It Takes A Library... by Michael Brooks
|It Takes A Library...|
|Summary: We loved Free Radicals by Michael Brooks, and were delighted to hear about the research process, including Michael's love of libraries and admiration of JBS Haldane.|
|Date: 8 July 2011|
We loved Free Radicals by Michael Brooks, and were delighted to hear about the research process, including Michael's love of libraries and admiration of JBS Haldane.
It Takes A Library...
When you are researching a book these days, it's tempting to rely on the internet. It#s certainly invaluable: a huge swathe of research literature is there at all our fingertips. But that's when you know what you're looking for. Every book I find via an internet search has something to say that I already know about. In a library, on the other hand, that book is only a starting point. That book is surrounded by books on a similar subject – books that I didn't know about. You pick them up, flick through them, and find treasures – and wisdom – you would never otherwise have found.
Researching Free Radicals involved many trips to a university library that I regularly use. Those trips invariably resulted in a lot of 'wasted' time looking up and down the surrounding shelves, pulling out related books that looked interesting, and skimming through them.
There is so much in libraries that deserves an airing. There is little that can compare with the joy and value of discovering a book that you could only have come across by being in the same physical space. One example is Possible Worlds, a book JBS Haldane wrote in 1927.
Though I read it, Possible Worlds didn't make it into Free Radicals. But Haldane did make it in there because he is famous for having experimented on himself for wartime science (self-experiment is one of the 'anarchies' of science that shed so much light on what really motivates scientists). Haldane and his father investigated the effects of exposure to chlorine and mustard gas. JBS pioneered the science of scuba diving and decompression sickness, his experiments inducing crushed vertebrae, panic attacks and perforated eardrums (through which he could blow smoke). He was truly courageous, and his science made a difference in wartime events. British commandos applied Haldane's research to their diving routines, and the knowledge allowed them to defend and hold the crucial stronghold of Gibraltar when Hitler tried to take it.
Haldane was not alone in self-experimenting. A good many biologists experiment on themselves, he wrote in Possible Worlds. Dying while trying to work out the mechanism behind communicable diseases is the ideal way of dying, Haldane says. It's so admirable because scientists know that they are working with incomplete knowledge. I have no doubt that the theories to which I entrusted my life were more or less incorrect, he says. Nonetheless, the working hypotheses were good enough to enable him to make reliable risk assessments.
My favourite chapter in the book is entitled The Duty of Doubt. It is an overview of the value of taking a sceptical stance on everything – science included: science has owed its wonderful progress very largely to the habit of doubting all theories, Haldane points out. Haldane strides across some great moments of science in which doubt played a central role, then expands his theme to encompass religion and politics.
When a politician calmly goes back on a policy, his enemies accuse him of broken pledges; his friends describe him as an inspired opportunist, Haldane says. It is only a pre-scientific thought process in the electorate that create this dilemma for politicians, Haldane argues: if we were to allow politicians to use the scientific method, a politician could say, I am inclined to think the tariff on imported glass should be raised. I am not sure this is a sound policy; however, I am going to try it. After two years, if I do not find its results satisfactory, I shall certainly press for its reduction or even removal.
Imagine that! Perhaps this should be filed under Impossible Worlds. But in the current political climate, food for thought, nonetheless. And this from the era when Laurel and Hardy were just becoming popular, and the first Model A Fords were gracing the showrooms. Far be it from me to discourage people from reading new books, but I can't help thinking there's still an awful lot we can learn from the old ones.
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