The Angst of Being Positive

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...

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Chad, have confidence and don't worry. You wrote with the goal in mind of making scientific methods and thinking accessible, and made your choices according to that goal. That's an example of consistency with principles and it stands on its own two feet.

Those who delight in reading about the dark and twisted side of humans are most likely looking for the kind of company that misery loves: confirmation that they are not alone in their own dark and twisted "stuff." That, or they're looking to feel "better than" some of the most brilliant minds in history. The desire to dominate others ("better than") is an atavism that our species must overcome if we're to evolve culturally to the point where we can muster the technology and time scale needed to spread to the stars.

As for those dark and twisted bits, most of them come down to the fact that humans have two brains: one dedicated to spreading their memes, the other dedicated to spreading their genes. In males that means "broadcast strategy," thus the frequently-observed deviations from the moral and ethical maxims of honesty, fidelity, consenting adults, and treatment of others as fellow humans rather than as breeding accessories.

We can draw a quasi-arbitrary line in the sand and say, past this point in time, certain behaviors are no longer acceptable and will tarnish reputations indelibly. We can do that with racism, sexism, homophobia, gender identity, and extend that line into the future where other forms of treating others as objects become recognized and subject to moral sanction.

But the other line that needs to be drawn is the vector pointing toward others' good behavior and talent as examples to be emulated. This without need of delving into the dark sides of every human's life and mind, and without need of the obligatory "irony" and cynicism that tarnish our culture like smog.

Sometimes a scientist is first and foremost a scientist, and sometimes an author does best by ignoring the catcalls of those who prefer drama to inspiration. Sometimes, or rather, always, the goal of inspiring others to embrace the search for knowledge of the natural world, is worth the effort and worthy of the choice, to downplay the dramatic and up-play the uplifting.

What are the odds that you can more or less copy paste this blog post into an introduction?

By Ori Vandewalle (not verified) on 16 Jul 2014 #permalink

What Ori Vandewalle said. A disclaimer of sorts and then on to the business at hand.

You can't be all things to all people all the time and maintain clarity.

"...A time to build up, a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones
A time to gather stones together..."

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 16 Jul 2014 #permalink

Have you thought about addressing them, head on, in a preface or author's note rather than the introduction? You have a good start here, stating your purpose is to show how science is not disconnected from daily life rather than address side topics on whether that work is recognized publicly with a Prize.

A penultimate paragraph could list a few examples, like Franklin or Bell, each of whom must have been thrilled at the moment of discovery, pretty much they way you put it up above, and explain that there are others (like Meitner) that would have made the book too long. Both the joy of discovery and limited credit for it is not a unique experience. The fame of a great storyteller or cook is usually local, and those people could also have a dark side that does not change the fact that the story or recipe is really good. (Feel free to "borrow" any of this if you wish.)

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 16 Jul 2014 #permalink

Watson made an off-hand comment about low IQ scores in Sub-Saharan Africa. In fact IQ scores in Sub-Saharan Africa range about 60-80. Average IQ of the human species is about 90 with a total range between different populations of about 4 standard deviations with Mbuti pygmy lowest and Ashekenazi Jewish highest.

I don't have an issue with your approach, Chad. There's a time and place for everything, and even if you were writing a full biography of just one scientist, it would be hard (and not necessarily desirable, depending on your goal) to give a comprehensive picture of his or her character.

But in my view, the Feynman thing goes well beyond glossing over flaws (which is sometimes understandable and justifiable). Unlike Schrodinger's flaws or Watson's, Feynman's awful behaviour towards women is not just glossed over -- it's actively celebrated in the community, or at least that's how it often seems, and this creates some "chilly climate" problems. Saramoira Shields puts it well in her post ( when she writes that "every time I hear someone in my department or in one of my classes go on about how Feynman was so *awesome* I mean he was kind of a jerk to women but *whatever*, I file him...away as someone who would have sided against me [on occasions when I've been harassed]."

I guess what I'm saying is that while Schrodinger's creepiness has very little (basically nothing) to do with why he's an honoured figure in science, Feynman's bad behaviour towards women is pretty well tied up with his overall image as a "lovable rogue", and that image, in turn, is a big part of why he's so revered. That makes it a lot harder to separate the good he did from the bad.

