Video: “Remarks on the Writing of Biography.” John L. Heilbron
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[Introductory remarks by Mary Jo Nye]
John L. Heilbron: I am grateful to the organizers for inviting me to say a few words about the writing of biographies of contemporary scientists. I have arranged my comments under two heads inspired by my reading of the papers you have just heard. The categories are "Trust" and "Continence." In both cases, perhaps, biographers of scientists may have something to tell historians of science.
As Steven Shapin has reminded us recently in his Social History of Truth, the doing of science requires reposing trust in the statements and results of one's fellow scientist. He had in mind the seventeenth century, when scientists were gentlemen and when it was dangerous as well as impertinent to challenge a gentleman's word. Consequently, he says, they developed a protocol for rational debate to be able to disagree with one another without risking a duel.
According to Sam Schweber, Hans Bethe has discovered independently of Shapin that scientists must make a moral as well as an intellectual commitment at the outset of their professional work; a commitment to behave so as to deserve the trust extended to them by their colleagues. The moral aspect of science became clear to Bethe during the 1930s, when he was a junior professor at Cornell. He remembered the time as a Golden Age of cooperative truth-seeking in nuclear physics.
Biographers too may find it useful to trust their informants, dead or alive. Our three biographers have given the matter sustained attention. Schweber expects the same commitment to truth from Bethe the biographee as from Bethe the physicist. Larry Holmes' historical method depends upon establishing what he labels an explicit and mutual trust between himself and his informants; he assumes that they will not use him to bend the record in their direction and they assume that he will give their current recollections the same serious consideration he devotes to their old letters. And Judy Goodstein implicitly trusts the intent, if not always the accuracy, of older members of the Caltech faculty, on whose retrospective testimony she has relied in choosing and developing the themes in her insider's history of Caltech.
There may be some cynics who think that, although mutual trust may be necessary, and even deserved, among scholars of the same species -- like Bethe's physicists -- it is neither viable nor desirable interspecifically. Such cynics, if any there be, might point to Schweber's quoting without criticizing Bethe's recollections of the Golden Age of nuclear physics as an exemplar of cooptation. After all, this putative gold was tarnished by the destruction of the German universities, by desperate jockeying for jobs in physics, by the apparent failure of quantum theory in the nucleus, and by the unreliability of Gamow's calculations. The false or partial consciousness that allowed Bethe to construct and reconstruct a scientific Golden Age out of one of the saddest periods in European intellectual history may be an important indicator of his character.
To continue even-handedly, the cynics might point out that Goodstein's reliance on her colleagues has made her insider's story into a company history. As for Holmes, the same critics might say that his eagerness to ferret out what he calls "precious nuggets of information lurking nowhere else but in the recesses of scientists' memory" necessarily makes him complicit in their stories. It is easy to see that his trusting nature causes him to pull his punches. To adjust to Krebs, he forgoes a plausible working hypothesis; to save Meselson's mystical experience, he may be assisting in planting a story with as much verisimilitude as Robert Oppenheimer's reciting of the Baghavadgita at the Trinity test.
A Little History
At this point you are privileged to see history in the making. As Holmes mentioned, he asked Matt Meselson to confirm or reject his most recent explanation of certain contradictions between Meselson's recollections of the first of the Meselson-Stahl experiments and the documentary evidence. Unfortunately, Meselson had to leave our meeting before he could deliver his answer. On the verge of departure this morning, he gave me a sealed envelope. Not knowing whether he would have the time to complete his assignment, and not wanting to disappoint Holmes, I too wrote a letter. I will read both of them to you.
Here is the first:
"Holmes' reconstruction of the experiment C50 is that samples taken during the first generation after transfer of a bacterial culture from heavy-to-light medium [were confused with other samples. I'm not altogether sure that these last few words were what the author intended. He left out his verb one of those vexations we biographers must put up with. However, his conclusion is clear enough:] This [interpretation] cannot be correct."
