Are scientists innately boring and out of touch?

 

The popular viewpoint seems to characterize scientists as dull. The popular media often give the impression that scientists, a.k.a. “nerds,” or “geeks,” insulated from the real world of apps, ride-hailing, and rap by their glasses and pocket-protectors, aren’t much fun.

I’m working on editing a memoir that my friend, Bernie Witholt, left unfinished, and wildly unstructured, when he died two-plus years ago from pancreatic cancer. Bernie was a full-fledged scientist. He spent much of his life in the lab, studying the biochemistry of bacteria. PubMed lists 179 separate publications for him; he held many patents, and his colleagues remembered him as a remarkable salesman for his ideas.  “With visionary lectures, he convinced policymakers and companies to invest. He was a fantastic advisor for, and initiator of, numerous successful biotech start-ups, and was the founding father of the Zernike Science Park in Groningen. In 1992, he established [a laboratory] in the Institute of Biotechnology of Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (IBT, ETH Zurich) and worked on alkane-degrading bacteria, biocatalysis and bioplastics until 2005 when he retired.”

In addition to his science, Bernie was an avid oarsman. We rowed together at Amherst, and for the summer of 1963 we rowed a double scull for Vesper Boat Club in Philadelphia. He continued rowing in Zurich with gusto and considerable competitive success.

He and his second wife, journalist Renske Heddema, were an elegant couple with an active social life.

My task in editing his memoir is to communicate the joy of living the scientific life and of asking questions and finding one answer that leads to a dozen new questions. But beyond that, the real scientist also finds joy and excitement in seeing how the world fits together, in knowing about history and the arts as well as science.

Christine Rosen, writing in The New Atlantis in 2006, said, “It is not, alas, the stuff of great memoir, so severed has the actual practice of science become from the broader concerns that animated many early scientists — the wonder at life in its fullness, the observable mysteries of the natural world.”

She nailed the issue! Today’s science involves questions that require detailed technical knowledge that the general public does not have. Yet many of the scientists I know do, indeed, “wonder at life in its fullness.”

I would be delighted to hear from readers who have ideas or suggestions about successfully writing about scientists.

Summer Reading. (Not required, but worthwhile)

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What did you think about over the past two major holidays, Memorial Day and the Fourth of July?

As I often do, I spent a lot of time wondering how we got to this strange point in our national history, and a smaller time hoping that the federal bureaucracy, in its nautical role as our national ballast, has sufficient inertia to hold the course in foul weather.

I’ve just finished reading two books that I want to recommend; both are appropriate for the packet. They are not new, but ripe for reading now.

The first is Fredrik Logevall’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Embers of War, a history of Viet Nam that focuses on the period from the end of WWII to 1959, at the beginning of the second Viet Nam war, the one the US fought.

The three main players of the story include war-weakened France, struggling to retain its colonial domination over Viet Nam, a home-grown independence movement desperate for military and economic support, and the suddenly superpower, the cold-war United States, operating on the basis of the “domino theory” and committed to halt the spread of “Communism.”

As Logevall tells the story, the players cannot shed the blinders that limit their vision and condemn them to act out their roles, no matter what the consequences. France poured blood and treasure into Viet Nam that could have helped stabilize her in Europe. Ho Chi Minh made a Faustian bargain with the Chinese, after his efforts to lead his country to independence were rebuffed by the US. Meanwhile, with the US caught up in the madness of McCarthyism and the “loss of China” political finger-pointing, the irrational political pressure to support first the French and then Ngo Dinh Diem and the South Vietnamese was overwhelming.

Logevall, a history professor, writes clearly and unobtrusively. As events unfolded, as a reader I could only shake my head, wondering, “Why?”

The second recommendation is Jean Edward Smith’s Eisenhower in War and Peace. Smith focuses much of the book on Eisenhower’s military career, an important approach in order to understand how Ike functioned as President. Eisenhower was extraordinarily fortunate throughout his career in gaining brilliant senior military men as mentors, probably because they recognized his extraordinary capabilities.

Smith emphasizes Ike’s skills at the card table, his perspective in structuring “carrot and stick” decisions for both his peers and his subordinates, and his ability to delegate responsibility.

The two books, taken together, help to clarify the complex path that led to the United States involvement in Viet Nam. The relationship between Eisenhower and DeGaulle, the political pressures within the Republican Party, the pressure to use tactical nuclear weapons, all played a role.

What’s my message here? We live with our successes, and with our mistakes. Americans should celebrate the 4th of July. The essential document of the day, the Declaration of Independence, stands as a remarkable example of our successes. And on Memorial Day, the Civil War and the Viet Nam War stand as stunning examples of the consequences of our mistakes. It takes about a half-century, a reasonable time for the dust to settle, to see how the mistakes were made.

The photos are all from Havana, Cuba. I think they speak to some of the issues. The lady in the rain was photographed on the grounds of the Hotel Nacionale in a sudden downpour. The red Buick was originally, I believe, a 1954 Roadmaster. The missile is an SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missile of the type that shot down Rudolf Anderson’s Lockheed U-2 aircraft over Cuba on October 27, 1962,during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The wrecked engine of the U-2 is displayed below the missile.