By Margaret Harris (not verified) on 16 Jul 2014 #permalink

When I read the title I thought you're afraid of having contracted some disease... I think everybody who has ever had anything to do with science writing knows that the difficult part is to decide what NOT to say. I for certain do not blame authors who wish to convey the science for being short on the history. If I want history, I'll look for a historian. Sure, you shouldn't get the facts bluntly wrong, but there is really no way to avoid being 'too brief' here and there when it comes to the history.

I should probably note that I don't have a really clear opinion on the whole Feynman explosion. I've been way too busy (supervising five summer undergrads, and I'm done with 1.5 of the 3 talks I need to have finished before I get page proofs to review at the end of next week) to follow more than the rough outlines of it.

As for Feynman himself, he's in the book, but there are only oblique references to his personal life-- a couple of mentions of his carefully cultivated reputation as a maverick/ colorful character. Mostly it's about his science, and specifically how QED relates to storytelling. I think I tell more personal stories about Schwinger than Feynman.

I suspect that part of the reason that Schrodinger's skeeviness is less celebrated has to do with the level of their physics. Every undergrad spends at least a little time working out solutions to the Schrodinger equation, but you can go a long way in physics without ever evaluating a Feynman diagram, let alone working through the path integral formulation of QM in any detail. That makes it easier to keep the focus on his science.

Being a generation older also helps, as Schrodinger was operating in a very different media environment. Had Schrodinger been younger, or Feynman older, their reputations might be reversed.

In the end, scientists are human, and subject to the same faults and foibles that other humans are. It shouldn't be too surprising that some of the more unsavory types reach the top of the profession, as that seems to happen in other human endeavors (business, politics, athletics, entertainment, etc.) as well--indeed, if your goal is to reach the top of your profession, then often a certain amount of sociopathy helps.

But societal expectations evolve over time, too. Schrödinger only got a warning from his friend about the 14-year-old daughter; today he might get a visit from a police officer, or worse. Likewise, Feynman's treatment of women, while serious enough that his second wife could divorce him at a time when no-fault divorce didn't exist, wasn't that much worse than Mad Men, which is set in a part of that era; it would not be tolerated on most university campuses today. Feynman himself lived long enough to see these attitudes start to change, so he may have felt compelled to gloss over the details, but some of them come through in his memoirs: in one chapter of SYJ, called "You Mean You Just Ask Them?", he reveals himself to have been a pick-up artist. He also mentions in SYJ (perhaps in the same chapter; I don't have my copy handy) driving from Ithaca to Las Vegas in pursuit of a woman who had already broken up with him (he claims this wasn't clear until he arrived in Vegas, but the "Dear John" letter that prompted his trip should have clued him in).

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 16 Jul 2014 #permalink


If you look at Youtube, you have likes and dislikes. For most dislikes of anything it is typically about 2% of the audience. The old saying is "you cannot please all of the people all of the time", so why fret? I used to develop products with patented technology that I had invented, and just before the launch of the product, I would worry. Had I done enough experiments to make sure it worked properly? Was it going to fail in someone's experiment? These were serious technologies used all over the world, worth millions by the time I had developed several products, and redeveloped some products with new technology.

As you get older you realise it was the same with exams and all you can do is say to yourself, I did my best. What I did was aimed at a particular market / individual / group and many of them find it useful, and bought it, or still want it or need it.

You get asked in a viva for a thesis "would you have done anything differently", well actually NO! A ridiculous question, where you make decisions and do things on the best intentions and best information that you have available!

For the bad reviews, Youtube or otherwise, someone went to the effort to be negative. They wanted to show their disapproval a show of petulant power. For what reason?
If something isn't to your liking, then why show it if it's not killing people, if it's not child abuse, if it's not stealing. Some people will just want to show their disapproval because it implies that they are in a position of power and that just feeds their ego.

Why fret? If you put this out as a comprehensive, all encompassing science book, both science and biographies, to cover it all in detail, then to have certain errors and omissions pointed out to you would be valid.

If the science was no better than first grade, then you would rightly be laughed at.