Then follows a detailed technical analysis and a recommendation: "Holmes should go back to the archives, reread all the laboratory notebooks, review and reanalyze all the films, in order to find out why I saw three lines rather than two."
Here is the second letter:
"Holmes' reconstruction is [the word is illegible; I think it is] ingenious. It has brought back memories of events I had forgotten and maybe never experienced. I do not know how I could have mixed up the samples, but I am not so arrogant as to think that I cannot make mistakes. Still, there are a few points difficult to square with Holmes' reconstruction. To clear them up, he should return to the archives, reread all the laboratory notebooks, and review and reanalyze all the films."
I regret that I have mixed up the samples and cannot tell you which of these letters is Meselson's. But you can see that, whichever it is, it is only partly his work, for it was Holmes the historian who gave him the problem, proposed the solution, and caused him to enrich the historical record with one of the documents I have read. While you ponder which it is, you might ask yourself two deeper questions:
1. This document was written long after the events it concerns; at the end of a long day filled with discordant memories; and before an early plane trip -- that is, without immediate recourse to the pertinent records and in response to the importunities of a historian. The document thus has doubtful authority. Do we not owe it to history to destroy it before Holmes sees it?
2. Does it matter very much what error Meselson made? Is it not enough to understand the successful second and third runs? Couldn't Sherlock Holmes find a more worthy subject of investigation?
A Little Trust
I wish to separate myself from the naysayers I quoted earlier. They have missed two important points. For one, interspecific trust -- trust between historians and scientists -- may be as necessary as it is easy in cases like those before us, when both parties are out to celebrate. Goodstein's book is explicitly celebratory -- it was written for a centennial; Schweber's and Holmes' biographies are no less upbeat, since they have as their purpose the elucidation of something that passes for an unmixed good in our society, that is, intellectual creativity. The second point against the cynics is that their spoiling has gone far enough. Nowadays academics and their natural enemies, the journalists, seem to agree that the only reason for writing about established figures and institutions is to belittle, carp, and whine.
Biographers of scientists, however, who voluntarily share the trust their subjects accord one another, do not deconstruct heroes or bad-mouth science. We need the sort of spiriting up that some interspecific trust might bring. That is demonstrated sufficiently by the controversy surrounding the Smithsonian Institution's new permanent exhibition entitled "Science in American Life."
Its opening scene, set in a replica of the original chemical laboratory at Johns Hopkins, is an argument between two dummies representing the professor of chemistry and a German graduate student. The student had made a marketable discovery in the laboratory, and had marketed it; the professor complained that the student had not credited the laboratory properly. Toward the end of the exhibit, the visitor hears sermons by Rachael Carson and sees reminders of the damage done by pesticides and herbicides. In between, an extensive presentation of the Manhattan Project, statistics about loss of life at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a bomb shelter resurrected from the soil of the Middle West continue the theme that science can be inimical to your health.
The American Chemical Society, which sponsored the exhibition, was not happy with it, but, since it had agreed that the Smithsonian would have the last word, did not make its complaints public. Its scruples did not affect the American Physical Society, which protested that the exhibit presented science in too dark a light. A meeting was arranged among the Physical Society's top officers, the Smithsonian's curators, and three independent sages. The meeting was instructive. The scientists did not regard the curators as fellow workers in the vineyard of truth; the curators assumed that the scientists had come to adulterate the harvest of five years of labor in the archives and the scrap heap. Although the meeting ended amicably, neither side succeeded in explaining its point of view to the other.
Why is there this antipathy between historians and the scientists whose work they portray? What might be done about it?
We might conjecture that, on the one side, there is a true antipathy to science rooted in modern social history and the anti-science movement of the 1970s and 1980s, and, on the other side, a true contempt of the historical enterprise and a worry that public denigration of science will further erode the funding of science.
