“Few things that can happen to a nation are more important than the invention of a new form of…”

You’ll have to scroll down for the last word of that sentence. It may surprise you.

I took this quote from another old(ish) book that didn’t make it into Free Radicals’ notes and sources section. But it’s a gem, nonetheless. Jacob Bronowski's Magic, Science and Civilisation was published in 1978 and is a treasure trove of forgotten insights.

One of the most interesting things to me was Bronowski’s discussion of the difference between the perspective of the working scientist and the outsider’s view.

Here’s Bronowski on Popper:

…And though I have great admiration for my friend and colleague Karl Popper, in his recent work he has begun to stress the notion that there is a great problem-solving element in making laws of science. I think he suffers, as many of his colleagues do, from the fact that he really isn’t used to how a laboratory carries on. There aren’t any clear-cut problems; there certainly aren’t any decisions in which you set up an experiment and you say, ‘Here’s a law, here’s a hypothesis, I challenge it, I’m going to negate it.’ Instead it all works by a highly tentative and experimental process.

I have heard scientists quoting the Popperian, ‘it’s all about falsification’ so many times – always to outsiders, as a defence of why people should take science’s claims seriously. As Bronowski says, and as anyone who has spent time in a research laboratory knows, that’s a drastic over-simplification.

The question is, is it a dangerous one? I think it is: it dehumanises the process of science, stripping away the bits that people outside of science – people who have only engaged with the arts, for instance – would actually appreciate and connect with. It’s a bit like Picasso saying, “well, the thing I do is just paint the eye a bit wonky. Rather pleasing, isn't it?”

Simply describing the end result does not do justice to the creative process and the sheer enormous effort that science requires. And, of course, the challenging, radical new worldview that a new scientific insight leaves us with.

For me, this is what people haven’t been allowed to appreciate about science, and it is damaging.  What Nobel laureate Peter Medawar called the “postures we choose to be seen in when the curtain goes up and the public sees us” have affected how we teach science, how the media engages with it, how it is funded, how governments relate to it – and many other things (that I do discuss in the book). The worst is public engagement. For my money, anyone who makes scientists sound like robots, then complains that people don’t engage with science, deserves a slap.

So, the end of that sentence I began with? “Verse.” Few things that can happen to a nation are more important than the invention of a new form of verse.

Really? Erm, apparently.

The quote comes from T.S. Eliot, and Bronowski agrees it is important: he points out the invention of the “heroic couplet” in England in the late seventeenth century represented a new approach to framing an argument, the key to seeding a revolution in society. But, Brownowski adds, you could say the same about science:

… literary criticism aside, if Mr Eliot has a right to say that about a new form of verse then we certainly have a right to say it about a new form of thinking which came in with the couplet at the time of the Royal Society in the last part of the seventeenth century.

Few things that can happen to a nation were more important than that, he says: the establishment of a new way of thinking and arguing, with experimental proof as the ultimate arbiter. As Bronowski says, “The most remarkable discovery made by scientists is science itself.”

Instead of trying to subvert nature through magic and alchemy, we began to embrace nature, be ruled by the limits it imposes, but exploit its properties for gains in technology and simple understanding. That’s why Francis Bacon said, “we cannot command nature except by obeying her.”

This insight led to a revelation about what humans could achieve, whether scientists or not. As Bronowski says, “at one moment in history, science and the arts rose together, because of the simple sense of man’s pleasure in his own gifts.”

Our worldview should not be about science, nor should it be about the arts. It should be about ensuring we are good stewards of the extraordinary abilities of the human mind.

“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…