“Free Radicals”

In this compendium of tales about scientists behaving badly – Galileo ignoring "inconvenient data"; various scientists dismissing good new theories as "buffoonery", "nonsense" or "the most stupid thing that has ever been proposed"; and self-experimenters smoking cigars and kicking each other vigorously in the shins – Michael Brooks (the author of the excellent 13 Things That Don't Make Sense) tries to argue that scientists are really "anarchists".

That’s a strange choice of word, even given his colourful anecdotes of vindictiveness, irresponsibility, rampant self-publicism, ingestion of hallucinogenics, data-massaging or outright fraud. These "anarchists" are still, after all, mainly in the business of looking for law-like connections between things.

also writes unconvincingly of a historical "cover-up" about scientists’ true (human) nature, and suggests that because revolutionary ideas often come "from nowhere", science must be more "irrational" than we think. Such pop-Paul Feyerabend rhetoric risks sensationalising his otherwise fascinating and serious demonstration of how human foibles and creativity are inseparable, and how this fact is not so dangerous after all.

Now I’m just worried about the "possible space-borne apocalypse" from a massive coronal mass ejection by the sun.

Free Radicals
Michael Brooks
Profile Books, 2011

— By Steven Poole


Copyright © Guardian News & Media, 2011