Nicholas Wade

Nicholas Wade’s Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science, written with William Broad, was discussed by P.B. Medawar (Vol. 5, No 21). He is a leader-writer on the New York Times.

Mental Arithmetic

Nicholas Wade, 7 January 1993

Richard Feynman was one of the élite group of American and British physicists who developed atomic weapons with the Manhattan project in the Second World War. He flashed back into the public eye in 1965, when he won a share of the Nobel physics prize, and again two decades later when his formidable presence on the committee inquiring into the crash of the Challenger space shuttle forced the cause of the disaster into the open.

When big was beautiful

Nicholas Wade, 20 August 1992

Under the Reagan Administration the United States embarked on a fistful of big science projects, from the space station to the superconducting supercollider and the human genome project. The usefulness of these ventures, by and large, lies in inverse proportion to their cost. The $30,000 million space station will serve little detectable purpose save making work for hungry defence contractors, whereas the $3000 million human genome project could one day allow the history of evolution to be read like a book. On the scale of moral worth, the $8000 million superconducting supercollider lies nearer to the human genome project, but that may not save it. The atom-smasher is designed to create energy conditions not seen in the universe since a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, but before reaching 15,000 million years back in time, it must first survive until Congress retreats for the summer. In June, with tunnelling machines already boring into the chalk beneath the plains of Waxahachie, Texas, the House of Representatives abandoned its usual support for the project and voted to kill it.

Stone Cold

Nicholas Wade, 29 August 1991

In the last few years the University of Utah has bestowed on the world two much-trumpeted scientific achievements, the artificial heart and cold fusion. That two such seriously cracked ideas should sprout on the same ground is a matter that should worry the State of Utah considerably. Indeed, there’s enough embarrassment left over for others to share, especially from the hilarious tale of cold fusion. The artificial heart proved an ideal mechanism for driving a Robocop but too fierce for the mere physiology of the human frame. After only a handful of patients had suffered the monstrous mechanism, its use was mercifully curtailed by Federal regulators. Yet the heart caper made the University of Utah look like a sober scientific institution compared with the episode that followed.


Nicholas Wade, 20 September 1984

Eureka! Scientific discoveries, as everyone knows, are made by those flashes of insight in which the mind of a scientist perceives some previously hidden truth about nature. The deeper truth, occasionally alluded to but seldom pursued, is that scientists as individuals have little importance in scientific discovery.

The Benefactor

Nicholas Wade, 19 April 1984

How are scientific discoveries made? By geniuses, thinks the public. By great men, say historians of science. By giving us enough money, scientists tell their governments. Scientific discovery is evidently a dimly understood process. The new biography of Alexander Fleming by Gwyn Macfarlane sheds some unusual light on the fog. One reason for the prevailing lack of understanding is that the canons of writing in professional scientific journals – the ‘scientific literature’ – enforce a style of reporting that is profoundly anti-historical. They forbid reference to person, place or motive, and strongly discourage descriptions of chronological action. As a record of what a historian needs to know, the scientific literature is usually of little help. Because the deliberately impersonal voice of scientific communication conceals the real details of how an experiment was conceived, only by word of mouth within the scientific community does news flow as to who deserves the real credit. This grapevine, however, is not a great deal more accurate than any other system of organised gossip. Despite the importance to scientists of receiving due recognition for their discoveries, the prize distribution system is sometimes surprisingly crude and inaccurate. Credit tends to gravitate to the senior scientists because it is they who sit on the grant and prize committees and they tend to assume the lab chief deserves credit for what comes out of his laboratory. The Nobel Prize for the discovery of insulin went to John Macleod and Frederick Banting, whereas it was Banting and Charles Best who did the critical experiments, and James Collip who extracted the insulin; Macleod was the lab chief.–

Scientific Fraud

Peter Medawar, 17 November 1983

Some policemen are venal; some judges take bribes and deliver verdicts accordingly; there are secret diabolists among men in holy orders and among vice-chancellors are many who believe that most...

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