Revealing All?

December 1, 2003


The lone mathematician among a collection of scientist-diarists (tilted, in the opinion of our reviewer, toward the life sciences), Marcus du Sautoy points to similarities in the creative processes in mathematics and music, picturing ideas colliding like notes to "produce a surprising harmony."
Book Review
Philip J. Davis

Science, not Art: Ten Scientists' Diaries. By Jon Turney, ed., Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, UK Branch, London, 2003, 160 pages (including numerous photos of the diarists both in professional situations and at relaxed moments), 8.50.

The somewhat strange title of this book derives from the fact that the Gulbenkian Foundation, generally associated with the arts, has in the last few years broadened its horizons and moved increasingly toward the sciences, both in its grants and in its publications. Earlier publications of the foundation include a collection of diaries of artists (Art, not Chance), and it has recently given grants to encourage artists to move a bit toward science and technology.

The general public hasn't a clue as to what a typical scientist does in a day, either as a researcher or as a human being. What kind of work does he/she do? Where do the drive and the inspiration come from? To provide an appropriate picture and to offset (or perhaps confirm!) the stereotype of scientists as introverted, asocial, occasionally mad geniuses who speak to one another in arcane tongues, who from time to time are strong candidates for former Senator Proxmire's Golden Fleece awards, the foundation has again opted for the diary mode of presentation. To that end, with the help and recommendations of the Royal Society, it commissioned ten scientists to keep diaries of their activities and thoughts over a period of six months.

A main principle in the selection of the diarists was to present diversity in terms of areas of research, social and geographical backgrounds, gender. The diarists all work in the UK, are secure in their employment, are charged with energy and potential, and are sufficiently young that they have not quite yet made it to the top of their respective "greasy poles." The scientific areas represented are marine biology, biophysics, genetics, paleo-pathology, neurophysiology, space physiology, physical chemistry, ecology, cosmology, and mathematics. A bit heavy, I think, on the side of the life sciences, but no great matter. A diary is not a CV, and since we often judge people and careers CV-wise, the editor has appropriately given a brief career statement for each diarist.

First, some general observations that have to do specifically with mathematicians; later, a few comments on the diaries.

What do mathematicians do? Where and how do they do it? What is their motivation, their source of ideas? In recent years, there has been an absolute gush of biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, interpretations of notebooks and jottings, interviews, even novels, plays, and movies. Letters between mathematicians can be found in library stacks. The diary mode can certainly fill in some cracks.

Diaries are written for a number of reasons: for private conversation with oneself, and in that case often kept under lock and key; for an ambiguous posterity to read
---whether or not what they will be reading is true; for ultimate publication. The commissioning of diaries is rare. The day-to-day lives of a movie star, a politician, a business tycoon, a military platoon over a short period are captured increasingly by embedded journalists who follow their subjects around. A contracted diary is produced under different constraints; the result often shows signs of haste and an obligation on the part of the diarist to fulfill whatever the editor was looking for.

What have I learned of a general nature from reading the scientists' diaries? I learned that scientists pursue their research with passion, often to the point of obsession; that they are highly competitive; that they travel constantly to meetings, to think tanks. Scientists read; they listen; they make literature searches. They experiment, they guess, they theorize, they compute. They jump to conclusions. They teach, lecture, give radio or TV interviews and talks, make films. They collaborate. They write papers and worry about referees' comments. They referee papers and try to be objective. They write proposals for grants and contracts, competing against proposals submitted by their peers. They often justify their requests for support by claiming ultimate benefits to humanity.

The diaries have informed me that some scientists require special equipment, sometimes costing tens of millions of dollars, and still are not satisfied with what they have. The frontiers of knowledge seem always to be just a bit beyond the capabilities of their hardware. For others, a pad of paper, a pencil, and a sandy beach in South America will suffice. Scientists sit on committees; they judge job applicants, deal with postdocs. They have their moments of elation and of depression. They occasionally wonder whether what they do is worthwhile. All this I knew before I turned a page; probably my readers do also.

Now, what have I learned from the specific diaries? Apart from avocations, relaxations, and the occasional description of family involvement, I've been inserted into a submarine, into the mangrove thickets of Brazil, into an intensive-care hospital unit, and shared an imagined manned flight to Mars. I've learned of angst when vacuum pumps misbehave or of elation when laser microsurgery on worms goes well.

Apart from general areas of research of which I say to myself, "Uh-huh, I think I've heard of it," I can assert flat out that I understood almost nothing of the deeper nature of the diarists' scientific pursuits. This is true even of the problems that the mathematician is working on and is a sad commentary on the balkanization of science and mathematics.

The picture of the day-to-day activities of the ten diarists rings true, and seems to be representative of the whole scientific community. The psychic sources that drive them and the extent to which they are aiming toward goals that transcend the daily work of science come through less clearly. It is not an easy matter to introspect when one wants to record raw daily activities.

The big, often asked question is, What conduces to creativity? I grant that the word creativity is bandied around foolishly in educational circles, in discussions that start with future learners still in the cradle. Creativity, at the level displayed by the ten diarists, means different things to different groups. Does it grow out of early experiences and opportunities? Is it genetic? Do certain kinds of autism (Asperger's syndrome) foster scientific talent? The Zeitgeist? Chemical stimulants? Luck? Inspiration can come from books and papers, from association and intercommunication, from standing on the shoulders of the giants. Does it also come, as Ramanujan once asserted, from visions or communications from guiding spirits?

Many have sought a definitive grip on the "Aha! Now I see the critical connection. Now I see something genuinely new." Despite all the ingredients just mentioned, and despite the accomplishments of cognitive scientists and of the computer people who talk about artificial brains, the mystery of creativity re-mains. That this is the case and always will be is probably good---otherwise, we would be drowned in so much creativity, so many epiphanies on the scientific road to Damascus, vouchsafed to humans or to computers, that we should have to practice creativity control to avoid chaos. For make no mistake: When one new idea of the right sort takes off, it can alter the world far more than the Lorentz butterfly that flapped its wings in Tokyo and set off a tornado in Kansas.

Who do I think will profit most from these diaries? Other scientists? No. The general public? No---many will surely suffer from alteration of their encrusted views of how scientists spend their days, romanticized by the media. The group for whom the diaries should be most useful are college undergraduates who are trying to make up their minds as to which field of science to get into or, indeed, whether science of any sort will be their life-long work.

It might have been more realistic if among the diarists were a few who, after years in science, left research and moved into administration, foundation work, writing, or into sounding off as gurus. Nonetheless, if the Gulbenkian Foundation can call this publication to the attention of high school and college guidance counselors, its money will have been well spent.

Philip J. Davis, professor emeritus of applied mathematics at Brown University, is an independent writer, scholar, and lecturer. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and can be reached at philip_davis@brown.edu.


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