How’s your legacy?

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Like it or not, most of us are doomed to be rapidly forgotten.

There’s a great moment in Anne Rice’s “Interview with the Vampire”, in which the brooding protagonist has been scouring the Earth for the oldest of the immortals. He finds his man in Paris, but is stunned to discover that the world’s oldest vampire is a relative juvenile of just a few hundred years’ age. Armand, the vampire in question, breaks it to him gently – although vampires can theoretically live forever, in practice they tend to fade away after a couple of centuries.

It’s an uncomfortable parable for any scientist, given that an oft-cited lure of the job is that tantalising chance of immortality. Continue reading

Wholly Trinity

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An obsession with publishing in three high-prestige journals is ruining careers and undermining good science.

Cell. Nature. Science. Three short words – but like another worshipped trio, their influence belies the simplicity of their names. These three journals exert a pathological and mesmeric hold on the entire biomedical research body, and it is high time that that spell was broken.

First off, and let’s get this in the clear so that there are no misunderstandings, it should be stressed that Nature and Science are terrible, terrible organs for the publication of scientific research. Continue reading

Bringing up baby

Reptile mammal

Mammals and reptiles have different strategies for raising their young. So do scientists.

Basically, it’s a question of risk. You can invest a lot in a very small number of offspring, or you can produce a ton of them but not leave much love to go around*. The former strategy gives that lucky sprog the best possible start, but carries a much higher penalty for the parents if things don’t work out; the latter lessens the damage inflicted by losing one or more offspring, but naturally makes them somewhat more disposable. Bad news if you’re one of the ones that doesn’t make it.

That’s Nature, but the same dynamic gets played out in research labs the world over. Continue reading

The old lie

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I remember reading an anecdote once about a meeting between Francis Crick and an eminent biochemist (I’m pretty sure it was Erwin Chargaff). Chargaff came away highly unimpressed by Crick, which seems bizarre nowadays when Crick is revered as a kind of demigod. The reason for Chargaff’s disdain? Crick, he said, seemed to exemplify the worst aspects of the British system, namely “all talk and no action”.

It’s a pithy reminder of what we now refer to as “the American work ethic” swept away. High-minded gentlemen scientists sitting around in armchairs in club rooms doing thought experiments, and occasionally deigning to publish their insights. Theorising, theorising, theorising. Very little actual “doing”.

That’s what the work ethic replaced. Why do the thought experiment when you could do the actual experiment? And the powerhouse performance of American academia in the 20th century is all the validation that’s needed of that more practical approach.

But there’s a sense now that the pendulum may have swung too far the other way. Continue reading