seems always to be as interesting as what they found out.

  4. Jennifer Rohn says:

    So Martin, what I meant to say was: blog about him anyway.

  5. Martin Fenner says:

    As Henry said, your blog posts leave us speechless. Maybe if I write in German?
    I find reading about science fascinating. The discussion here last month (World Book Day) prompted me to read Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif in my Easter vacation. This is a wonderful collection of stories about science and scientists. The story of how Robert Koch turned into the famous microbiologist is a good example. He was was a country doctor in rural Prussia until his wife bought him a microscope…

  6. Jennifer Rohn says:

    It always comes back to the nice instruments, doesn’t it! Behind every good science story is also the unsung lab apparati.

  7. Scott Keir says:

    Talking of intruments, Jennifer, what did your cameraphone do to Martin Rees? There’s got to be some lens distortion going on. Where’s some aberration-correction when you need it? :)
    Lovely post, beautifully written, though I almost feel I’ve betrayed a confidence by reading it. Like I just spied over your shoulder.

  8. Jennifer Rohn says:

    My camera phone is an utterly useless instrument: I should have photoshopped Sir Martin. Thanks for the invite. xxx

  9. Richard P. Grant says:

    That’s a fascinating story, Jenny. Wish I could have seen it.
    resolves to write more about the process – not that I’ll ever be famous, but this … humanity is so missing from the reporting of science. Even when things are written up in the traditional media, with quotes from both sides, you never see the people behind the stories.
    Hmm. I need to ponder this some more. We should compare notes sometime.

  10. Richard P. Grant says:

    @Jenny and Scott – so it’s not just instruments, but technique too?
    ;)
    I like that photograph. It’s well composited. The hint of recently finished dessert, (berry fruit compôte?), the leaning forward… perfect.
    Slightly whimsical this morning, me. Sorry.

  11. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Richard, I think the point is you don’t need to be famous. Being famous almost makes it impossible – I think in that case, the story of the great discovery can almost overshadow. But the nuts and bolts of the everyday foot soldier…this I like.
    Whimsy is good.

  12. Richard P. Grant says:

    Hmm. I can’t decide whether there’s a blog post or a novel in there, Jenny. Perhaps both :) I wonder, and this is a lablit topic if ever I saw one, if non-scientists (on the Clapham Omnibus) are interested in the lives of the PBI, and not just of the generals and heroes?

  13. Jennifer Rohn says:

    If they aren’t, no one is ever going to buy my novels! From feedback I’ve received, I think they are. But if more scientists told their real-life stories, more people would know there was something interesting to find out about every scientist’s experience. So in that sense the storytelling is as good for the world as it is for the scientific community.

  14. Richard P. Grant says:

    Well, scientists would, I guess.
    (And everyone, when Dr Rohn finally gets published, I encourage you all to go out and buy a copy. And several for all your friends. She’s very good).

  15. Henry Gee says:

    Jenny: whereas I agree completely with I think some of the best accounts from scientists have little to do with the scientific discoveries I have more trouble with Behind every good science story is also the unsung lab apparati. A good story is a good story, irrespective of the presence of machines that go ‘ping’ – which would just sit there, inert, if there weren’t people to work them.

  16. Richard P. Grant says:

    I’m still looking for the machine that makes ping. I think we need a few of them in our lab.

  17. Massimo Pinto says:

    Nice Story, Jennifer!
    Reads like Dr Kandel was approaching Richard Feynman’s style.
    Sure that the Royal Society is not producing any podcasts of these encounters?
    Martin: you may get some inspiration by reading something on the Planck’s constant.

  18. Matt Brown says:

    Just you wait. If the trend for (dis)services like Twitter and Facebook status continue, we’ll all be video streaming our complete lives in a few years. Then, no stories will go untold and we’ll be pining for the time when they did.

  19. Richard P. Grant says:

    Ah, but Matt: we’ll be so busy reading other people’s lives there will be no time to do anything embarrassing (or even interesting).

