Scientists: More Kirk than Spock

The Model Scientist?

But if the history of chemistry lays only dubious claim to being the greatest adventure in all of history, it certainly is an adventure: quite different from the nerdy stereotype of the history of science, and much more like Captain Kirk than Science Officer Spock. Such is the lesson of Patrick Coffey’s lively survey, Cathedrals of Science. The men (mostly) and women (more every year) who make this history fight for jobs and recognition just like ballplayers, doctors, artists, actors, and accountants who strive to reach the top of their profession. Along the way, they prefer their friends, sabotage their enemies, and tilt playing fields the world assumes are level. Those of us who work in a place that bestows awards and collects oral histories know that every sort of personality can be a great scientist: the bold, the shy, the plodding, the brilliant, the generous, the spiteful, the humble, and those with more self-assurance than a shark in a minnow tank.

The Brain Stork

Steven Johnson: ‘Eureka moments are very, very rare’

Good ideas happen in networks; in one rather brain-bending sense, you could even say that “good ideas are networks”. Or as Johnson also puts it: “Chance favours the connected mind.”

Another surprising truth about big ideas: even when they seem to be individual flashes of genius, they don’t happen in a flash – though the people who have them often subsequently claim that they did. Charles Darwin always said that the theory of natural selection occurred to him on 28 September 1838 while he was reading Thomas Malthus’s essay on population; suddenly, the mechanism of evolution seemed blindingly straightforward. (“How incredibly stupid not to think of that,” Darwin’s great supporter Thomas Huxley was supposed to have said on first hearing the news.) Yet Darwin’s own notebooks reveal that the theory was forming clearly in his mind more than a year beforehand: it wasn’t a flash of insight, but what Johnson calls a “slow hunch”. And on the morning after his alleged eureka moment, was Darwin feverishly contemplating the implications of his breakthrough? Nope: he busied himself with some largely unconnected ruminations on the sexual curiosity of primates.

I’m not sure if he’s drawing the distinction between “thinking about a problem” and “coming up with the solution;” I’ve certainly had this happen on the much smaller scale of problems on which I work. You can be thinking about something, and making efforts to come up with a solution, and have a flash of insight which comprises the bulk of the answer. But the point about networks is, I think, well taken — it is invaluable to be able to bounce ideas off of someone and get feedback. It saves time to hear the fatal flaw that you have not yet discovered.

The broader thesis of needing certain other ideas, techniques or technology to be present before a solution is possible is something I thought was fairly obvious. “Conventional wisdom” has a way of setting in and restricting thought processes, and sometimes the best thing one can do is to find a person who doesn’t know a problem can’t be solved, and let them have at it. Experimentally you need certain technologies to exist before a phenomena can be investigated. Or, put another way, scientists tends to work on the cutting edge, but that cutting edge is defined by what is already known.

No Accounting for Taste

Amazon reviewers think this masterpiece sucks

Not everyone loves the classics.

Charlotte’s Web:

It is because of this horrid book that I eat sausage every morning and tell my dad to kill every spider I see. It is a traumatic, coma-enducing story that has changed my life forever. In conclusion I feel no one should be put through such torture and this book should be banned from every school, library, and bookstore in the Milky Way.

Never the Twain Shall Meet

Never, in this case, is 100 years.

After keeping us waiting for a century, Mark Twain will finally reveal all

The creator of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and some of the most frequently misquoted catchphrases in the English language left behind 5,000 unedited pages of memoirs when he died in 1910, together with handwritten notes saying that he did not want them to hit bookshops for at least a century.

That milestone has now been reached, and in November the University of California, Berkeley, where the manuscript is in a vault, will release the first volume of Mark Twain’s autobiography.

OK, what gets me is not that Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain, did not want his autobiography released until 100 years after his death. What gets me is that he died April 21, 1910, and the first edition won’t be out until November of 2010. What? Not enough lead-time to get the project done?

Don't Call Him a Prophet

NASA’s Prophet Will Give You Nightmares

Professor Hansen has been driven into a strange situation, and produced a strange book. For one-third of a century now, this cantankerous scientist has been more accurate in his predictions about global warming than anyone else alive. He saw these disastrous changes coming long before others did, and the U.S. government has tried to censor or sack him for his prescience. Now he has written a whistle-blower’s account while still at the top: a story of how our political system is so wilfully, deliberately blind to environmental realities that we have no choice now but for American citizens to take direct physical action against the polluters. It’s hardly what you expect to hear from the upper echelons of NASA: not a call to the stars, but a call to the streets. Toss a thousand scientific papers into a blender along with All the President’s Men and Mahatma Gandhi, and you’ve got this riveting, disorienting book.