Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science, By Michael Brooks<br/>Litmus: Short Stories from Modern Science, Edited by Ra Page

Peter Forbes
Friday 05 August 2011 00:00

These days science is either nothing or it's the new religion. But, as both these books show in their different ways, the practice of science inhabits the broad territory between these extremes and exhibits the full Monty of human behaviour. Science is the most reliable form of knowledge we have but it is arrived at by unreliable means. Cutting-edge research deals with the unknown unknowns, as the unwitting philosopher of science Donald Rumsfeld put it, and there is no formula or methodology for achieving that.

Michael Brooks is the canniest science writer currently plying his trade. Whereas others merely translate the discoveries of science into hopefully understandable language, Brooks writes, above all, with attitude. His Thirteen Things that Don't Make Sense (2009) tackled the biggest questions still unresolved, such as why do we believe we have free will when reliable experiments suggest we don't; or why did the Voyager probes go slightly off-piste, apparently in defiance of Newton's Law of Gravitation?

In Free Radicals, every case history involves scientists succeeding by breaking the rules by which people imagine science to be bound. Brooks characterises the scientific process as anarchy, stressing the wildness of some scientists, their drug-taking, their vicious rivalries, their sometimes economy with the evidence. This may seem a bit over-the-top but it is a welcome corrective to the dutiful obeisance science sometimes evokes.

"Anarchy" has some reach as a word. So much so that Jake Davis, arrested as the alleged hacker behind recent cyber attacks on Sony, Britain's Serious Organised Crime Agency, the NHS and some Murdoch newspapers, flaunted Free Radicals as a designer accessory at his court appearance this week. Brooks's anarchy refers to the multitudinous ways of getting to the heart of scientific phenomena, some involving questionable behaviour. It has nothing whatsoever to do with denial-of-service attacks on big corporations and state agencies - but that's language for you.

Even so, Brooks's suggestion that in science "anything goes" occasionally leads him astray. His slant blinds him to the fact that following the story of Barbara McClintock's work on regulatory genes with a plea for chimpanzees to be given human rights – because chimps have virtually all of the human genes – is a non sequitur. Mice have most of the same genes too. The point to be learnt from McClintock's work is that it isn't the almost-identical protein-coding genes that distinguish us from apes but the regulatory genes. A chimp is no more human than a mouse. Which isn't to say we shouldn't treat all animals with respect –just that you can't use genes to bolster your case.

But for the most part, Brooks convincingly shows that the great scientists have often been motivated by strangely irrational, even mystical, beliefs and practices. It is well known that Michael Faraday was a devout member of an obscure Christian sect called the Sandemanians but Brooks points out that, for Faraday, his far-reaching discovery of the three-component laws of electromagnetism, involving electricity, magnetism and motion, had a real parallel in the Christian Trinity. I must admit that gave me much pause for thought. One of the trickier issues Brooks broaches is that, for all that science is supposed to be rigorously evidence-based, many scientists have persisted in pursuing their pet theory in the teeth of the available evidence and succeeded triumphantly when further data resolved the apparent contradiction.

A turning point for DNA pioneers Watson and Crick was the revelation that the chemistry textbook they were using contained a mistake. Crick said of this that he had learned "not to place too much reliance on any single piece of experimental evidence". Watson was, as ever, more cavalier: "some data was bound to be misleading if not plain wrong". There are scientists who spend an entire career insisting that the data will catch up with them.

But the triumph of science is that the major discoveries will be vindicated time and again. Science is not like philosophy, in which the same proposition can be posed over and over for 2000 years. The double helix led to the genetic code, to genetic engineering, to gene therapy, to synthetic biology, to DNA computing, to bionanotechnology and so on into the future.

Free Radicals is brash, freewheeling popular science; Litmus takes a completely novel approach to telling stories of classic scientific discoveries. It uses fiction – the short story – and it pairs each writer with a scientist who ensures accuracy and then comments on the science in question. Neither writer nor scientist shirks the nitty gritty, and the pairings work brilliantly, giving stereoscopic vision.

The subjects of the stories include Einstein, Pavlov, Joseph Swan (of electric light fame), and many lesser-known names (some – Kary Mullis, Arno Penzias, and Robert Wilson – also appear in Free Radicals) who made major discoveries. The writers and scientific commentators include Maggie Gee, Jane Rogers, Sean O'Brien and Jim Al-Khalili. A few of the stories evince the excessive reverence concerning science about which Brooks is so scathing, but others are refreshingly spiky. In the most extreme, Adam Marek metamorphoses a typical scientists' priority dispute into the squabbles of 10- and 11 year old kids: "They stole my idea!"; "You found it by accident!"; "But we still found it" (they're squabbling about priority for the discovery of background radiation from the Big Bang). Brooks, in telling the same story, shows that the reality isn't so far behind.

Some of the fictional strategies are ingenious. It's a surprise to find not just headline big science but vital lab techniques getting a look-in. Who could resist Tania Hershman's title: "We are all made of protein but some of us glow more than others"? That glow comes from green fluorescent protein, the luminous tag that allows biologists to see genes turning on and off in developing organisms.

Alan Turing is one of the figures you expect to find here, but Jane Rogers highlights his least known aspect. Turing was a pioneer of morphogenesis, the science of how living things acquire their shape and pattern. Rogers recaptures the wonder Turing felt at the miracle of a flower or a human being growing from a single cell. Unlike most people who have experienced that wonder, Turing had the germ of the answer: one that is only now proving spectacularly successful in the science of evolutionary developmental biology (evo devo). Just as the universe owes its pattern to a minute imbalance in cosmic forces, so the shapes of living things are sculpted by chemical gradients which spread across cells, creating complex patterns from their interactions.

In the longest story, Alison MacLeod riskily explores the heart (in both the physical and emotional senses) of cardiologist Professor Dennis Noble, who has made major discoveries about the ion channels that control the heart's beating. The pulse of life animates this piece, and indeed the entire, unfailingly interesting, collection. Litmus is not a test but an open sesame into some of science's most intriguing passages. It is especially welcome as sign of the vigour of the short story genre at a time when BBC Radio 4 is proposing to reduce the number it broadcasts. The power of Joanna Lumley and Stephen Fry, both of whom signed a petition of protest, has been brought to bear and the short story in the end could benefit from the fuss. Come to think of it: the format of Litmus sounds very radio-friendly. Over to you, BBC.

Peter Forbes won the 2011 Warwick Prize for Writing for 'Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage' (Yale)

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