Vincent G. Dethier

By the rules of the game, Science is supposed to be objective. This is, of course, ridiculous. Along as Science is conducted by scientists it will be subjective. There is a basic law of physics which states that in one way or another, the observer always affects what he observes. This effect may be infinitesimally minute or beyond all hope of measurement or it may be apparent to any dullard.
Outside his science he is not inevitably smarter than everyone else. If anything, he has a modicum less horse sense than the average man on the street. In politics he may be incredibly naive. But he probably spends a greater period of his life preparing for his career and works longer and harder at it, at a lower salary (at least in the academic world) than many of his fellowmen.
The laboratory itself is a little community whose members are, or should be, devoted to the search for truth. The number of key members in this community varies.
The desire to recount one’s experiences may be quite innocuous or it may be for personal aggrandizement. On the other hand, in some scientific circles one’s promotion and permanency may depend upon the number, weight, or volume of his published works (seldom on the quality, in these institutions).
Arrow-smith was really a caricature of a scientist. It is not in this manner that a scientist has nobility. It is in a far more subtle mode, a mode that many scientists themselves may never recognize, for one of the characteristics that sets man apart from all the other animals (and animal he undubitably is) is a need for knowledge for its own sake. Many animals are curious, but in them curiosity is a facet of adaptation. Man has a hunger to know. And to many a man, being endowed with the capacity to know, he has a duty to know. All knowledge, however small, however irrelevant to progress and well-being, is a part of the whole. The instrument of a scientist’s destiny may be many things from the ultimate space of the farthest reaches of the universe to the ultimate particles of matter, and all things in between, not excepting man him- self. It is of this the scientist partakes.

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  1. shinichi Post author

    To Know a Fly

    by Vincent G. Dethier

    http://ja.scribd.com/doc/132399766/To-know-a-fly

    Chapter 14

    In a drama it is customary to present at the beginning the dramatis personae. At the beginning of this account it was not clear that it was a drama. It has had, however, its dramatic moments, although these may have lost something in being transposed from the vital, mysterious, three, or perhaps four, dimensional atmosphere of the laboratory to the two dimensional printed page. Be that as it may, the central figure, the fly, has been exposed in all his foibles. Another ‘figure, less central but no less important has lurked in the background throughout, and though you may have become aware of him as an unseen power, the time has come to present him to you.

    By the rules of the game, Science is supposed to be objective. This is, of course, ridiculous. Along as Science is conducted by scientists it will be subjective. There is a basic law of physics which states that in one way or another, the observer always affects what he observes. This effect may be infinitesimally minute or beyond all hope of measurement or it may be apparent to any dullard. But clearly between the fly and the scientist there is an interaction. What the scientist does to the fly determines in part what the fly does, and what the fly does is seen by the eyes of the scientist and sends nerve messages along his optic nerves to his brain and is there switched around and juggled and changed and eventually comes out as a thoroughly subjective observation. So, perhaps to know the fly one must also know the scientist. He is the second dramatis persona, presented after the curtain falls as is the author in all proper (and improper)plays.

    Strange as it may appear to the layman, the scientist is, above all, a human being. He is as inconspicuous in a crowd as a mythical Martian come to earth in human form. He has a wife and children whom he treats no better or no worse than anyone else. He experiences happiness and unhappiness like anyone else, and he gets sick and dies—like anyone else.

    Outside his science he is not inevitably smarter than everyone else. If anything, he has a modicum less horse sense than the average man on the street. In politics he may be incredibly naive. But he probably spends a greater period of his life preparing for his career and works longer and harder at it, at a lower salary (at least in the academic world) than many of his fellowmen.

    Since he spends nearly as much time in his laboratory as do his own experimental animals, he tends to acquire certain amenities. The average laboratory invariably has the makings of tea or coffee. There is at least one comfortable, not infrequently ancient, chair. And some favorite art form usually decorates the walls. These objets d’art may range all the way from a sample of reverse appliqué made by the San Blas Indians to a genuine Pollock.

    The central figure in this comfortable atmosphere works either in his shirt sleeves or in a lab coat. The lab coat has acquired the rank of a status symbol in the minds of the public, shiny new Ph.D.’s, and some of the older, more insecure Ph.D.’s. On the other hand, working in a laboratory is dirty and occasionally highly destructive to clothing as anyone who has had the seat of his pants burned out by acid will attest. A colleague of mine who disdained lab coats once spilled some brilliant purple dye on his shirt—one of the fast dyes. Knowing that the spots could never be removed, he stripped off his shirt with hardly a second thought and dyed the whole thing a brilliant purple. He happened that day to be wearing a green and yellow plaid tie! From then on he acquired the habit of wearing a lab coat. For the majority of scientists the coat is merely a way to protect one’s clothing.

    The laboratory itself is a little community whose members are, or should be, devoted to the search for truth. The number of key members in this community varies. The English and Germans do this thing well. Any good English or German laboratory has a skilled shop man, as killed stock attendant, and a bevy of skilled laboratory assistants or technicians. The average American laboratory is fortunate to have a stock man and/or a shop man. Since in the States, for some paradoxical reason, there is never enough free money to hire qualified personnel for these glamour-less but essential jobs, many labs are staffed by a motley array of singularly unskilled personages possessed with a curious affliction causing them to believe that the organization chart is an inverted pyramid. It is in the course of putting up with this sort of thing that the scientist reveals his real human qualities.

