The early release of a paperback edition of this work will be welcomed by people who like to lend their favorite reading matter. Many will lend this book but few will get it back because their friends will most likely pass it on to others. It contains the heavily edited transcripts from a series of interviews conducted by Lewis Wolpert on BBC Radio 3 and it maintains the high standard set by Bryan Magee who pioneered the art of extended interviews with men of ideas on the BBC. The result is a treasure-trove of insights into the world of science at the highest level. The book itself is beautifully designed and printed.
The thirteen interviews are grouped in five sections. 'First and Last Things' introduces the theoretical physicists Abdus Salam and Michael Berry, the cosmologist Martin Rees and the mathematician Christopher Zeeman. 'Molecules of Life' offers the chemist Dorothy Hodgkin and three molecular biologists - Francis Crick, Sydney Brenner and Gunther Stent. 'Evolving Ideas' presents John Maynard Smith and Stephen Jay Gould, evolutionary biologists. 'The Search' contains Anthony Epstein, a virologist, and the geneticist Walter Bodmer. Richard Gregory the neuropsychologist has a section to himself titled 'Cunning Mechanisms'.
Wolpert and Richards in their introduction note that odd views of science flourish in the vacuum created by the general failure of scientists to communicate to the public. Of couse, there are notable exceptions from T. H. Huxley to Peter Medawar and some of the people in this volume such as Smith and Gould. But still the myth of the mad scientist is alive and well in some quarters, with other equally unhelpful stereotypes. It seems that too much is made of what is strange and different about science and its products but Wolpert suggests that doing science has much in common with other activities. In a similar vein Popper has suggested that science is 'common sense writ large'. On the matter of analogies between the activities of artists and scientists, Gunther Stent forcefully argues that the similarity is in the act of discovery (page 117) and he also aserts that artists and scientists share a concern with the truth.
The challenge for a book like this is to find people who can talk about their field in simple terms. They also need to convey some insights into the activities that are involved in their work, and the 'feel' of it all. This book suceeds handsomely because all the subjects are interesting and coherent, at least in the edited form provided to us. Wolpert has done very well to draw out his subjects with the lightest of touches here and there to nudge the discussion forward.
Deep philosophical thoughts do not feature in the dialogues apart from Wolpert's occasional recourse to Kuhn's language of paradigm shifts. Despite this, useful insights abound. Martin Rees draws a contrast between his own pluralistic approach to rival theories - 'running the horses against each other' to see if any fall by the wayside, and the more dogmatic approach of the 'advocates' who feel obliged to defend their pet ideas against all criticisms. Richard Gregory points out that the academic battles between rival dogmatists are 'very much fought by forgetting half of the counter-evidence'. He prefers to maintain friendly relations with opponents, 'not working in cupboards and getting amazingly aggressive about other people who think a bit differently.' (page 197).
Francis Crick, as one would expect from reading The Double Helix, displays a thoroughly 'Popperian' perspective - 'It's getting rid of false ideas which is the most important thing in developing the good ones...You should not get bogged down with experimental details. You should make some sort of bold assumptions, and try them out' (pp 94-5). This contrasts with the compulsive experimentalist Anthony Epstein who states 'I don't understand any of that [talk of theory]. I think just sort of messing about is the answer. You've just go to keep messing about at the bench...You make a little bit of apparatus...You see how to change this just a little bit...and you want to tinker with something'(p 165).
Only one of these scientists (Gunther Stent) has been touched by the current vogue for the 'social construction of science.' The others tend to think that the world is there, in all its complexity and glory, and we do the best we can to improve our understanding of it. In the words of Michael Berry 'It's very important to always realize that there are phenomena, that there is a world outside our heads that we're trying to explain. Otherwise it's a curious game, a form of self indulgence which I think is intellectually not very worthwhile' (47).
Similarly the notion of objective truth is maintained, notably by Stephen Jay Gould, who has made his mark as a leading opponent of the anti-evolutionary movement that sometimes calls itself 'Creationism' or 'Creation Science.' Gould likes to regard himself as a 'New York city street kid' and his two unfulfilled dreams are to play centre field for the Yankees baseball team, and to sing Wotan at the Met.
These scientists display few characteristics in common apart from a burning interest in their vocation and a certain amount of entrepreneurial flair in making the most of opportunities. Many of these arose from the disruption of career paths by the war. For example a bomb destroyed the laboratory where Francis Crick had been painfully making his way as an experimental physicist. Fortunately he was elsewhere doing war work on mines at the time and, after the war, he tossed up between brain research and molecular biology for a change of direction. The impact of hostilities on Abdus Salam was less spectacular but equally decisive. Born in a peasant community in Pakistan he regarded the Civil Service as the peak of achievement but the war stopped the entrance exams and he did an MA in mathematics instead. This earned him a scholarship to Cambridge which led, in turn, to the Cavendish Laboratory and eventually to a share in the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979.
These talks provide a wealth of background insights into some of the most significant advances in modern science. No summary or paraphrase can do justice to the engaging personal voices which speak from it. This is a book to read with pleasure, and one to re-read, if you can get it back from the person who borrowed it.
Oxford University Press . 1989