Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Science as a vocation

Dr. Myers has a review of Tears of the Cheetah: And Other Tales from the Genetic Frontier by Stephen J. O'Brien.

In what I can only hope is a brilliant new strategy that will result in tremendous numbers of free books, the publisher of the paperback edition has sent out copies to at least two bloggers, and probably many more.

His review inspired me to put it on the top of The Pile. I'm really enjoying it so far. After all, if Ernst Mayr really likes a book, it can't be that bad.

The book that it reminds me of most is The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen. It's probably more like one of his other books, but that's the only Quammen I've read. Stephen O'Brien isn't as skilled a storyteller and wordsmith as Quammen, but he has other things going for him. Quammen is a professional writer, while O'Brien is the head of the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity at the National Cancer Institutes.

As Myers notes, the stories all connect to Dr. O'Brien, but he seems to be a relatively minor player in some stories, and the real theme is the important ways that research on genomics and molecular biology can connect to conservation (as in the cheetah), but also yield important insights into important medical questions. A story about a viral infection in mice reveals movements of people and mice across the centuries, and gives hints into anti-retroviral immunity.

The thing that struck me most, and a point that I've considered before, is the keen importance of collaboration in modern science. In Science as a Vocation, Weber argues that "only by strict specialization can the scientific worker become fully conscious, for once and perhaps never again in his lifetime, that he has achieved something that will endure. A really definitive and good accomplishment is today always a specialized accomplishment." O'Brien shows that another path exists.

The book as a whole is not the story of a single research program, but it does seem to hang together. As a public scientist and a curious mind, O'Brien has odd situations presented to him, and takes those opportunities to explore new ideas. He's never the only player, but he brings his own specialist's skills to a problem, and only by combining his specialization with those of his collaborators can a lifetime accomplishment emerge.

In this sense, he answers Weber's concern that modern science is no longer capable of exploring generalities. While each researcher must be specialized to conduct successful research, collaborations and cooperative work combined can produce the raw material for the truly integrative minds that have always produced generalized insights.

I'll reserve my final judgment until I finish the book, but I can say that it's a fast read so far, and very interesting biology with something for people with a wide array of interests in biology. Molecular biology may bring it together, but the stories are about much more.