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A passion for science

by L Wolpert; Alison Richards

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A passion for science   (2011-04-14)


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by wppalmer

A review of 'A passion for science'

Reviewer: W. P. Palmer

This is an extremely interesting book which consists of the edited conversations between one of the authors (Lewis Wolpert) and thirteen distinguished scientists. These conversations were originally broadcast on a BBC radio programme.
The scientists interviewed are: Abdus Salam -Theoretical Physicist, Martin Rees - Cosmologist, Michael Berry ­Theoretical Physicist, Christopher Zeeman - Mathematician, Dorothy Hodgkin - Chemist, Francis Crick ­Molecular Biologist, Sydney Brenner - Molecular Biologist, Gunther Stent -Molecular Biologist, John Maynard Smith - Evolution Theorist, Stephen Jay Gould - Evolutionary Biologist, Anthony Epstein - Virologist, Walter Bodmer-Geneticist, Richard Gregory - Neuropsychologist.
The fascination of this little volume comes from the very skilful editing of the discussions with each of the scientists to bring out their motivations for undertaking a scientific career and what science meant to them individually. Wolpert's introductions to each scientist are thumb-nail biographical sketches which to some extent indicate the line of questioning that he will follow for his interviewees.
The interviews do not follow a standard pattern, but they intelligently probe the reasons for each scientist's original interest in science, what people or events encouraged this interest and the key points in their career paths. In the questions asked there is an underlying interest not only in the way in which the scientists tackled their problems, but also into why one problem was chosen rather than another. The element of serendipity plus skill becomes obvious in a number of cases in the ways in which the actual problem chosen comes to the attention of the scientists.
For example, Anthony Epstein went to a lecture from a doctor working in Uganda partly by chance and as a result of this, used an electron microscope technique on which he was already working to show eventually that some cancerous tumors were caused by viruses.

Also it is necessary not only to choose an initial problem that is soluble, but also one which is soluble with the technology available at the time. Dorothy Hodgkin was initially to work on the structure of insulin using X-ray crystallography which was in its infancy for organic compounds at the time. However, she attempted a simpler structure first (penicillin) and again serendipity had a role, as it appears to have been a chance meeting with Ernest Chain which made this research possible. She then went on to investigate a compound of intermediate complexity (Vitamin . B12). Finally she returned to the task of finding the structure of insulin in which she had always remained interested, but now improved computing capacity and techniques made the task possible.
In the selection of thirteen scientists for this volume there is a broad sweep across the scientific disciplines, though the earth sciences seem unrepresented and there is only one female scientist where perhaps there should have been greater representation. Also the selection of scientists appears to be overrepresented by those working in the south of England, though this imbalance may have been due to the fact that the book was originally a set of radio interviews for a London based programme.
Overall the book makes important points about the great variety of motivations of people entering the scientific enterprise. As a prejudiced observer, I have always thought that careers in science and scientific achievement could often be traced to some exceptional science teacher, but there is little evidence for this hypothesis in this book. There is evidence that interested parents make a considerable difference though. Quite a number of those mentioned changed disciplines within science at a fairly late stage, so the young genius hypothesis as a basis for all scientific discovery is certainly unsubstantiated. There is also the point made by several scientists of the value of friends and colleagues in discussing problems. Such discussions greatly increase the quality of the science produced by acting as a sounding board which allows some ideas to be developed and others to be rejected. Francis Crick and Sydney Brenner shared an office together for twenty years. Brenner indicates the value of such discussions when he says:
"For 20 years I shared an office with Francis Crick and we had a rule that you could say anything that came into your head. Now most of these conversations were just complete nonsense. But every now and then a half-formed idea could be taken up by the other one and really refined. I think a lot of the good things that we produced came from those completely mad sessions". (p 106)
Crick talks of a similar earlier collaboration with Watson at the time when they were jointly working on the structure of DNA. He regrets the current pressure to produce papers, correspond, travel and attend conferences which he says distracts scientists from concentration on their research. He remembers earlier days:

"If it was a nice day you said, 'Well, let's go out on the river', and we would go punting on the river, and probably go on chatting about the problem of genes, or whatever, while we punted. It was blissful in a way, and I have tried very hard to re-create these conditions but all I can say is everybody is against me". (p 88)
What is the essence of this book and why should practicing teachers read it?

1988 edition reviewed and published in The Australian Science Teachers Journal, September 1992, Vol 38, No 3, p.72

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