The surest sign that I’ve become a Real Author is that there are five months yet before Eureka comes out, and I’m already fretting about negative reviews. Negative reviews that haven’t happened yet, but that I know will come, in a particular form.
The book, as you probably know from my prior ramblings on this subject, contains a large-ish number of historical anecdotes illustrating particular aspects of the scientific process, and relating them to everyday activities (rough list in this post). The thing that I worry about is that I decided early on to make a conscious effort to keep the whole thing upbeat. And that means downplaying some of the more unsavory bits.
So, for example, I have a section on Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s discovery of pulsars and how it relates to pattern-spotting games, but only a footnote about the fact that she didn’t get a share of the Nobel for her discovery (it went to her advisor, Antony Hewish). Similarly, I cite Rosalind Franklin for the key x-ray diffraction data that determined the structure of DNA, but the fact that Watson and Crick scooped her after getting a look at her data is a footnote, and the fact that Watson went on to say awful things about her in his autobiography doesn’t show up at all (Watson does get called out for dumb racist remarks in another section, though, because his awfulness is expansive). I make a brief reference to Erwin Schrödinger’s personal life costing him a job at Oxford because he was openly carrying on an affair with a colleague’s wife, but don’t point out that he was a pretty skeevy guy in a lot of ways, and had to be warned off pursuing the 14-year-old daughter of a friend.
I am virtually certain, especially in the wake of the recent Feynman unpleasantness, that this will draw complaints that I’m covering over the more unflattering aspects of science. And there’s a sense in which that’s true– I know about these issues and details, and have deliberately chosen to de-emphasize them. I did that because while I’m making every effort to have the book be as accurate as possible in terms of both science and history-of-science, it’s ultimately more advocacy than history. I’m not trying to present a comprehensive picture of science, warts and all, or a collection of detailed biographies of famous scientists. I’m trying to de-mystify the scientific process for non-scientists by showing how everyday activities use the same processes that have been used for scientific discovery. The historical anecdotes are for color, and dwelling too much on the non-scientific aspects of these stories would distract from the central point about how we all think like scientists.
I do what I can to provide balance– if I were doing a total whitewash, I would’ve left out the footnotes– and hope that interested readers will get more complete versions of these stories in the many more detailed biographical works about the principal characters. And the concluding chapter is dedicated to taking on a lot of pernicious ideas about who can do science– that science is only Western, only for men, only for the rich. But again, I try to accentuate the positive. So, when I give examples of great women in science, I opt for talking about Chien-Shiung Wu and her spectacular successes, rather than Lise Meitner, who probably deserved to share a Nobel prize with Otto Hahn but had the misfortune of being both female and Jewish. Both made incredibly important contributions to physics, and serve as excellent counterexamples to the notion that women aren’t capable of doing science at the highest levels, but Wu’s story has a happier ending, and the goal is for the book to be uplifting.
But I know I’m going to get complaints that I didn’t give sufficient space to the darker sides of many of the stories and people mentioned in the book. And there won’t be much of anything I can say about that– I wrote it the way I did deliberately, to serve a particular purpose. I think that was reasonable and appropriate (obviously, or I wouldn’t’ve turned it in that way…), but I’m acutely aware that others may disagree.
Thus, a decision to keep the book upbeat to appeal to a particular audience ends up serving as a rich source of fodder for pre-emptive fretting about how it will be received by an entirely different audience. Which I guess is one of the ironic things about becoming a Real Author…