The biographer of living scientists knows how to effect a rapprochement. Historians who deal directly with living scientists find it desirable to qualify their criticism before airing it. In return, scientists may be able to contain their irritation long enough to hear nuanced criticism of their tacit beliefs and unconscious practices. That might make them slower to declare the reconstructions of the historians vacuous or menacing. Each side needs only to trust that the other sometimes strives for Wissenschaft.
Biographers may be particularly prone to what Saint Paul called nimis cupiditas cognoscendi -- that is, too great a desire to know. We may catch a hint of this urge in Holmes' lament that sometimes the historian must accept "historical indeterminism." His goal, as he expresses it, is "to retrace the thoughts and actions of the individual scientist," to describe every twist and turn on the pathway of discovery. When the biographee lives for ninety years, has a large family, preserves papers and memorabilia that fill a railroad car, and inspires a cornucopia of praise, criticism, and anecdote, the biographer can easily lose all sense of proportion.
The authors of the papers at this session have kept their balance amid temptation, perhaps because they are historians as well as -- or perhaps more than -- biographers. Take Schweber's case. He has felt the impulse toward completion, he tells us, but drew back when he discovered last fall that he already had enough for a three-volume life of Bethe, for which, he supposes, the world is not yet ready. Consequently, he will produce but one slim volume of five hundred pages, plus a supplementary volume of Bethe's technical work with appropriate technical annotations.
One can only applaud this continence amid today's information glut. You send a student to the library with a research topic; he or she returns with a list of ten thousand books, which is enough, even if they are only five hundred pages long. How does the historian know when to quit? Goodstein has a way that has the merit of making possible a quiet life: she stopped her history in 1969, she explains, because that was when her friends and contemporaries began to appear as actors in the story.
Another possible shut-off mechanism is an axe. I mean the axe one has to grind. It is not necessary to devote a full-scale biography to every interesting person who has left the necessary documentation. A biographer who has something to say may usefully delimit the subject accordingly. Holmes takes the creativity of a single individual over an extended period as his line, and seldom strays from it. He knows what he wants to say. He is thus able to compress his accounts into five hundred pages.
Schweber is interested in intellectual style. He has devised a way of exploring it that will probably enable him to say what he wishes to about Bethe in the restricted compass he now designs. He plans to adopt the scheme of comparative lives of Plutarch, with this important difference: Bethe will appear in every pair of lives examined.
The great philosopher Jerry Brown, a former governor of California, taught that less was more. That might not be true for university budgets, but it is often true of information. Much of what we write is unreadable, per se; but there is also much that is or could be readable to a wider audience if it were shorter, punchier, and to a clearer purpose. Once again, the biographer may be the bellwether. The biographer does not have to waste time, as the historian of some remote technical topic might have to do, in justifying and explaining his or her enterprise: the life of an interesting human being is in principle interesting to human beings, especially if the particulars that distinguished the biographee are not submerged in a sea of otherwise indifferent information.
It is reliably estimated that, in the year 2000, the world's publishers will issue one million new titles. Biographers of modern scientists will not contribute much to this glut. The Isis critical bibliographies now run to four thousand items annually; of these around fifty are book-length biographies of modern scientists. When Judy, Larry, and I began as historians thirty years ago, the corresponding numbers were two thousand items and ten biographies. If we normalize for increase in the size of the profession and for the lengthening of the twentieth century, then there has been no change at all in the relative incidence of biography writing in the historiography of modern science.
When you consider further that biographers tend not to clutter journals, since good biography does not lend itself to prepublication in fragments, and that few biographers write many biographies during their careers, you conclude that the practice of biography is as friendly to the environment as it is instructive to the mind and refreshing to the spirit.
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Session 2: The Biographer's Picture of Linus Pauling
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- Crellin Pauling - Session Introduction: “The Personal View of Linus Pauling and His Work.”
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Session 4: Historians and Contemporary Scientific Biography
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- Frederic L. Holmes - “Historians and Contemporary Scientific Biography.”
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- Robin Rider - “Manuscript Collections in the Biographical Enterprise.”
- John L. Heilbron - “Remarks on the Writing of Biography.”
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