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.