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Science's Mentoring Process

I well remember the sudden about-face of the science establishment's view of acupuncture—from adamant disbelief to cautious acceptance. What caused the change? It was not new facts about acupuncture, but instead the discovery of the enkephalins, the body's own opiates. Perhaps the needle stimulated their production. Scientists seem to be unimpressed by facts unless they can be connected to the established network of ideas. How then does science progress? And how did the enkephalin discover

By | February 9, 1987

I well remember the sudden about-face of the science establishment's view of acupuncture—from adamant disbelief to cautious acceptance. What caused the change? It was not new facts about acupuncture, but instead the discovery of the enkephalins, the body's own opiates. Perhaps the needle stimulated their production.

Scientists seem to be unimpressed by facts unless they can be connected to the established network of ideas. How then does science progress? And how did the enkephalin discovery come about?

Kanigel's book addresses both of these questions in a style intended for the non-specialist scientist and also for the general public. It presents the human context of a revolution in our understanding of drug action and the brain. Yet this story is merely the framework for exploring the mentoring process in science, how great scientists beget great scientists while pursuing the secrets of nature.

For those aspiring to scientific eminence, Apprentice to Genius is comforting—there is more than one pattern. There are workaholics and there are those with reasonable, regular hours. Some flunked their chemistry courses, some are clumsy at the bench. Some achieve greatness by painstaking devotion to one goal, others take great leaps ("fliers" the author calls them a bit too often) in many directions.

Kanigel explores a scientific genealogy, a dynasty of the flier type, composed of Bernard ("Steve") Brodie, pioneer of modem pharmacology; Julius Axelrod, his technician and later Nobel laureate who clarified nerve transmission and the role of the pineal gland (Descartes' link between body and mind); Axeirod's "offspring," Solomon Snyder, giant of neuropharmacology; and Candace Pert, who discovered the brain's opiate receptors while Snyder's graduate student, a finding that led to the hunt for the body's own opiates. Tylenol, circadian rhythms, the specter of sex discrimination, and the urgent problem of drug addiction are all part of the story.

The book, written by a practiced science writer, by no means paints the principals as saints. They may well have wished that some of the interpersonal tensions and rivalries had been left buried. Disciples, like children, do grow up and the transition, exacerbated by character traits of mentor and "mentee," can be painful. That transition, however, is the focus of the book. This is how genius is passed on—or was it there, simply waiting to be ignited? That remains a mystery.

The Institute for Scientific Information's work in citation analysis is quoted to good effect in this book; I was not as happy with some of the popularized chemistry. I keep on wondering why the clarifying symbolism of CH3 and NH2 is considered too difficult for readers who are exposed to NIH, NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) and DNA.

As an organic chemist not expert but intensely interested in the fields under discussion, I found the book a most useful guide to the primary literature. Kanigel's Apprentice to Genius is a fast-moving, fascinating and revealing book.

Benfey is Dana Professor of Chemistry and History of Science
at Guilford College, Greensboro,NC 27410.

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