Skip to main content

Free Radicals – Michael Brooks ***

This is one of those books that is very well done – but it’s difficult to like the outcome. Michael Brooks sets out to show that real scientists are not at all like the hyper-rational, logical, conformist Mr Spock caricatures we know and love. This is fine, as long as he doesn’t also demolish scientific heroes along the way – we all need heroes.
Whether it’s using drugs to stimulate ideas, or being selective results, it seems many a scientist has been prepared to stray from the straight and narrow in order to get to their desired ends. We see how dog eat dog the battle to publish can be, but also how a kind of ‘acceptable fraud’ is all too common – not the outright making up of results, but rather going all out to pursue an idea, possibly a spark of genius, even if it means temporarily ignoring an experimental result or interpreting the data in a slightly selective fashion.
Parts of the book feel a bit forced. The suggestion that many (or even any) great scientific ideas were the result of being on LSD or other drugs seems a little unlikely. Apart from anything else there is reasonable evidence that effective creative thinking is suppressed by drug use – users may well think they are being creative while high, but in reality aren’t. The capability to come up with new directions and see things in different ways seem to be better served by going for a walk or sleeping on a problem, rather than tripping – it’s difficult not to get the sense that Brooks is just out to shock the reader here.
There is also rather too much emphasis put on the tedious postmodernist views of Paul Feyerabend and his ilk. I thought that Alan Sokal’s brilliant hoax had put paid to all that rubbish, but Brooks was prepared to drag it into the argument. However there is no doubt that scientists’ tendency to take risks (whether with themselves and other people or with their theories), to support a theory far outside what is suggested by experiment and to be harsh to opposing theories are real and often hidden behind the ‘rational people of science’ facade. Brooks makes clear that sometimes a scientist will be so convinced with a theory that they keep on ignoring the evidence for years… and they are eventually proved right. How often this happens compared with occasions when they don’t get it right he doesn’t say.
Perhaps the most important message is the need for mavericks in science, not just conformists. All too often modern academic science is far too rigidly bound to make big progress. If we are to make real breakthroughs again, perhaps there needs to be more opportunity to go out on a limb. At the same time, and this is something Brooks doesn’t really pick up on, we need a lot more education of the public (and of journalists and politicians) in the realities of science – an understanding that it is very rarely about certainty, and is all about probabilities – and that it is much easier to disprove something than to prove it. The public expects science to be black and white, where it is really shades of grey. We just need education to understand that this doesn’t discredit it. They are by far the best shades of grey available. But we shouldn’t expect certainty.
In the end the advice I would have given to Michael Brooks if asked before he wrote the book would be ‘Tread lightly for you tread on my dreams.’ There is no doubt that this is an interesting subject, and it’s important that we understand that scientists are human. But you don’t improve matters by simply pushing them off a pedestal. They still have the best view around.
Paperback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…