Opinions Differ On The Features Of A Well-Done Scientific Biography

SIDEBAR: Opportunities for Biographers Scientific biographies have the potential not only to engender interest in an individual's life and work, but also to spark re-examinations of an entire discipline. Biographers, historians, and scientists, however, have differing views on just what a scientific biography should entail. Should it center on the scientist's life or research? How far should the biographer go to avoid hagiography, a devotional and uncritical work? On the other hand, how can th

Sep 30, 1996
Robert Finn

SIDEBAR: Opportunities for Biographers

Scientific biographies have the potential not only to engender interest in an individual's life and work, but also to spark re-examinations of an entire discipline.

Biographers, historians, and scientists, however, have differing views on just what a scientific biography should entail. Should it center on the scientist's life or research? How far should the biographer go to avoid hagiography, a devotional and uncritical work? On the other hand, how can the biographer avoid the other extreme of "pathography," a minute examination of the subject's faults?

Spence Weart
EVOLUTION OF AN ART FORM: Historian Spencer Weart notes scientific biography's roots in eulogy.
Such issues did not concern early biographers, notes Spencer Weart, director of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Md. He traces the beginnings of scientific biography to the 18th century, when the French Academy of Sciences began commissioning ^Îloges of its recently deceased members.

"As the name implies, these were more a eulogy than a description," explains Weart. Their function, he says, was "to tell younger scientists how they should be a scientist. They tend to emphasize the characteristics that they think a scientist should have. So, for example, for the 19th-century French scientists we find that they were extremely able experimenters. They were wonderful with their hands. They thought very logically and rationally. They did not speculate wildly. Whereas if you look at the English eulogies of the time, they tend to praise people who were speculative and came up with interesting hypotheses, and maybe [the eulogists were] less interested in how adept they were in the laboratory."

Albert Einsten
A FRUITFUL SUBJECT: Albert Einstein's personal life.
While the beginnings of scientific biography may have been in brief ^Îloges, the genre has evolved into a lengthier and more penetrating analysis of a scientist's life and work. But how does a profile of a scientist differ from one of a person from another profession? Weart likes to answer with a quote attributed to Albert Einstein: "The essential in the existence of a man like me is what he thinks and how he thinks, not what he does or suffers."

Weart goes on to explain, "Einstein was a bit remote from people. His real life was in his thinking about scientific things. And if we're interested in a scientist, it's because we're interested in his science. It's not like being interested in a politician, where the person's personality is so much bound up in his work."

Not everyone agrees. In an essay on scientific biography (J. Lederberg, comp., The Excitement and Fascination of Science: Reflections by Eminent Scientists, Vol. 3, Pt. 1, Palo Alto, Calif., Annual Reviews Inc., 1990, pp. xvii-xxiv), Joshua Lederberg, now Raymond and Beverly Sackler Foundation Scholar at Rockefeller University, writes, "While the scientist's restraint from self description may have helped to preserve the purity of the logic of justification, the indispensible critical function in science, it has also deprived us of insight into the personal and social processes that motivate discovery and pervade the scientific effort. We are left with narratives of chase, competition, and interpersonal stress rather than accounts of imagination gratified and cooperation achieved."

"A biography of an uninteresting person is an uninteresting biography no matter what kind of work they've done," asserts Joel N. Shurkin, a science writer who has published one biography-on psychologist Lewis Terman (Terman's Kids, New York, Little Brown and Co., 1992)-and is now at work on a biography of physicist William B. Shockley (1910-1989), which is scheduled for publication in 1997 or 1998.

"Two things make a good scientific biography," notes Shurkin. "One, presumably you're dealing with a scientist who has done something important enough for people to give a damn. And number two, they themselves have to be fairly interesting. I know lots and lots of scientists who have done important work, but I wouldn't do a biography of them because essentially outside of their work they're not especially interesting people."

Biographers faced with this dilemma occasionally seem to ignore the scientist's personal life entirely. "With a scientist [sometimes] the biographer switches on when the hero enters the laboratory and switches off when he leaves it," complains David M. Knight, a professor of the history and philosophy of science at the University of Durham in the United Kingdom. Knight is editor of the Cambridge Scientific Biographies at Cambridge University Press, and himself a biographer-of Humphry Davy (1778-1829), the British chemist and poet. "I think you've got to have a bit of a life outside as well. If the person had an unhappy marriage, or if he was a minister in a church, or a lawyer or something as well, these are things we ought to know."

