New Statesman columnist Brooks (13 Things That Don't Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time, 2008, etc.) delves into the rough-and-tumble world of scientific research.
The stereotypical scientific researcher is a staid investigator, grinding away at his experiments while assiduously following the rules of the scientific method. As Brooks demonstrates, however, many of the leading lights of science were merely flawed human beings and not above bending or breaking rules in their quests for knowledge. His book lays bare the messy stories behind some of the greatest discoveries in scientific history. At least one Nobel Prize winner, he writes, is upfront about taking illegal drugs for inspiration. Some researchers, including the inventor of the cardiac catheter, recklessly used themselves as test subjects. Several legends of science, including Albert Einstein, even ignored or fudged research data that didn’t fit with their theories; others callously betrayed research partners to claim sole credit for major discoveries. While Brooks condemns many of the more egregious injustices and unethical behaviors, he also asserts that outside-the-box thinking is not necessarily a bad thing and is indeed a necessity to push the boundaries of knowledge. “If we want more scientific progress,” he writes, “we need to release more rebels, more outlaws, more anarchists.” To that end, he makes a solid case for overhauling some longtime traditions, such as the see-no-evil discouragement of activism among scientists and the politics-laden peer-review system for scientific journals. Though Brooks dwells a bit much on the drug angle—much of the epilogue, for example, concerns his unsuccessful attempt to confirm if a famous DNA researcher used LSD—the overall narrative is enjoyable and insightful.
A page-turning, unvarnished look at the all-too-human side of science.