Books | Scientific anarchy

A review of Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science, by Michael Brooks

Michael Brooks, a Brit with a PhD in quantum physics, wants you to know that scientists aren't meek, socially inept, pocket protector-wearing squares.

"It's not exactly rock 'n' roll ... or is it?" Brooks asks in the book trailer for Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science (Overlook Press, $16.95, now available in paperback), as a shredding electric guitar riff ruptures through the computer speaker.

He continues: "Turns out the best-kept secret in science is the scientists. They'll do anything to make a discovery. There are no rules; anything goes. It's anarchy!"

Totally with you, Mike. Although is anyone really arguing otherwise? The Mad Scientist is its very own cliche, stretching from the era of Leonardo da Vinci to fictional embodiments in Frankenstein and Back to the Future.

Yet Brooks, an insider beset with public opinion, feels compelled to prove that influential scientists -- Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Edison, Einstein, Hawking, et al -- are not passive people.

About half the United States believes that science is our savior (in the secular sense). From cancer to climate change, no progress will be made in its absence. That's what makes educated risk-taking and government funding so crucial.

"To make a breakthrough or to stay on top, scientists take drugs, they follow crazy dreams, they experiment on themselves and on one another, and occasionally they die in the progress," Brooks writes, before he really begins to generalize. "They commit fraud or deceive or manipulate others in order to get to the truth about how the world works ... then fight tooth and nail."

The description "anarchist" typically comes loaded with violent political implications. I think this Merriam-Webster definition most closely matches the conduct Brooks is trying to defend: "a person who rebels against any authority, established order, or ruling power." He's advocating creative freedom.

Ideally, Brooks would have devoted one chapter to each of the most extreme scientific anarchists -- like LSD-afficianado Kary Mullis, whose DNA discoveries under the drug's influence eventually won him a Nobel Prize. Instead, the author of divvies up slabs of text organized by loosely related anarchic behaviors.

One of the book's most fascinating "anarchists" is actually a pacifist, British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington. When World War I broke out, Eddington, a Quaker, refused to enlist. The hell-bent Military Service Tribunal held a hearing, and astronomer Frank Dyson testified on Eddington's behalf. Dyson was unsure about Einstein's theory of relativity, the concept that "the presence of mass bends space," thus "light would not always travel in a straight line." The only way to test the theory, Dyson said, was for scientists to be stationed at specific global checkpoints during the next total solar eclipse, in May 1919. Rendered listless by the litigation, the Tribunal consented. Thus Eddington skirted combat and many months later traveled to African island, where he hoodwinked Dyson and others by confirming Einstein's flawed data.

Brooks doesn't want scientists to start killing their rivals to attain recognition (then he'd truly find himself in a lethal profession). He wants them to feel free to be as forthright with the public as they are within their circles.

"Can we now, in light of what we have learned about how science really works and how it has been so misguidedly rebranded, set up a better system?" Brooks asks.

For example, if a scientist wants to earn clout with a hypothesis, he or she must usually have work printed in a trade publication. This means getting the OK from a number of peer reviewers. If a scientist is denied approval and chooses to publish a book instead, the scientific community will blackball that author.

Most of the subject scientists in Free Radicals are Nobel Prize winners. Brooks piles on historical anecdotes about devious experimenters and bosses piggybacking on the success of their proteges. Based on his account alone, you'd think all scientists falsify data and steal instruments. But Brooks is focusing on the tiny fraction of hyper-competitive scientists that serves his thesis.

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