When the most recent batch of Nobel science prizes was announced last year, there was the usual flurry of articles about the award-winning scientists and their discoveries. For good reason, the media were particularly captivated by the story of Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, winners of the medicine prize for work they did in the early 1980s demonstrating that stomach ulcers are caused by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori. To bolster their case, Marshall, who was then a young scientist, heroically downed a beaker of the bacteria and earned himself an ulcer a few days later. This was science at its most thrilling.
Warren and Marshall originally published their results in two dry letters to the medical journal The Lancet and in two detailed articles in the Medical Journal of Australia. To the best of my knowledge, no major news outfit republished so much as a snippet of those papers, or for that matter any of the other original scientific papers for which last year’s Nobel Prizes were awarded. There’s nothing surprising about this, of course. No sane editor would subject an audience of nonspecialists to the drollery of scientific journal articles, no matter how momentous–even one that describes a scientist audaciously inflicting himself with debilitating bacteria. (In the understated journalese of the original article, Marshall’s feat is sapped of its gallantry. He is demoted from intrepid self-experimenter to “a volunteer with histologically normal gastric mucosa.”) Science can be very exciting, but scientific papers, as a rule, generally aren’t.
Alan Lightman, essayist, novelist and theoretical physicist, has written a new book based on exactly the opposite premise. “The first reports of the great discoveries of science are works of art,” he declares. It’s the sort of statement that sounds, the first time you hear it, reasonable enough. If you haven’t actually looked at such classic papers as “On the Physical Content of Quantum Kinematics and Mechanics” (Werner Heisenberg’s unveiling of the uncertainty principle) or “Observed Behavior of Highly Inelastic Electron-Proton Scattering” (the discovery of quarks), the notion that the great discoveries of science might be described in papers that are themselves works of art seems possibly true.
Lightman polled scientists and dug through libraries to amass a collection of original journal articles heralding twenty-two of the great discoveries of the twentieth century. The list includes Edwin Hubble’s discovery of the expanding universe, Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA, Linus Pauling’s breakthrough on chemical bonding and Steven Weinberg’s unified theory of forces. The papers come exclusively from the hard sciences. There are none from the fields of psychology, geology or even evolutionary biology, and curiously none of the papers were published after 1972. Along with the republished papers, Lightman has written fairly long introductions summarizing the articles and recounting the scientific back-stories that led up to the discoveries.
I suspect that very few readers will be able to slog through these papers, and even fewer will care to. As “works of art,” they make Finnegans Wake look as accessible as The Da Vinci Code. But if you’re willing to skim past the papers themselves, and can ignore Lightman’s fanciful thesis that they are great works of art, then there’s a lot to take away from the other 50 percent of this book. Lightman’s introductions to the discoveries are, collectively, an outstanding primer on the development of science in the twentieth century. Even if his explanations are at times no more exciting than the sort you’d find in an introductory college textbook, they are almost always clear and precise. So clear and precise, in fact, that it’s hard to see why anyone would bother reading the accompanying papers.