May 2006

Barbara J. King


Allegra Goodman’s World of Science

Quick quiz: What happens every Wednesday at 2 p.m. EST? If you know the answer, or at least if you know the answer that’s in my head, odds are you live in or are connected to the world of science.

Nature, the premier science journal on the planet, published in England, appears in print every Thursday, but here in the US it hits cyberspace the afternoon before. (Ever wonder why Wednesday night newscasts and Thursday morning papers feature more science stories than usual? It’s all timed to Nature’s release.) Scientists in labs and universities, and science geeks everywhere, rush to read up on cutting-edge research in crustacean biology, cell virology, African ecology, black-hole astronomy, and more. (I’m writing this on a Thursday: for me, yesterday’s gem, downloaded at 2:15 and mentioned to William & Mary students by 3:00, was "Recursive syntactic pattern learning by songbirds," new research about the putatively language-like behavior of "startling starlings.")

Nature’s April 20 issue (April 19th via the Internet) was notable because it invited readers to play the always-fun count-the-authors game, not once but twice! No fewer than 74 authors are credited on the article "DNA sequence of human chromosome 17 and analysis of rearrangement in the human lineage." This astonishing tally is outdone only by the pack of 102 co-authors, listed alphabetically from Aharonian to Wagner, for "A low level of extragalactic background light as revealed by gamma-rays from blazars." (At least 102 people know what blazars are, huh?)

What’s really cool about that week’s Nature, though, is that a novel is reviewed. Fiction, nestled right near DNA and extragalactic background light! The anointed book is Allegra Goodman’s Intuition, and I understand why Nature paid it attention.

Goodman is not a scientist (okay, she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which qualifies her for scientist-by-osmosis, living and breathing as she does in Harvard-MIT Land). Yet she creates and populates a lab-world with what I can only call a deep empathy for the process of doing science. The setting is a cancer research lab in a place called Philpott Institute in Cambridge. There, men and women at various stages of their careers do science with emotion -- emotion that engulfs some characters at times -- and that thoroughly engages the reader.

By most measures, the story’s focus is on Cliff, a young post-doctoral researcher. After failing for years in his experimental attempts to arrest the progression of cancer in mice, he suddenly sees that the tumors in a newly-treated group of subjects are shrinking. Cliff is transformed: “Ambition, long dormant, had awakened in him, and where he had been weak from lack of hope, now his appetite for science revived… These were his experiments, his years of preparation yielding a possible bonanza. This was the crucial moment. If he was lazy or lost focus, someone else would take up the charge and seize the credit. Now, in the darkest season of the year, he lived and breathed and dreamed about his new batch of three dozen hairless mice.”

The result is a paper -- published in Nature, of course -- trumpeting new results in the war against cancer. Goodman perfectly captures the rollercoaster ride of the scientific fast-track: that heady rush that accompanies 15 minutes of fame, and the joy in sharing scientific success with colleagues, coupled with recognition that some of these colleagues look on silently with eyes of jealousy, and perhaps worse.

Indeed, there’s one surprising exception to the rejoicing among the lab’s oncology team. Amidst all the data-driven bliss stands Robin, Cliff’s girlfriend, whose own experiments are going nowhere fast: “She’d always known [Cliff]’d break her heart and now he had, but not in the way she expected. He’d crushed her with his success.” And Robin is more than jealous: at first suspicious, she becomes utterly convinced that Cliff deviated seriously from lab protocol in the way he worked with the nice and recorded the data. How she chooses to act on her certainty, and what sequence of events this action sets in motion, makes for fast-paced reading.

The moral tangle set up by the Cliff-Robin controversy occupies Intuition’s heart, yet the dynamic within a second dyad touched me more: that between the lab directors, senior scientists Sandy Glass and Marion Mendelssohn. Here are the two faces of science, the halves that make a whole, the hubris and the caution that, when fused, make for groundbreaking research. See how different these two scientists are, one from the other:

Sandy went off half-cocked: that was the danger, but it was also entirely the good of him. You could set him off like a firecracker. She knew no one else so flammable. He was incautious. Imprudent… True, Sandy was excited by discovery. Captured by a research program, no one touted that program so well. But Sandy was not Marion. Sandy’s work was not about giving of himself, but about building up himself, his ego, and his persona. Sandy lacked humility; he lacked respect for the complexity of the problems before him, and attacked research with evangelical zeal. Given any encouragement, Sandy would go off rampaging for bold new results, sometimes forgetting what might be small and diffident, and difficult to describe -- the truth.

Haven’t we all been seduced, even temporarily, by a Sandy, a person with remarkable vision and charisma, a person who wants it all and makes you want it too? For Marion, Sandy is that bright flame, the innate brilliance that inspires and worries her in equal measure, and which she counterbalances by her own deeply methodical approach: “The lab was entirely caught up in duplicating and developing Cliff’s experiments, with Marion as field commander, spending every moment coordinating the effort. She was laying out the lab’s claims, datum on top of datum, like tiny bricks.”

Steadfast, Marion keeps her feet on the ground until… she doesn’t. Marion’s husband, a loyal man who himself is deeply accomplished, sees this change, and sorrows over it. He “had believed that Marion would never succumb to Sandy’s ideas. She would never imbibe -- or if she sipped his enthusiasm on occasion, she carried her own skepticism with her at all times, like quinine.” But when, led by Sandy, everything in the lab kicks up a notch, Marion changes too. “Sandy had that effect on people. He drew them in nearer and nearer, into his shining conjectural web, and then stung them with his enthusiasm.” What happens within Marion and Sandy’s relationship is what makes Intuition so perfectly special. Goodman has written an ending for Marion that’s about as wonderful as novel-endings get.

If you’ve read about Intuition in the media, don’t be fooled. Sure, there are parallels between its plot and high-profile scientific scandals, but at heart it’s not about fraud. Goodman is too good, and too subtle, a writer for that. It’s about blurred lines: What is scientific genius, rooted in creativity, and what is leaping far beyond the data into the universe of imagination? Which mini-deviations from protocol are troubling and which are not? How can we tell if someone has crossed the line from embracing intuition for scientific good or departed the world of science altogether?

More questions, spawned from the story rather than inherent in it, sprang to my mind as I read. What is good science? Does the answer vary across disciplines? During the month of March, once during a lecture to zoo volunteers and once in print for an anthropology journal, I was moved to make an announcement about the way I do science (apologies here to 12-step programs): “My name is Barbara and I do qualitative research.” In biological anthropology/primate behavior, this pretty much amounts to outing myself. The currency of my field is statistical analysis and group averages, and I do something different: I describe long-term change in ape communication via pattern analysis.

When cultural anthropologists do good qualitative research on individuals and groups, it’s called ethnography, and published; when behavioral primatologists do similar qualitative research (that is good also, I hope) it’s too often looked upon as only anecdotal. Is research only scientific if it’s quantitative? Are social scientists fated to suffer from chronic physics envy? And what is the role of intuition when studying animal and human behavior, anyway, and does that role differ in quantitative as compared to qualitative approaches?

A novel that sparks questions like these would make good fare for students in Ph.D.-granting science programs. But let me be clear: Intuition is for everyone. Goodman writes with a precision that is beautifully expressed; poets will "get" the book as much as scientists will (and poet-scientists will "get" it twice over). Spending a few days with Cliff, Robin, Sandy, and Marion puts you in excellent company. And oh yeah, the Nature reviewer, Jennifer Rohn, liked it too: a lot.

-- Barbara J. King loves doing qualitative research with apes.