Sunday, October 15, 2006

Mulling over Medawar

Speaking of essayists, Peter Medawar was as elegant a scientific essayist as you could find from the 1950s through to 1970s. Patrician, never less than confident in his own judgment, he made the reader feel that intellectual standards mattered, and you had better be pretty alert to match up to his.

His Pluto’s Republic, first published in 1982, is a collection of these essays, some major, some minor – and Armand Leroi’s third selection as a candidate for best science book ever. It ranges widely, from cancer and psychoanalysis to Teilhard de Chardin and IQ. The recurring theme, as Medawar describes it, is the question: “what is science, what kind of person is a scientist, and what kind of act of reasoning leads to scientific discovery and the enlargement of the understanding?”

The core of the answer lies in the piece reprinted from the 1960s, on Induction and Intuition in Scientific Thought. Here he declares his allegiance to Karl Popper, the scientist’s favourite philosopher of science. Interesting, I think, that he points out a couple of times that there had been no real studies of what scientists actually do – as opposed to what they are supposed to do. Well, there have now…

The book also contains Medawar’s sympathetic review of another on our list, The Double Helix. How’s this for a provocation?

“It just so happens that during the 1950s, the first great age of molecular biology, the English Schools of Oxford and particularly of Cambridge produced more than a score of graduates of outstanding ability – much more brilliant, inventive, articulate and dialectically skilful than most young scientists; right up in the Jim Watson class. But Watson had one towering advantage over all of them: in addition to being extremely clever he had something to be clever about.”


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