Cathedrals of Science: The Personalities and Rivalries That Made Modern Chemistry
Oxford University Press, 2008
400 pp., $34.95
Neil Gussman with Sarah Reisert
The Model Scientist?
I once loved Star Trek, but I am about to shoot a posthumous photon torpedo at Gene Roddenberry. Why would a 50-something Baby Boomer (I was 13 when the first episode aired), who by all accounts should be nostalgic for the voyages of the Starship Enterprise, now scorn one of the icons of the Sixties? The answer is Spock. Like so many ill-educated people of my generation, I knew no scientists personally and assumed they were all like Spock. I mean, who wants to grow up to be Spock? Men don't follow him, women ignore him, and, according to Vulcan custom, he only has a wife/girlfriend for one weekend every decade or so—not the role model a skinny kid in the middle of hormone poisoning is looking for.
Captain Kirk, on the other hand, was in charge and had a babe on every planet. I made my choice and joined the Air Force right out of high school. Seven years later, I went to college (to be a writer—still had that Spock aversion), and 25 years after that got my current job at a museum and library of chemistry and early science, where I actually meet leading scientists. As it turns out, the men and women at the top tier of science are anything but nerds. Women or men, they are a lot more like Kirk than Spock. Sure, they have to master an immense body of knowledge and practice, but they also must possess the drive, the ambition, and the confidence bordering on or crossing over into arrogance that enables them to take the risks necessary to make great discoveries.
I work at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, located opposite Independence Mall, on the same block as Ben Franklin's house. Our founding president, now chancellor, claims we preserve "the greatest human adventure ever." Like the rest of our staff of 60, I smile wryly at the claim, even though it is delivered in a sonorous British accent.
But if the history of chemistry lays only dubious claim to being the greatest adventure in all of history, it certainly is an adventure: quite different from the nerdy stereotype of the history of science, and much more like Captain Kirk than Science Officer Spock. Such is the lesson of Patrick Coffey's lively survey, Cathedrals of Science. The men (mostly) and women (more every year) who make this history fight for jobs and recognition just like ballplayers, doctors, artists, actors, and accountants who strive to reach the top of their profession. Along the way, they prefer their friends, sabotage their enemies, and tilt playing fields the world assumes are level. Those of us who work in a place that bestows awards and collects oral histories know that every sort of personality can be a great scientist: the bold, the shy, the plodding, the brilliant, the generous, the spiteful, the humble, and those with more self-assurance than a shark in a minnow tank.
We host award ceremonies and history conferences where we hear talks by the passionate people who become the leaders in science. Mildred Cohn, mentioned in Coffey's book at the beginning of her career, talked at CHF recently about the struggle of being a woman and a chemist in the 1930s. Then she showed the audience a picture of her first time hang-gliding—on her 90th birthday.
In 2001, Gordon Moore talked about turning silicon chemistry into a successful business—yes, that Gordon Moore, author of Moore's Law and co-founder of Intel Corporation. Moore and his partners left behind the biggest firm in semiconductors at the time to found Intel. In hindsight it was a billion-dollar move, but in 1968 it was a big risk.
In 2005, nearing his 80th birthday, James Watson was still crowing about beating the chemist Linus Pauling (1901-1994) to unravel the structure of DNA, a discovery he had made with Francis Crick more than 50 years earlier. Even though Pauling lost the DNA race to Watson, he is one of just four laureates—with Marie Curie, Frederick Sanger, and John Bardeen—ever to win two Nobel Prizes. And Pauling is the only one of the four to win an unshared prize. Another man might have treated the memory of such a distinguished competitor more generously, but Watson was still enjoying his triumph—not being "logical." More recently, Watson became infamous for pessimistic comments on the future of Africa, based on the notion that the continent's woes stem from the inferior intelligence of its indigenous population.
Most scientific biographies put their subjects on pedestals. But times are changing, and Coffey's book is representative of a new candor. Weaving together the lives of the leaders of modern chemistry, Coffey shows how fights over priority, backstabbing, cronyism, and grudges shaped the history of chemistry just as much as the actual discoveries. It is an effective antidote to the bromide that science is the work of selfless, Spock-like automatons.