  20. Jennifer Rohn says:

    The RS definitely webcasted the lecture itself, which is well worth a look. (If it’s not up yet, it probably will be soon.)
    I think we still need some filtration with our stories. As one of my old fiction editors was always saying, less is definitely more.

  21. Richard P. Grant says:

    “webcasted”? Is that even a word?

  22. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Sounds marginally better than ‘live-streamed’. Come on, give me a break: this is what Yanks do: verb our nouns.

  23. Scott Keir says:

    I wonder, and this is a lablit topic if ever I saw one, if non-scientists (on the Clapham Omnibus) are interested in the lives of the PBI, and not just of the generals and heroes?
    Virtually every job type is represented in a character in a fiction novel. The second most popular book last year in sales had (I didn’t check this properly, just a quick search) Freud and debutantes as its main characters, “Anybody Out There” (number 5) features a cosmetics PR woman, and… well, need I go on? Maybe they are a bit glamorous, but you can be too! Look at Jennifer, hobnobbing with the Lords. :)

  24. Jennifer Rohn says:

    That is exactly how I feel, Scott. A good story can be found anywhere: but the advantage of science is that it hasn’t been done to death.

  25. Bob O'Hara says:

    bq. A good story is a good story, irrespective of the presence of machines that go ‘ping’ – which would just sit there, inert, if there weren’t people to work them.
    Latour & Woolgar describe them as “inscription devices”. Apparently our job is to turn the inscriptions they produce into papers, in order to get credit by making statements more or less certain.

  26. Richard P. Grant says:

    but surely ‘webcast’ is the verb? And past participle?
    Scott, are you implying that Jennifer should be NN’s Glamour Girl? We’d need a suitable hunk to pose with her.
    Henry?

  27. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Grant, you are angling for a smack.
    As anyone who reads my blog knows, machinery can take on a life of its own, so I reject the idea that a machine (or technique for that matter) can’t play a central role in a story of science.

  28. Stephen Curry says:

    Jennifer, I really enjoyed your account of the after-dinner conversation – fascinating! Like many others in this discussion I think that the nuts and bolts process of science is often as interesting as the results themselves and an area that suffers great neglect. However, there are exceptions. I’ve recently finished reading Horace Judson’s Eighth Day of Creation, which is a brilliant account of the seminal 20th century discoveries in molecular biology.

  29. Henry Gee says:

    @Richard: Be glad to, but I don’t get out of bed for less than £10,000 or the Mrs Joyful Prize for Raffia Work or a machine that makes ping, whichever is the greater.
    we’ll all be video streaming our complete lives in a few years. Then, no stories will go untold and we’ll be pining for the time when they did.
    The experience of our lives is filtered as we live them, because if they weren’t, we’d be overwhelmed by the data and find ourselves unable to categorize any event as anything other than sui generis. I cite in evidence Borges’ story Funes The Memorious, about a young man who is frozen into effective immobility by his gift for perfect recall.

  30. Jennifer Rohn says:

    That sounds like a fascinating story – I might give it a go in the original; I’ve had some bad experiences with some of the translations of his other work.
    Stephen – glad you are on side. Eighth Day is really great, I agree. It really influenced my own passion for science.

  31. Richard P. Grant says:

    So, this is synchronicity. I’m back attacking the mess , and just found a book of old seminar notes. This one says “Ann Ridley 5Oct00″.
    Apparently,

    Many downstream targets of rho. Only know what 3 do:

    (and a list)
    Cool.

  32. Henry Gee says:

    That sounds like a fascinating story – I might give it a go in the original
    I can’t read Spanish, so I wouldn’t know. If you can, the story is probably in his collection Ficciones.

  33. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Save that paper, Richard.

  34. Bob O'Hara says:

    Henry – it is. It’s all good, if odd, stuff.

  35. Henry Gee says:

    @Bob – My father gave me a copy of Labyrinths (essentially the same thing as Ficciones) while I was recuperating in hospital from some injury or illness or another. It fried fired my brain and changed my life.

  36. Jennifer Rohn says:

    henry, thanks for the Ficciones tip. One for my next Amazon order.

  37. Bob O'Hara says:

    Henry, I guess you’ve never written Don Quixote in the same way since.

