Boundaries and boxes

No-one likes to be pigeonholed but the tendency to pigeonhole, or put things into boxes, comes naturally to us and can be valuable, within reason.


I think pigeonholing gets an overly bad press. The word has a pejorative ring, suggesting a kneejerk, over-simplistic focus on superficial elements. (“Don’t judge a book by its cover”). The impulse behind it, though, is our desire to organise our thoughts and our mental representations of the world. The trouble is that the pigeons have a habit of flying out of one hole and into another, or flitting between two adjacent holes.

Our mistake comes if we set too much store by the categories we use, and believe in their reality. They are just a convenience, a mental tool.

I used to do a bit of cat and class and subject indexing. One thing you learn when you have to apply classification and indexing systems to the real world is that categories are fluid – they leak into each other. Whenever you think you can see a clear boundary between two categories then you will discover something that destroys that clarity.

“Here is chemistry. Here is biology. Oh, wait – what’s this? Biological chemistry? (or chemical biology)? “.

“Here’s a biscuit. Here’s a cake. So what is a Jaffa cake?”

I encountered a problem about boundaries and definitions a little while ago when trying to find the right person to write a book.

Finding a writer

This year, 2014, is the centenary of our Institute so it was decided that we should produce a book about its 100-year history. We agreed on the intended audience, a structure, an outline of chapters and the overall style. The book was to be a record of the Institute’s achievements, its growth and development during the 20th century. It would document the research culture and the many scientists who worked in the Institute. There would be a series of chapters describing the overall development, followed by a number of chapters going into more detail about various scientific areas. The book was aimed primarily at Institute staff, past and present, plus other scientists and those interested in science policy or organisation.

We just needed someone to write the book. To put it another way, we needed a writer. But as there was going to be a good deal of science in the book we agreed that we needed a science writer, or a writing scientist. Then again, as the book is about history (albeit recent history) maybe we needed a historian, that is a historian of science. Or perhaps a scientist interested in history. This was getting complicated.

We had some constraints – resource was limited and we had barely 18 months to complete the project before the target date of our centenary in July 2014. This meant the book had to be a canter rather than a slow walk through history.

I tentatively put out an enquiry via email and Twitter about my need to “find a science writer with a historical bent“. This generated some helpful advice, quite a few people interested in bidding for the work, and some critical comments to the effect that I should be looking for a science historian not a writer. These latter comments did cause me to think again but my conclusion was the same. We were not in a position to commission a full history of the Institute – that would probably take five years and fill several volumes. We were also not looking to commission an academic work of history but a more popular overview – a memoir rather than a scholarly biography.

A little after this I saw a blogpost by Rebekah Higgitt which made me wonder again whether I was being hopelessly naive. She said:

Simplistic and heroic accounts of the history of science cannot be defended by the claim that the public like them…

science’s history should be  crowded and full of tangents, dead ends and competing approaches. The question is how to capture such complexity in an elegant way, not whether or not we should give up on the task.

I could see that we were in danger of being simplistic and telling the story from just one point of view, that of the Institute. This seemed the inescapable result of the path we had chosen. We also wanted to tell the stories behind the science however – including some stories of the people doing the science. I hoped we could manage to tell a realistic story that included more than just the so-called heroes.

Well, we found our writer – Julie Clayton. She is an ex-scientist, having previously done postdoc work in immunology. She also has editorial experience (at Nature), has worked in TV and journalism, and is now a freelance science writer. She has written a couple of historical booklets previously. All of that experience seemed very pertinent to the job at hand.

The book

We planned that the book would have two sections. The first was to be a series of chapters that told the story of each Director in turn, and the way they steered the Institute as a whole.  These were to be written largely by Julie based on published reports, materials from our archives, and interviews. The second was a series of chapters (‘boxes’) about key areas of science and these were to be written by a number of current and retired members of staff, then expanded and edited by Julie. We had a draft list of topics, for instance Henry Dale would be covered in the Neuroscience chapter. But then someone complained that Dale had been a pharmacologist not a neuroscientist and we should really put him in the Pharmacology chapter (except pharmacology wasn’t on our initial list of chapters!). Noting that Dale was originally head of the ‘Department of Biochemistry and Pharmacology’ I had to concede that the complainant had a point so we created a new chapter (box) for Pharmacology. As things turned out he is also mentioned prominently in the Biochemistry chapter, the Chemistry chapter and the Biological Standards chapter. He really didn’t like staying in one box.

Julie has done a remarkable job. I had expected the book would be a collection of facts, drawn from official documents, with some photos and a bit of narrative. She has thrown her net far more widely, conducting interviews with many people and combing our archives for interesting and revealing details. The result is something really colourful and fascinating, readable and entertaining.

It has been a great journey through the history, and we are nearly at the end. The chapters are going through their final stages of editing and assembly right now. In fact, I must stop right here and go back to copy-editing chapter 11.  I’ll post again to let you know when the book is published.


About Frank Norman

I am a retired librarian. I spent 40 years working in biomedical research libraries.
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One Response to Boundaries and boxes

  1. cromercrox says:

    I know Julie – she worked with me for several years at Nature. You made the right choice.

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