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The course of true science

Nature volume 430, page 834 (19 August 2004) | Download Citation


Investigative Pathways: Patterns and Stages in the Careers of Experimental Scientists


 Yale University Press: 2004. 288 pp. $35, £250300100752

Life in the lab: Claude Bernard (third from right) teaching, in a painting by Leon L'hermitte. Image: THE ART ARCHIVE/ACADÉMIE DE MÉDECINE PARIS/M. CHARMET

Recollections can be vivid, as when Francis Crick looked back to a moment in February 1953: “Jerry Donohue and Jim Watson were by the blackboard and I was by my desk, and we suddenly thought, ‘Well, perhaps we could explain 1:1 ratios by pairing the bases.’ It seemed too good to be true.” Was this one of those ‘eureka’ moments, like August Kekulé's vision on the Clapham omnibus of a snake biting its tail, that led him to propose the ring structure of benzene? Should we take these personal recollections for gospel, or seek out the written record, pour over the research notebooks for the embryo of the revelation, the stages in its almost subconscious formulation?

This and other questions concerning the career of the experimental scientist are raised and discussed by eminent science historian Larry Holmes in Investigative Pathways. Written shortly before his death, this brief book offers his reflections on 45 years of research into the careers of outstandingly successful experimental scientists, such as Claude Bernard, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and, most recently, Seymour Benzer. Holmes also looks back on his detailed study of the famous experiment by Matthew Meselson and Franklin Stahl on the semi-conservative replication of DNA. As well as mining his own intimate knowledge of these scientists, Holmes draws on the scholarly researches of David Gooding on Michael Faraday, of Martin Rudwick on the geological ‘Devonian controversy’, of Gerald Geison on Louis Pasteur, and of Nicolas Rasmussen on the electron microscope.

This book is no mild valedictory. Rather, Holmes seeks to persuade us that his concept of the investigative pathway provides the framework within which to view the research careers of these scientists. The great experiments, discoveries and eureka moments do exist, but are the nodal points in the investigative pathway. This pathway has a continuity that survives the surprises that nature throws at us. Yes, the experimental system is an important element in the story. Sometimes it takes the lead, redirecting the researcher, but it rarely lifts him out of the pathway being investigated. Even the belated recognition that the ribosome is not the message did not throw research into protein synthesis off course, for example. But such events serve to warn us against teleological reconstructions of the past in which it is assumed that the end point finally reached was envisaged from the start.

Holmes' intimate knowledge of the research careers of his subjects is clearly apparent. This book serves admirably to introduce the reader to his many studies and those of his colleagues in the field. For the biographer he offers insights into such topics as mentoring, creativity, the difficulty of remaining at the forefront as a scientific field matures, and the problems of ageing for the eminent scientist. Holmes is no anthropologist bereft of scientific knowledge coming to the lab to report on the strange society within, but a scholar who has devoted his life to understanding what goes on there.

Fashions in historiography come and go but Holmes, while absorbing what is valuable in each, has remained true to the calling he felt from the beginning: to seek to understand the stepwise generation of scientific concepts in the experimental life of the scientist. Departing in significant ways from other researchers, such as Thomas S. Kuhn, from the Edinburgh school of the sociology of knowledge and from the ethnomethodologists, Holmes found that the investigative pathway provided him with the best framework in which to place his detailed historical accounts. It expressed, he felt, the “distinctiveness and continuity of the individual scientific personality”.

Comparing the metaphor of the path to Howard Gruber's ‘network of enterprise’ and Gooding's ‘experimenter's space’, Holmes admitted that his investigative pathway would be difficult to apply where the scientist engages in several research topics and moves back and forth from one to another, or leads a team of researchers. Confining his chosen cases to those in which his subjects worked alone and did not make such shifts, or to episodes in a scientist's life when he worked in this way, has enabled Holmes to exploit the pathway metaphor effectively.

Historians and scientists will find this little book both stimulating and informative. It will surely join that select group of classics that long outlive their authors.

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  1. Robert Olby is in the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15260, USA.

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