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.
Lightman says he is often “struck that philosophy students read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, political science majors read the U.S. Constitution, and literature classes read Hamlet and Moby-Dick, but students of science hardly ever read the original works of Mendeleyev or Curie or Einstein.” But there is reason for the widespread ignorance of these classic papers. In science it’s the ideas that matter, not how they’re expressed. That’s why scientific papers are cited but never quoted. While the Cliff’s Notes version of Moby-Dick is no substitute for the real thing, the same is not true of the textbook summary of Einstein’s paper on special relativity, which will always be clearer and more up-to-date than the original.
But Lightman seems to believe that the original articles have an aesthetic value in themselves. “Like poetry these papers have their internal rhythms, their images, their beautiful cystallizations, their sometimes fleeting truths,” he writes, somewhat feverishly. They are “the great novels and symphonies of science.”
Having struggled through these two dozen great novels and symphonies, I have to confess that I was unable to discern their “internal rhythms.” And I don’t really have a sense of how their “fleeting truths” are fleeting or why these papers are any more poetic than your average legal memo or newspaper article. They describe some of the most wonderful discoveries of the past century, but there is nothing inherently wonderful about how they do so. In fact, by the criteria you’d use to judge any other piece of writing–construction of argument, lucidity of explanation, quality of prose–a few of the papers are downright sloppy.
In part that’s because the guidelines of scientific publication provide so little room to maneuver stylistically. The medium privileges precision over artistry, and efficiency over individuality. Humor and fresh prose are altogether absent from the great works Lightman has collected. The narrative of how the scientist got from point A in his thinking to point B, the story of the messy false starts and unexpected diversions that make Lightman’s introductions so compelling, is obscured by the imperative to present final results with maximum economy. Scientists aren’t expected to show their work unless it has direct bearing on the final results. And most of the time, you have to read between the lines just to glimpse the author’s excitement about his subject.
About a quarter of the discoveries Lightman chronicles occurred by accident, or were the result of a lucky scientist being in the right place at the right time. Of course, sometimes being in the right place at the right time is a matter of more than luck. When Alexander Fleming stumbled on penicillin, it was a fortuitous accident, but one he had put himself in the way of. “Fleming dedicated himself to a kind of studied disorder,” writes Lightman. His lab was a scene of constant disarray, a place where all kinds of microscopic organisms could find a home in the stacks of petri dishes that were often left out to fester, sometimes for weeks at a time. Occasionally, Fleming would check them out, just to see if anything “interesting” had shown up.
When he found a fluffy white mold growing on one of those petri dishes in the spring of 1928, he wasn’t looking for what turned out to be the most important advance in the history of medicine. It’s not clear that he even fully realized the implications of his discovery. Fleming’s paper was titled “On the Antibacterial Action of Cultures of a Penicillium, with Special Reference to Their Use in the Isolation of B. Influenzae.” The title didn’t say anything about medical uses. In one sentence toward the end of the paper, Fleming mentions that penicillin “may be an efficient antiseptic for application to, or injection into, areas infected with penicillin-sensitive microbes,” but he thought the more important consequence of his discovery was that scientists would be able to use the antibiotic to separate different strains of bacteria in laboratory cultures. The scientific community largely ignored Fleming’s sentence about medical applications for the better part of the next decade.
Like Fleming, Ernest Rutherford more or less stumbled on the discovery of the atomic nucleus. At the time, he had been probing the innards of atoms by bombarding extremely thin pieces of gold foil with alpha particles and then observing what happened. Most of the time, the alpha particles traveled straight through the gold foil, as if passing through empty space, or were deflected only slightly. Rutherford assigned an undergraduate to perform what he later called a “damn fool experiment,” to check whether any of the alpha particles were bouncing off in other, unexpected directions. No one had thought to look for such large-angle deflections, because no one expected to find them. But something suggested to Rutherford that the experiment was worthwhile.
The results of the undergraduate’s fool’s errand ended up laying the foundation for modern physics and chemistry. He found that a very small percentage of the particles were rebounding wildly, in every possible direction, as though they had collided with some dense concentration of mass. Rutherford inferred that atoms were not balls of plum pudding, as others had thought, but rather cavernous empty spaces with electrons buzzing around miniature nuclei.
Other discoveries included in the volume had more to do with careful premeditation than good fortune. The idea for the landmark experiment proving the existence of neurotransmitters came to Otto Loewi in a dream in 1921. “I got up immediately, went to the laboratory, and performed a simple experiment on a frog heart according to the nocturnal design,” he wrote years later. Unlike Rutherford and Fleming, Loewi knew exactly what he was out to prove. Scientists had long understood that the nervous system functioned as a kind of telegraph network, sending messages up and down the body. Loewi wanted to understand how nerve cells communicated with one another and how they interfaced with other organs.
His “nocturnal design” involved dissecting two frogs and removing their beating hearts. He bathed both hearts in a saline solution and then electrically stimulated the vagus nerve of one of them, causing it to beat slower. Next, he poured the saline solution from the slowed heart onto the second heart. It started beating slower as well, proving that some chemical had been released into the solution. Eventually, Loewi helped identify that chemical as acetylcholine, one of several neurotransmitters that allow nerves to communicate across the miniature chasms that separate them. To this day, his profoundly simple experiment is considered a model of scientific elegance.
But as beautiful as the experiment may have been, can we really call the paper describing it a work of art? Lightman seems to suffer from an insecurity that afflicts many scientist writers, a compulsion to compare the process of scientific discovery to that of artistic creativity, and to hold scientific and artistic genius up to each other.
The comparison of science and art is a trope that runs through much of Lightman’s writing. In The Discoveries he writes that “Einstein was an artist as much as a scientist.” What does that really mean? In what sense were Einstein’s discoveries art–or for that matter any of the original papers Lightman has collected–except in the most meaningless stretch of metaphor?
Making scientists into artists is a way of dealing with a conundrum that Lightman confronts in A Sense of the Mysterious, a collection of essays published last year: that even the most brilliant scientist is, in some basic way, replaceable. Lightman describes the sense of bewilderment he felt after discovering he’d been scooped by another physicist on a discovery he had spent months working toward. “I began to experience another emotion: irrelevancy. If the physical universe was reducible to precise equations with precise answers…then why was I, as a particular and unique person, needed to find those answers?” After all, if it hadn’t been Watson and Crick who discovered the structure of DNA, it would have been Linus Pauling soon after, or someone else. If science advances toward its ultimate objective description of the universe regardless of the individuals who are at its cutting edge, then why celebrate scientists at all? In the same essay, Lightman writes that “the most important thing about a scientific result is not the scientist who found it but the result itself…. In the arts, the individual is the essence.” Calling something a work of art and its creator an artist is a form of praise, but more important, it is a way of assigning agency to the people who make the great breakthroughs. It is a way of making them irreplaceable. But sometimes a great discovery is just a great discovery.