Science, Not Art: Ten Scientists' Diaries

Edited by:
  • Jon Turney
Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation: 2003. 160 pp. £8.50

The title of this book is quite misleading. Science, Not Art conjures up visions of a contribution to the topical debate on the similarities, differences and distinctions between science and the arts. But it's not about that at all, as clearly stated in the preface. Its title arises from an earlier popular book, Art, Not Chance, which was produced by the same publisher and comprised extracts from the diaries of nine leading artists.

Science, Not Art follows the same pattern, with short passages from the diaries of ten scientists, accompanied by excellent photographs by Hugo Glendinning. The individuals may not yet be world leaders in their fields, but they are certainly not “ordinary young scientists”. Many hold prestigious Royal Society University Research Fellowships in disciplines encompassing mathematics, cosmology, biology, chemistry and medicine. The scientists also challenge the title of the book, as many have strong links with art, music and popular science writing. Two hold fellowships from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, which are awarded to creative individuals, particularly for work spanning science and arts. Several have formal links with the arts and artists.

Under pressure: space physiologist Kevin Fong feels the strain of combining studies of astronauts' health with life as a junior doctor at a London hospital. Credit: H. GLENDINNING

The diaries are well written and engaging, and are all very different in style. Some of the scientists focus mainly on their research, whereas others play heavily on their personal lives and the tensions between a heavy workload and family life. Some are in note form; others tell fascinating stories. Particularly engaging are the tales of Jon Copley, a marine biologist encountering a storm on a scientific voyage, and the experiences of Kevin Fong, a young clinical researcher, in a busy intensive-care unit in a London hospital.

Most remarkable are the common features of the diaries. The scientists all write of pressure, devotion and great commitment, the depressing lows and great highs accompanying failure and success in their scientific lives — and these often seem to have greater impact than personal events. They all tell of the importance of working with people, of the excitement of discovery, and of the despair that follows unsuccessful grant applications, substandard scientific presentations and poor reviewers' comments on submitted manuscripts.

The audience for this book is not obvious. Scientists will enjoy the comparisons and familiarity of many of the stories, and feel relief at the shared problems and concerns, but the nature of the book and its clear, jargon-free explanation of science should attract non-scientists. To test this, I asked a 16-year-old, Siobhan Blagbrough, who has no current aspiration to enter science, for her opinion.

“I found the book interesting and surprisingly easy to read. While dealing with scientific concepts beyond my understanding, the personal approach and diary format meant that there was usually something to keep me interested. The way that the different scientists became involved in their field, sometimes without following the expected academic route, made me think that their success stems more from their determination to find solutions to questions that on the face of it may appear trivial or at least of little apparent value. But they can see how these fit into a bigger picture and may lead to a major breakthrough.

“To read how they cope with daily life and problems but still have the determination to overcome this and work so hard on their various projects is quite inspiring. I also found exciting the way that many of them travel all over the world, meeting other scientists to learn from each other.

“I would say that the book gave me an insight into these scientists' lives and how, in many aspects, they are similar to everyone else, fearing failure or rejection but perhaps having more dedication, determination and vision than most.“

This summary is perhaps a better recommendation than I could make.