  38. Jennifer Rohn says:

    _Latour & Woolgar describe them as “inscription devices”. Apparently our job is to turn the inscriptions they produce into papers, in order to get credit by making statements more or less certain.
    _
    Bob, do you think they really believe that? It doesn’t make for a very good story.

  39. Henry Gee says:

    I guess you’ve never written Don Quixote in the same way since.
    You know, it’s a funny thing. I tried not to write Don Quixote, but the harder I tried, the more like Don Quixote it became.

  40. Richard P. Grant says:

    I have successfully never written Don Quixote.
    I can imagine the school reports:
    Gee must try harder

  41. Brian Clegg says:

    _When you strip away the formal scientific record, all that is left are the stories of the people who were part of creating it. _
    Sorry, Jennifer – not sure I totally agree with this premise. As editor of the Popular Science website which reviews popular science books, I see lots of excellent books that combine information about people and the science itself. I think it’s a wonderful form of writing, much more readable than a paper, yet giving a lot more than just a biography. It may be that real scientists rather look down on us poor authors who just write about science – but it is, I would suggest, a valuable filler of that gap.

  42. Henry Gee says:

    Gee must try harder
    Be careful what you wish for.

  43. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Yeah, next thing you know he’ll be writing War and Peace.

  44. Richard P. Grant says:

    Or failing to write it, anyway.
    Mm. What was the blog post about again?

  45. Scott Keir says:

    Scott, are you implying that Jennifer should be NN’s Glamour Girl? We’d need a suitable hunk to pose with her.
    Not necessarily, but if you look at the bestsellers in your local supermarket or bookshop, you’ll find1 that many of the ‘chick lit’ ones have heroines with apparently ‘glamorous’ jobs – cosmetics pr, lawyers, life-saving surgeons, country house residents etc… Scientists can be glamorous too.
    1 This is completely unsubstantiated by research, and entirely unscientific.

  46. Bob O'Hara says:

    bq. Bob, do you think they really believe that? It doesn’t make for a very good story.
    They do (or did). I didn’t explain the context, it’s no fun that way. They made a deliberate effort to get away from the good stories, and concentrate on the way science progresses.
    I might have to write a review, remembering to avoid mention of worm sandwiches.

  47. Henry Gee says:

    Has Scott betrayed a secret vice, here? An inordinate fondness for chick-lit?

  48. Henry Gee says:

    By the way chaps, are we going for the triple century?

  49. Scott Keir says:

    Has Scott betrayed a secret vice, here? An inordinate fondness for chick-lit?
    Cluck-cluck cluck-cluck squawk!

  50. Henry Gee says:

    Scott, now you’ve ‘come out’ as a chicken, as it were, here is more chick lit than you’d want to read about at one sitting (hat tip – Graham Steel, pet-pornographer, for the link). By the way, when I was an undergraduate I had a zoology practical in which I learned to hypnotise a chicken. Comes in incredibly useful, even now.

  51. Richard P. Grant says:

    No wonder they made Gee a Nature editor.
    He’s too bloody dangerous by far to be allowed in the laboratory.

  52. Henry Gee says:

    … I did it with crayfish, too.

  53. Jennifer Rohn says:

    They made a deliberate effort to get away from the good stories, and concentrate on the way science progresses.
    This is exactly the problem. I don’t think you can really divorce the two. The process is the story, and people who think otherwise don’t really understand how scientists work. (Although I really should read the work before I condemn it, a.k.a. the worm sandwich caveat.)

  54. Bea Downing says:

    - Henry
    Regarding hypnotising chickens, is that the trick with the chalk line? Recently heard a rather disturbing (urban and legendary?) tale about that…

  55. Henry Gee says:

    Yes, Bea, that’s the one. Though telling the difference between a chicken that’s hypnotized and one that isn’t can be hard. I mean, what do you do? Get it to act like a chicken?

  56. Bea Downing says:

    Goodness, it’s like the Paralympic athletes who claimed to have disabilities and turned out to be faking – I’d never imagined chickens (hypnotized or not) being so deceptive…