Sometimes "these things" affect a scientist's work more than the scientist would like to admit. Einstein is Exhibit A. In an article on the art of scientific biography (Journal of Chemical Education, 73[1]:4-10, 1996), Robert J. Paradowski, a professor of the history of science at the Rochester Institute of Technology, notes that recent biographies of Einstein reveal him to be "an adulterous, egomaniacal misogynist who probably beat his first wife, Mileva Maricic." Moreover, a controversy has erupted over allegations regarding Einstein's failure to acknowledge credit for Mari«c's contributions to the theory of special relativity.

Linus Pauling
MULTIFACETED WORK: Linus Pauling branched out.
Paradowski, who has long labored over a three-volume biography of chemist Linus Pauling (due to be published on Pauling's centenary in 2001) writes: "One of the principal problems besetting scientific biographers is what to do with the science. Some biographers solve this problem the way J.R.R. Tolkien thought that literary biographers should manage the works of their subjects-just leave them out. . . . If biographers include analyses of the scientific work in their scientific biographies, the sine qua non is that they should know what they are talking about. They must understand the facts and theories and be able to communicate these things clearly and accurately to their intended audience.

"The Pauling biographer is confronted with an especially difficult task," continues Paradowski, "because Pauling made important contributions to such a wide array of fields, including X-ray crystallography, quantum mechanics, the chemical bond, immunology, and molecular medicine. It's been said that to write properly the life of Linus Pauling would require another Linus Pauling."

But Shurkin points out that when delving into the science, the biographer needs to have the readers in mind. "There's a biography out now on Linus Pauling that I put down after page 201 because the guy who wrote it sank very deeply into the chemistry, and it was fairly clear that he was not going to emerge, even though it's a book written by a layman for a lay audience."

Shurkin himself is struggling with this issue as he writes his biography of Shockley. A Nobel Prize-winning coinventor of the transistor, Shockley garnered notoriety in his later years for his controversial theories of race and intelligence. Shurkin is attempting to keep to a self-imposed limit by permitting himself to digress from the subject of Shockley himself for no more than 1,000 words at a time. So far he has found it necessary to exceed this limit only once-for an explanation of quantum mechanics.

Gale Christianson
INTERPRETATION: Gale Christianson notes the need for "certain themes" in a good biography.
Students of biography caution that no matter how the author chooses to handle the scientific and nonscientific facts of their subjects' lives, these facts must be set in an interpretive context. "You have to have certain themes in a biography," says Gale E. Christianson, a professor of history at Indiana State University. Christianson is the author of biographies of Loren Eiseley, Edwin Hubble, and Isaac Newton, as well as Writing Lives Is the Devil! Essays of a Biographer at Work (Hamden, Conn., Archon Books, 1993).

Christianson decries what he calls "the 'ox cart approach,' whereby the author takes all these disparate facts and throws them in the back of the ox cart, wheels them over to the reader's door, and dumps them out in a pile.

"You can't do everything," he cautions. "You're out to do this portrait and you want to know which characteristics are going to dominate. To be metaphorical, is it the eyes? Is it the chin? Is it the face itself? What are those aspects of character and of contribution that you really want to emphasize? Every artist is going to be different, so there's never going to be a definitive biography. There will never be one that will last for all time, because there's always reinterpretation."

Gerald Geison
ICONOCLASTIC PORTRAIT: Gerald Geison's biography of Louis Pasteur stirred controversy.
A 1995 biography of Louis Pasteur by Gerald L. Geison, entitled The Private Science of Louis Pasteur (Princeton University Press), is a case in point. One would be hard-pressed to find a scientist who was more celebrated during his lifetime or more closely examined after his death than Pasteur. Geison, who is a professor of history at Princeton University, notes that Pasteur "probably had 10 percent of all the funds given for all science in France at that time."

Biographies are popular, and publishers are continually looking for authors willing to write about important scientists. Cambridge University Press, for example, has published seven books in its Cambridge Scientific Biographies series, and series editor David M. Knight of the University of Durham says that there are a half-dozen others in various stages of preparation.

In addition, says Knight, "We're looking to commission fresh titles." He invites interested authors to contact him to explore the possibilities. (He can be reached at the Department of Philosophy, University of Durham, 50 Old Elvet, Durham, DH1 3HN U.K., 011-44-191-374-7646; E-mail: d.m.knight@durham.ac.uk.) If the idea seems promising, the potential author will be asked to prepare a detailed outline of the book accompanied by a sample chapter.

