Catching up on science

I’m three months behind on my SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN reading, but that’s not really news, it’s status quo these days. On the train ride home this afternoon, I tried to correct that, working back from most recent with the May 2008 issue. A few items to note:

Page 36 has an in memorium for Sir Arthur C. Clarke. The brief item reminds us of Clarke’s scientific optimism and recalls the most famous of his three “laws”, that “a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But it concludes with what I feel is an even more touching and positive sentiment:

An asteroid, an orbit, a species of dinosaur and several prizes have been named after him. Many scientists, astronauts and writers have credited him with inspiring them in starting their careers. His impact, you might say, was indistinguishable from magic.

I was rather dismayed by the forum opinion column by Mark Alpert, titled, “The Mad Scientist Myth” with the subtitle “Readers need more novels about real science”. The article criticizes novels by the likes of H.G. Wells and Ian Fleming for their portrayal of “mad scientists”, and points to Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith, which won the 1926 Pulitzer Prize as an early example of a novel that does a good job at portraying scientists. He goes on to mention a few other novels that achieve this goal, with authors like John Updike and Allergra Goodman. He concludes:

A good work of fiction can convey the smell of a laboratory, the colors of a dissected heart, the anxieties of a chemist and the joys of an astronomer… Novels such as Intuition, with their fully fleshed out characters and messy conflicts, can erase the sinister Dr. No cartoons. And most important, these books can inspire readers to become scientists themselves.

When I read this I was thunderstruck. Did this guy grow up on an island? John W. Campbell, who took over as editor of Astounding Science Fiction in 1938 and was at the helm until his death in 1971, did exactly this: he insisted that scientists in fiction be real people, with real problems to solve; he turned away from the action/adventure/mad scientist and by doing so, appealed to a generation of writers that gave birth to the Golden Age of science fiction. Readers need more novels about real science, Alpert says. Has he never read a book by Arthur C. Clarke? Or Isaac Asimov? Or Hal Clement? How about a book by Robert Silverberg? Or Robert Heinlein? Present day writers who write novels about real science are too many to count. Glancing at the titles and authors on my bookshelves, I see novels about science by Greg Bear and Gregory Benford; by Joe Haldeman; by Robert J. Sawyer. Walk into any Barnes & Noble or Borders and the science fiction section is filled with more novels about science than the science and nature section is filled with science books. Furthermore, ask a scientist what inspired him or her to become a scientists and odds are that he or she will tell you that part of it had to do with reading science fiction as a kid. I agree we need more novels about real science. But I don’t think you have to look very far to find a whole lot of good ones already out there.

Finally, there is a fascinating article on “Science 2.0”, or the notion of using social networking as an added tool to peer review in science. The premise is, in essence, to publish everything online, to make the web each and every scientists’ notebook, one in which other scientists could comment, and provide immediate feedback. The discussion of pros and cons is a fascinating insight into the world of peer review, tenure tracks, publishing, where the science seems to get lost in a process that rewards priority and secrecy. Publishing mistakes can be as useful as publishing successes. Those of us who’ve taken science courses know that this is why our teachers told us never to erase things. We need to learn from that. And in a social networking environment, we can learn from more than just ourselves. For those interested, the article happens to be freely available on the Scientific American website.