'Bahramdipity' and Scientific Research

Illustration: A. Canamucio Most readers of The Scientist probably agree that the education of scientists should be scientifically rigorous. Periodically, the nonscientific rigors of the education and training of scientists and physicians have been examined. When the exorbitant workloads imposed on interns and medical residents led to critical treatment errors, some hospitals changed their decades-old practices. Other tragedies have brought other cases of excessive or even abusive "rigor'' to l

Feb 1, 1999
Toby Sommer

Illustration: A. Canamucio
Most readers of The Scientist probably agree that the education of scientists should be scientifically rigorous. Periodically, the nonscientific rigors of the education and training of scientists and physicians have been examined. When the exorbitant workloads imposed on interns and medical residents led to critical treatment errors, some hospitals changed their decades-old practices. Other tragedies have brought other cases of excessive or even abusive "rigor'' to light. In August 1998, Jason Altom, a fifth-year graduate student in chemistry at Harvard University, took his own life. The Harvard Crimson quoted from a suicide note in which Altom referred to "abusive research advisors'' who "have too much power over the lives'' and careers of students.1

Several categories of abuse can arise from difficult research situations. Sociologists of science have examined numerous interesting cases. One particularly prominent form of abuse occurs when a graduate student or research associate cannot produce the desired results, makes an undesired serendipitous discovery, or unintentionally finds flaws in prior work. Many principal investigators (PIs) are disappointed to receive such information and do not always treat the messenger kindly. Extreme pressure to obtain what is desired or expected insidiously degrades the scientific ethics and ideals of lower-ranking colleagues, sometimes to the breaking point.

English author Horace Walpole (1717-97) coined the term "serendipity" in 1754 from the fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip. Because abuse of researchers frequently begins consequent to serendipity, Walpole's inspirational source suggests a new term to describe this phenomenon.

The Three Princes of Serendip is based on the life of Bahram Gur, king of Persia (ca. 418-38 A.D.) The few available versions in English describe many adventures of the princes as well as the misfortunes of others. A summary2 of the first and most widely told adventure of the three princes characterizes King Bahram, their "host." While the princes are wandering in the desert, a merchant asks them if they have seen his missing camel. Although the princes insist that they have not, they describe the camel so precisely that the merchant suspects them of camel theft. When they arrive in Persia, he has them arrested. When they're brought before the king, Bahram inquires if the merchant's tale is true; they proudly acknowledge their cleverness in identifying the missing camel without ever having seen it. Without further inquiry, Bahram finds them guilty and sentences them to death. Then Bahram explains, "Although I am inclined more toward clemency than severity, nevertheless I have decided to let you die shamefully if you are unable to produce the camel."3 Many contemporary scientific "bahrams" are also generally given to such generous and forgiving self-characterization and to grant such dispensations if their associates are "unable to produce the [desired results]."

While the princes are marched through the streets to receive their unjust due, a citizen calls out to the camel merchant that he has seen the missing camel wandering lost in the desert. Suddenly aware of the innocence and truthfulness of the three princes, the merchant intercedes to prevent their execution and seek their pardon.

The princes find salvation by the chance appearance of the citizen who stepped forward, completely unaware of their plight. Later, they gain even greater rewards from the king, who is now enamored of their sagacity.

Another incident in the court of Bahram further demonstrates his dogmatic, impatient, cruel, and egomaniacal manner. Bahram has fallen in love with Diliramma, a slave girl he purchased from a traveling merchant. One day while hunting, Bahram offers to demonstrate his skill and Diliramma asks him to do so by shooting a deer in the hoof and ear with but one arrow shot. He uses a slingshot to braise the deer's ear and then shoots his arrow while the deer is scratching its ear with its hoof. Although his court of sycophants praises his cleverness and skill, Diliramma criticizes Bahram for having resorted to trickery.

