“I once bicycled across a gap in full view of the Germans, having foreseen that they would be too surprised to open fire.”

This was nearly the epigraph to Free Radicals, because it seems to sum up the mindset of the best scientists. Good science happens when a scientist has an idea that wanders across their mind, and they just can’t shake it. They simply have to test it out, just to satisfy their own curiosity. Even if that means putting themselves at risk.

The quote is from biologist JBS Haldane, whose rather dashing picture is above. Haldane actively enjoyed the First World War, according to fellow scientist Peter Medawar:

"The First World War seems to have been the happiest period of Haldane’s life…Haldane described life in the front line as ‘truly enviable’; he enjoyed the comradeship of war and even (if what he says is anything to go by) the experience of killing people: ‘I get a definitely enhanced sense of life when my life is in moderate danger'."

Haldane is famous for having experimented on himself for wartime science. He and his father investigated the effects of exposure to chlorine and mustard gas. JBS pioneered the science of scuba diving and decompression sickness, his experiments inducing crushed vertebrae, panic attacks and perforated eardrums (through which he could blow smoke). He was truly courageous, and his science made a difference in wartime events. British commandos applied Haldane's research to their diving routines, and the knowledge allowed them to defend and hold the crucial stronghold of Gibraltar when Hitler tried to take it.

Haldane was not alone in self-experimenting. “A good many biologists experiment on themselves,” he once wrote. Dying while trying to work out the mechanism behind communicable diseases is “the ideal way of dying”, Haldane says. It’s so admirable because scientists know that they are working with incomplete knowledge. “I have no doubt that the theories to which I entrusted my life were more or less incorrect,” he says. Nonetheless, the working hypotheses were good enough to enable him to make reliable risk assessments.

Those quotes come from a gem of a book Haldane published in December 1927. It’s called Possible Worlds, and is a collection of essays he wrote for publications as diverse as the Rationalist Annual and the Daily Mail. Haldane says he wrote most of them during train journeys, and they do come across like that: a great mind that has spent years observing how science (and the world outside science) works, jots down a few musings while en route to his next adventure. “Many scientific workers believe that they should confine their publications to learned journals,” Haldane says in the Preface. “I think, however, that the public has a right to know what is going on inside the laboratories.”

And that is exactly what he tells us, with a unique perspective. Of course, Possible Worlds is a reflection of its time: the chapter on eugenics certainly raised my eyebrows. But many of the topics are timeless: “What use is Astronomy?” is a witty summation of the value of apparently pointless pursuits.

“What makes a scientist?” is equally relevant. Haldane encourages amateur science with the claim that “any man possessed of the patience and leisure necessary to watch a cricket or baseball match, and sufficient intelligence to solve a crossword puzzle, can make quite definite contributions to scientific research.” Is that still true? I think it is. We do such big science these days that it can seem that the days of the amateur are long gone. Nonetheless, as Andre Geim showed in a Nobel-worthy experiment using an HB pencil and a roll of sellotape, small science can produce world-changing results too.

My favourite chapter in the book is entitled “The Duty of Doubt”. It is an overview of the value of taking a sceptical stance on everything – science included: “science has owed its wonderful progress very largely to the habit of doubting all theories,” Haldane points out. Haldane strides across some great moments of science in which doubt played a central role, then expands his theme to encompass religion and politics.

When a politician calmly goes back on a policy, “his enemies accuse him of broken pledges; his friends describe him as an inspired opportunist,” Haldane says. It is only a “pre-scientific” thought process in the electorate that create this dilemma for politicians, Haldane argues: if we were to allow politicians to use the scientific method, a politician could say, “I am inclined to think the tariff on imported glass should be raised. I am not sure this is a sound policy; however, I am going to try it. After two years, if I do not find its results satisfactory, I shall certainly press for its reduction or even removal.”

Perhaps this should be filed under “Impossible Worlds”. But in the current political climate, food for thought, nonetheless. And this from the era when Laurel and Hardy were just becoming popular, and the first Model A Fords were gracing the showrooms. Maybe we should spend more time reviewing old books, rather than just the new ones…


07/06/2011 20:07

I was once told that James Lovelock experimented on himself in WW2. He was a conscientious objector, but did research work instead, on treating burns. His group, all pacifists, didn't like testing on bunny rabbits, so did on themselves instead.

The old tutor who told me that may have made up the bit about the bunnies. Or all of it for that matter.

Also interesting on the subject of amateur science is old Lovelock.

Though er, so is Sheldrake. Do you mention him in the book...? That is a serious (though admittedly slightly cheeky) question.

Michael Brooks
08/06/2011 09:11

Alice, love the Lovelock story, even if it isn't true!

Actually, there's no amateur science in the book: most is focussed on what people did to earn Nobel prizes.

There's no mention of Sheldrake in the book. Though I'm open to being proved wrong, I don't take him seriously as a scientist. I think there are much more interesting stories/examples of extraordinary methods producing extraordinary results that *have* been replicated and verified.

08/06/2011 14:42

Oh, I wasn't suggesting anyone take Sheldrake seriously as a scientist in the sense that you might believe his results/ methods.

But, he does have a scientific background (so he is 'a scientist' in some senses... he was constructed as one up to a point). You can learn a lot from examining the undersides of things, scientists included.

<a href="http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/episodes/2009/01/02/how-to-think-about-science-part-1---24-listen/#episode9">This interview</a> with him is interesting in terms of his views on the structures and politics of science. Take it with a huge pinch of salt, obviously (but then you should probably do that with similar interviews with Nobelists too).

I should also stress that don't offer it because I think people should follow his views, simply because I think it's interesting to know what they are, and that by challenging ourselves to work out precisely how we disagree (or even agree) with him, we can learn a lot about ourselves.

Michael Brooks
09/06/2011 11:51

Alice, thanks for this. I think it's incredibly difficult when you're operating within science to be objective about the methods, politics and structures - I really don't take any scientists' (and few science journalists') word on anything in that area. I didn't interview Nobelists for the book: I talked to a few, but they didn't give me anything I felt comfortable using; it's all so heavily edited in their minds, and given a thick veneer in order to conform to the image of science they want to put across.

I've spent a bit of time with Sheldrake. I like him, I understand where he's coming from, but I don't know how he makes the leap from his (inconclusive) results to such a firmly embedded and radical worldview in terms of telepathy etc. What's interesting about him is that he has identified an area where people really want to believe something they can't prove. The enormous popularity of his perspective is testimony to how readily we humans dismiss the evidence when it stands against what we want to believe to be true.


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