July 8, 2011 10:07 pm

Free Radicals

Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science, by Michael Brooks, Profile, RRP£12.99, 312 pages

Fraud and data manipulation, suppression of rivals’ research, huge egos, intensive PR campaigns, drug-induced inspiration ... The world of science described by Michael Brooks is far from the image of sober, sedate rectitude long promoted by the scientific establishment.

Free Radicals is fun to read. Brooks, a professional science writer, capers through the exploits of scores of brilliant and often ruthless rogues – some living, many long dead – who have won Nobel prizes or otherwise pushed science forward. Some of its biggest names turn out to be the dirtiest players.

Albert Einstein, whose name is synonymous with genius, crops up in several chapters – “a perfect example of the character that will produce great science and think nothing of the misdemeanours that such breakthroughs demand,” as Brooks puts it.

The author starts by reminding us of Einstein’s unappealing personal life – among other things making passes at his mistress’s daughter, breaking his promise to give all his Nobel prize money to his wife Mileva, evading tax and abandoning his schizophrenic son to die a “third-class” patient in a mental institution.

Then the book analyses the many “shady moments” in Einstein’s professional life: cherry-picking data to support his theories, appropriating advances made by others and, once he had made his name, using fame shamelessly for further self-advancement.

The equation most closely associated with Einstein, E=mc2, did not come as a surprise to those in the know when he first proposed it in 1905, Brooks claims. And Einstein failed in eight attempts to prove E=mc2 during the next 41 years, though others succeeded – yet he had appropriated the equation as his own and he dismissed attempts to set the record straight, with aggressive assertions of his “priority”.

Although Brooks denies doing his own cherry-picking by focusing on a series of celebrated scientists who blatantly cut corners and promoted their own careers, I do not accept his assertion that such behaviour runs through the whole of science. There may, indeed, be extensive low-level cheating among the scientific grassroots, as Brooks maintains, but to compare this with what happens at the top is like equating the fiddling of expenses among junior commercial staff with serious disregard for business ethics by senior executives.

All we can really conclude, if we accept the accuracy of the stories in Free Radicals, is that brilliance alone is not sufficient to shine in science, any more than in other fields. In science, just as in business, politics, sport and the arts, you also need ambition and self-promotion. It’s very rare to win honours and gain recognition if you’re spending decades quietly in the scientific wilderness.

Charm and charisma help, too. So do persistence and hard work. Honesty is more important in the more open and transparent, and I would say more moral, scientific world of today than it was in the past, though even now really clever deception can get you a long way.

Brooks believes that scientists must let their “secret anarchy” come into the open if research is to advance at the pace society needs to solve an overwhelming set of problems during the 21st century.

He is right to some extent. Scientists have been too quiet for half a century, complying with Winston Churchill’s famous observation that they “should be on tap but not on top”. They need to mobilise, agitate and kick up more of a stink on important issues, as Brooks says.

But encouraging selfish determination to succeed at any price, as exhibited by Newton, Einstein and some other great names of the past, will not help the cause of science, or society.

Clive Cookson is the FT’s science editor

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