    There is one laboratory of my acquaintance that once employed a particularly un-endowed egomaniac as stock man. One day a long-suffering scientist in subtle revenge plucked a chicken and brought the box of feathers to the stock room saying that he wished to check in the feathers since he had no further use of them. The stock room man at first demurred but upon being assured in highly scientific language that the feathers came from a particularly rare breed of chicken he duly filed them away somewhere among the dust and trivia on his shelves. A few days later another scientist, having plucked a chicken, arrived to turn in some more feathers. The stock room man was now habituated, but his composure was shattered when he was informed that these feathers should not be mixed with the first since they represented an entirely different breed of chicken. And so over the course of days, different batches of feathers, allegedly of different genealogical background, and delivered by different persons were brought in to be stored. Then for a few weeks all was peaceful. The time now arrived for phase two of the operation. A scientist came to the stockroom, presented an Erlenmeyer flask (the kind with the thin neck), and requested one liter of White Leghorn feathers. With clumsy fingers the stock room man slowly stuffed feathers into the flask until it was full. A few days later another member of the laboratory arrived with a request for a kilo of Rhode Island Red feathers. With a somewhat superior air the stock room attendant said, “Feathers come by the liter.” “Oh, no,” replied the biologist, “White Leghorn feathers come by the liter; Rhode Island Red feathers come by the kilo.” The end came when someone approached the stock room with a request for one square meter of feathers. Have you ever attempted to cover a table top with a single layer of feathers while people are constantly entering and leaving the room?

    The fact of the matter is that a scientist must be a jack- of-all-trades. Consider, for example, the publishing of research results. The end result of research is usually a published account of the data and conclusions. The motives for doing this are varied. For some people there is the fascination of seeing their names in print—a fascination that attains a high level of evolution in the arts. For others there is a desire, a desire that is the basis of all culture, to pass on acquired information. In any case, people love to recount their experiences. Some people feel so compulsive about this that they invent experiences. This is sometimes known as fiction. Today in science, fiction is frowned upon at all times.

    The desire to recount one’s experiences may be quite innocuous or it may be for personal aggrandizement. On the other hand, in some scientific circles one’s promotion and permanency may depend upon the number, weight, or volume of his published works (seldom on the quality, in these institutions). A scientist I once knew was arraigned in court for threatening bodily harm to a colleague. The accused threatened to hit the defendant with his (the defendant’s) published works.

    For a good number of scientists, however, publication is the partial fulfillment of a desire to make available to the world a little fragment of knowledge painstakingly acquired. Since our knowledge of the world is built up of the infinite fragments of knowledge acquired by numberless individuals over all ages, the only way in which the fragments can even be pieced together into a whole, into truth, is by permitting the gleaners of the fragments some knowledge of contributions of others. For this the scientist exposes himself to the ordeal of publishing.

    For ordeal it is indeed. Some people never face it so that the knowledge they gained is forever locked up in their own consciousness. To publish one must write. The muse of research is frequently a total stranger to the muse of speaking and of writing. Many a scientist is a stranger to his native tongue. In a rough sort of way there are official means of compensating for this lack. After a research worker has written five or six drafts of his message (the final one frequently bears a remarkable resemblance to the original), he selects a scientific journal to which to send the manuscript. Ideally the journal should be selected on the basis of its subject matter and on its circulation. More often than not a given journal is selected because the lag between acceptance and publication is less than a year. Also, unfortunately, a publication is commonly selected because it has a reputation of never refusing a manuscript.

    Having reached the editor’s desk a manuscript then goes the round of referees. A scientist’s work is judged by his peers. Reviewing manuscripts is one of the fringe duties of scientists, the majority of whom feel that with the privilege of being a scientist there are certain obligations, one of which is to give to other scientists the benefit of their knowledge in their areas of competence.

    If a manuscript survives the scrutiny of referees, it receives a going-over from the editor. Editors come in all shapes, sizes, abilities, and philosophies. Some are frustrated writers with a firm conviction that they and only they are masters of the English (or German, French, etc.) language. A manuscript that has passed through their hands resembles a modernistic etching in blue. At the opposite extreme is the editor who believes that the illiteracy of the writer should be exposed for all to see. Between the two are innumerable sub-species.

    A scientist is usually judged by his published works. In them he is exposing his very soul. In the long run, incompetence and fraud will out, because every statement is open to verification.

    But the rewards are great. These rewards may be monetary—though this is exceedingly rare—they may be security, they may be honor. One of the more pleasant rewards is a passport to the world, a feeling of belonging to one race, a feeling that transcends political boundaries and ideologies, religions, and languages. The successful scientist has colleagues in all lands, and his work is a passport to the far corners of the world. And among his colleagues he develops lasting friendships. And with friendship comes, if not understanding, at least sympathy.

    But are these the real reasons for being a scientist? I think not. The real reason I believe is more lofty and more subtle. In this I do not mean the heroics of wanting to banish pain and misery or to advance technology. Arrow-smith was really a caricature of a scientist. It is not in this manner that a scientist has nobility. It is in a far more subtle mode, a mode that many scientists themselves may never recognize, for one of the characteristics that sets man apart from all the other animals (and animal he undubitably is) is a need for knowledge for its own sake. Many animals are curious, but in them curiosity is a facet of adaptation. Man has a hunger to know. And to many a man, being endowed with the capacity to know, he has a duty to know. All knowledge, however small, however irrelevant to progress and well-being, is a part of the whole. The instrument of a scientist’s destiny may be many things from the ultimate space of the farthest reaches of the universe to the ultimate particles of matter, and all things in between, not excepting man him- self. It is of this the scientist partakes. A fly is just as much in the scheme of things as man. No less a person than St. Augustine remarked in the Fourth Century: “For it is inquired, what causes those members so diminutive to grow, what leads so minute a body here and there according to its natural appetite, what moves its feet in numerical order when it is running, what regulates and gives vibrations to its wings when flying? This thing whatever it sin so small a creature towers up so predominantly to one well considering, that it excels any lightning flashing upon the eyes.” To know the fly is to share a bit in the sublimity of Knowledge. That is the challenge and the joy of science.

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