In retrospect chosen by David Jones

The Scientist Speculates: An Anthology of Partly Baked Ideas

Edited by:
edited by (1962).

This book was published in 1962 from submissions solicited, received and edited during the previous year. The resulting compilation of 123 separate items was remarkably challenging and readable. Still more remarkable, it remains challenging and readable nearly 40 years later. My own copy continues to accumulate the scuffs and stains of use.

For a start, it is a triumph of the editor's art. Good and his fellow editors managed to interest some of the greatest names of the time in their project, including J. D. Bernal, Sir Cyril Burt, Dennis Gabor, J. E. Littlewood, N. W. Pirie, Sir Robert Robinson and Eugene E. Wigner (although how they kept J. B. S. Haldane out of it remains a mystery). Furthermore, they elicited from their contributors a splendid range of really high-class partly baked ideas. How many duds they rejected I cannot guess, but their selection was masterly.

The ‘bakedness’ of each individual idea may have risen or fallen since 1962, but few have grown stale. My guess is that, even now, a thoughtful scientist will find something of interest in at least 30% of the entries (although each reader will pick a different 30%).

An objective appraisal is clearly impossible; even a selection from my own favourites has to be pretty arbitrary. Donald Michie has a very perceptive essay on the difference between puzzles (in which one player confronts a physical challenge) and games (in which two or more players confront each other). The two require quite different skills. An animal experimenter who presents a rat with a puzzle, such as a maze, may scorn it for learning slowly. The rat, however, knows that life is a game, and against wily opponents. It is risky to stick to a single strategy, especially if it has succeeded once or twice. (It occurs to me that scientists are natural puzzle people; accordingly, they are everywhere outranked and outwitted by administrators and politicians, who are game people.)

Bernal remarks that water vapour rises from the sea, not because it is hot, but because its molecular weight is less than that of air. He suggests that large light chimneys and enclosures of plastics sheeting could entrain, condense and recycle water vapour for agricultural purposes. O. G. Selfridge has another large-scale application for plastics sheeting : submerging it in the coastal Pacific Ocean, thus warming up the surface water by the El Niño effect and dispersing the temperature inversion over Los Angeles.

Gabor discusses the dimensions of consciousness, generalizing from that small region of subjective experience (colour vision) that has already been mapped in three dimensions Pirie suggests the breeding of multipurpose plants, of which the roots, stem, leaves and seeds are all useful. W. H. Cazaly proposes that the instinct for cruelty in human beings arose from the need to enforce tribal discipline by punishment. It is quite distinct from sexual sadism. Marvin Minsky asks: “Where is our microtechnology?”, and points out how fast tiny machines could work. These days, the fabrication of simple micromechanisms in silicon is raising the bakedness of this idea towards unity.

Even those ideas whose bakedness has shrunk since 1962 are still interesting. Good guesses, entirely reasonably, that computer technology should attain full artificial intelligence by 1978, at a cost of $1 billion. What went wrong? A. D. Maude takes Alfvén's theory that sunspots are the surface manifestations of internal magnetohydrodynamic ‘whirl rings’ in the Sun, and develops a brilliant argument that they evolved as pseudo-living entities. It is wrong — or at least incompatible with modern sunspot theory — but might work in another context. S. C. Wallwork has a way of testing clairvoyance by guessing the signs of the structure factors of an X-ray crystallographic map. A set of guesses even slightly better than chance should start the map refining to the correct crystal structure. These days, computers do it all for us; but could clairvoyance help to sort out protein folding?

The practical realities of scientific life are also represented. They have changed little since 1962. C. D. Graham's “Technical glossary” (of which some entries are mis-ascribed to William McClimont) contains such gems as “Three of the samples were chosen for detailed study”, which translates as “The results on the others didn't make sense and were ignored”. J. de Bloggins (whom I suspect is Good himself in disguise) pays homage to the unholy trinity of Dirt, Noise and Leaks. He notes that data usually have at least 1% gross errors; as do people. Consolingly, he points out that the only practical problem is what to do next.

The style and atmosphere of the book is consistently pleasing. For its contributors, speculation is a pleasure as well as a duty. They know their subject intimately, but are not bounded by its minutiae; none of their speculations is a mere anticipation of some narrow technical advance. They are prepared to play with ideas in any field, following them wherever they lead, looking all the time for ways of testing the results or checking them against theory. I fear that their vision of science is increasingly rare among the specialized, grant-bound, careerist researchers of today. A modern editor who attempted to bring out a second volume would find the first a hard act to follow.

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Jones, D. In retrospect chosen by David Jones. Nature 393, 642 (1998). https://doi.org/10.1038/31395

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