In his anger, the king has her bound and left in the woods as food for the wild animals. Ultimately, she is rescued and, after more adventures, is reunited with Bahram. She explains: "I challenged him to do what I was able to do, namely with a single shot to pierce both the foot and the ear of a deer. Because I was not considerate enough and dared to question his skill as a hunter, he decided that with my boldness I had insulted his honor.''4 As many associate scientists are aware, it can be dangerous to question the skill or knowledge of a PI bahram, even when they have discovered alternative solutions to problems and have them at hand. (In a variation of the hunting story, Bahram Gur knocks the maiden Azada to the ground and tramples her to death with his camel.)5

The princes gain further rewards from the king when they help to reveal a plot against his life. A counselor whose son had been put to death for "treason'' (given Bahram's whimsical use of his power, the actual crimes may have been as legitimate as the Princes' camel theft) plots revenge. The plan to expose the counselor involves the same sort of lies, infidelity, and deception that Bahram is trying to eliminate. In this and other matters, Bahram seems to enjoy great success in obtaining cooperation and confessions by threat of death. "So [Bahram] warned him that if he would not be sincere he would be forced to die."6 Often, research associates feel that they must produce or report results that the PI is expecting. If the PI does not hear what s/he wants to hear, the consequence may be the end of the associate's career. Some PIs are so feared that they are never challenged.

Other sources further confirm the character of Bahram. To acquire the throne of Persia, Bahram Gur, backed up by an army of fierce Arab warriors, threatens the Persian nobles that he "will pound the life out of [their] chosen king of kings and slice off [their] heads''7 if they do not agree to his method for selecting the new king of kings. They agree to this lopsided trial of courage and strength against the elderly nobleman Khosrau, and Bahram Gur wins in due course. For a scientific analogy, consider the plight of junior faculty (nobles) whose fear of tenure review inhibits their free expression of a scientific opinion, or researchers who dare not express a contrary scientific viewpoint for fear of professional retribution.

Wearied while hunting under the blazing sun, Bahram Gur is described as being in "ill-humour, being heated and desirous to rest himself in [a verdant hamlet]." When the people there, perhaps not allowed by the king to be wearied in their labors under the blazing sun, failed to properly salute him, he "became enraged'' and instructed his counselor, "Let this ill-starred place become the resort of wild beasts and may the water in its stream turn to pitch." The counselor implemented a clever plan and within a very short time this "flourishing town'' was turned into a desert. Passing by one year later, Bahram Gur felt sorrow and said to his counselor, "How sad that so pleasant a village should have become a desert. Quickly set about restoring it; spend money so that they shall no further suffer misery."8 The king of kings appears to be oblivious to the fates of the people that he caused to perish or to flee from the village.

Incidents such as these that reveal the character of the all-powerful Bahram suggest another eponymous term to supplement and, in some ways, complement serendipity: bahramdipity. A formal definition:

bahramdipity the suppression of a discovery, sometimes a serendipitous discovery, by the often-egomaniacal act of a more powerful individual who does cruelly punish, not merely disdain, a person (or persons) of lesser power and little renown who demonstrates sagacity, perspicacity, and truthfulness (From Bahram of Persia, as characterized in the fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip.)

It is hoped that by naming bahramdipity, it will be easier to recognize and discuss this aberration of science. The strength of the analogy between Bahram of Persia and some scientific bahrams is lamentable. Is it necessary for contemporary scientific PIs to be bahrams in order to protect their realms today, or has our civilization not advanced as much as we'd like to think?

Toby J. Sommer (sommer@alum.mit.edu) is a chemist (S.B., MIT, Ph.D., Yale University) in Waltham, Mass.

  1. A.K. Mandel, "Suicide spurs GSAS, Chem. Department to review advising," The Harvard Crimson, September 14, 1998, page 1.

  2. T.G. Remer, Ed., Serendipity and the Three Princes of Serendip; From the Peregrinaggio of 1557, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.

  3. Ibid. , page 62.

  4. Ibid. , page 161.

  5. Ferdowsi, The Epic of the Kings: Shah-Nama: The National Epic of Persia, translated by Reuben Levy, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967, page 300.

  6. Remer, page 67.

  7. Ferdowsi, page 303.

  8. Ibid. , page 304-5.