Oxford University Press is providing an outlet for short (1,000- to 1,500-word) biographical sketches of scientists in its massive American National Biography project. Sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies, the finished product will be a 20-volume work, scheduled for publication in 1998, that the publisher hopes will serve as a standard reference for years to come. Of the 17,500 biographies to be included, approximately 1,000 subjects are in the field of medicine, and 1,500 are in science and technology. All subjects are notable men and women who spent at least part of their professional lives in the United States, and who died before 1996.

Although authors have been found for most of the essays, assistant project editor Joel T. Van Pelt says that about 100 subjects in science and technology and 250 in medicine have yet to be assigned. Among the subjects awaiting authors are Robert H. Felix (died 1990), the first director of the National Institute of Mental Health, and Edwin Howard Armstrong (died 1918), the anatomist and historian of medicine. Potential contributors should contact Van Pelt at Oxford University Press, 2001 Evans Rd., Cary, N.C. 27513; (919) 677-0977, Ext. 5269. E-mail: jtv@oup-usa.org.


Since his death in 1895, Pasteur has been the subject of more than 100 biographies. One would think that there would be little more to write about such an examined life, but Geison depended heavily on a close analysis of newly available papers and laboratory notebooks. And what he found proved surprising to some and disturbing to others. By comparing Pasteur's laboratory notebooks with his public statements, Geison determined that, in at least two instances (regarding the development of the anthrax and rabies vaccines), Pasteur's public accounts were at least highly misleading and perhaps actually false.

Despite his iconoclastic portrait, Geison says that he was motivated by a desire to show science as it actually is done, rather than a desire to sully Pasteur's memory: "A critical feature of a great scientist is immense self-confidence. It allows him to break standard scientific method practices, and to produce exciting and interesting knowledge as a result. Precisely because the scientific method doesn't work as scientists say that it does, the so-called fudging is almost typical of science, and it's actually more typical of great scientists than of ordinary ones. Great scientists become great by being willing to challenge accepted notions of scientific method more aggressively.

"I think the most important contribution my book could make to the general understanding of science- which is my goal-is to emphasize that the process of science and even its results are vastly more complicated than any published paper or any textbook account would ever lead you to believe. . . . I try very hard to emphasize that there is no routine scientific method, and that the way we're taught scientific method in schools is downright misleading and actually destroys some of the interest in science."

One curious fact about scientific biography is that, autobiography excepted, it's rare to find one on a living scientist. "There's a big difference between doing a biography of a scientist who's safely dead and one who's still alive," explains Weart. "The difference shows up two ways. One is that every time you write something you think, 'What is this guy going to think when he reads it?' I can speak from experience -- you're a lot more careful if you realize the person himself may read what you've written. You tend to be perhaps more humane and cautious in your judgment.

"I wish every biographer would imagine that the scientist is actually going to read what he has written. If you put yourself in that mood, you'd probably be a more temperate biographer, more forgiving.

"And the other thing is you have the opportunity to talk to the person himself or herself," Weart continues. "The person's memories will be full of inaccuracies because people are constantly reworking their memories to make themselves the hero of the story, but even so, you can get tremendous insight into, if not the facts of the case, then how the person conceived the facts of the case."

Joel Shurkin
CHOICE OF TOPIC: Science writer Joel Shurkin says a biography must be about an interesting person.
Scientists frequently write autobiographies, of course (J. King, The Scientist, Sept. 3, 1990, page 22), but biographers differ on the value of autobiography. Shurkin says, for example: "No autobiography is honest, by definition. You can't write about yourself honestly."

Whether it's biography or autobiography, readers seem to love it. "Most of the books on history that make the bestseller list happen to be biography," notes Christianson. "I think it brings history down to a personal level."

In fact, the Ingram Book Co. of La Vergne, Tenn., the largest book wholesaler in the United States, ranks biography and autobiography fourth of 50 categories of books, accounting for 4.4 percent of the 190 million books it distributed in 1995.

Paradowski writes, "The best that the biographer can do is to covey to the reader that someone lived a life before him, accomplished some things, failed at others, was happy, sad, did foolish and wise things, endured, suffered, and died. As long as people remain interested in other people, biographies will be written and read, and the biographical quest will continue."

"Biography makes scientists look like humans," concludes Shurkin. "They're not always essentially weird. They're not crazed. They're not evil. I've always found scientists to be remarkable people, which is why I'm a science writer. They're eloquent, most of them are thoughtful, and they're kind of fun to hang around. In a good scientific biography you get that across. You get to the person behind the science."

Robert Finn, a freelance science writer based in Long Beach, Calif., is online at finn@nasw.org.