True Science

M.F. Perutz

  • Advice to a Young Scientist by P.B. Medawar
    Harper and Row, 109 pp, £4.95, February 1980, ISBN 0 06 337006 9

This is a guide book to the scientific scene, full of urbane wisdom, happy phrases and entertaining examples. ‘How can I tell if I am cut out to be a scientist?’ Medawar asks. He dismisses curiosity (it killed the cat) and suggests that scientists need something for which ‘exploratory impulsion’ is not too grand a name. But what about delight and wonder at the works of nature? Without these you might as well join Scotland Yard instead. What else draws people into science? It seems to me that, just as the Church did in former times, science offers a safe niche where you can spend a quiet life classifying spiders, away from what E.M. Forster called the world of telegrams and anger. To the ambitious poor, science offers a way to fame or reasonable wealth that needs no starting capital other than good brains and prodigious energy.

In answer to the question ‘What shall I do research on?’ Medawar tells young people to choose an important problem and to become apprenticed to a senior scientist. I was lucky as a young man to find both. The biochemist husband of a cousin of mine tipped me off about the importance of haemoglobin, the protein of the red blood cells, and I found a scientific father in the physicist W.L. Bragg, who taught me a lot and vouchsafed his great name to secure support for my research during the long lean years before I solved my problem. Others are not always so fortunate. Medawar himself once told me how the geneticist J.B.S. Haldane loved all the world while his technician could enter his room only at the danger of his life. A scientist of my acquaintance threatened to sack a collaborator who wanted to publish an experimental result that confirmed my own rather than my acquaintance’s theory. The French biologist André Lwoff wrote: ‘L’art du chercheur c’est d’abord de se trouver un bon patron.’ To me, this means one who suggests good ideas, helps his students along without spoon-feeding or domineering, gives them public recognition for their work and later helps them to become established as independent scientists. How do you find one? The best way is to ask the older research students.

Medawar counsels beginners not to spend too much time studying books and learning techniques, but rather to get on with their problem. This reminded me of Francis Crick’s motto, written in large letters on the wall behind his desk: ‘Reading Rots the Mind.’ A young theoretician friend of ours stated his reasons more explicitly: ‘I don’t see why I should read the bloody nonsense other people write when I can read my own papers.’ I find that young scientists tend to read too little, especially in subjects that are peripheral to their own narrow problem.

Medawar decries sexism and racism in science. Women should be encouraged, he writes, because the world has become such a complicated place that it cannot be kept going without the intelligence and skill of half the human race. On the other hand, he utters dire warnings to both men and women against marrying a scientist, unless they realise that their spouses will be in the grip of a powerful obsession which they cannot share and which may drive these spouses to their laboratories even on Christmas morning. The passage reminded me of Odile Crick’s complaints about her husband’s prolonged periods of in explicable broodiness. On the question of racism, Medawar reflects on the remarkable number of outstanding Jewish scientists who have emerged from Budapest and Vienna. I often wonder whether they would have reached such heights if they had not been driven out of the narrow confines of their native countries and faced with the stimuli, the opportunities and challenges of a larger world. I find it symbolic that Joy Adamson, when she lived in Vienna in the Thirties, kept a dachshund (I still have a picture of the two in my old photograph album), but after she emigrated to Kenya kept a lioness. In Vienna’s small world I had no idea that scientists of the calibre of J.D. Bernal, W.L. Bragg, David Keilin and Dorothy Hodgkin existed: how then could I have even tried to emulate them? It was Cambridge that made me, not Vienna.

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