The Mother Of Invention? Freedom


By Thomas A. Bass

Addison-Wesley x 249pp x $24.95

Science geniuses can be prickly sorts. So Thomas A. Bass discovered when he talked with the pioneering British drug designer James W. Black for his fascinating new book, Reinventing the Future: Conversations With the World's Leading Scientists. To start, Bass asked Black where he was born. "Are you trying to analyze me?" Black demanded. "Am I on your couch to be dissected and poked? This sort of public stripping before we start, getting me on the couch and tearing off my protective gear--can you see why I'm allergic to it?"

Fortunately for Bass, the other 10 scientists he interviewed for his book weren't so pugnacious. But the scientists--in fields as diverse as chaos theory and genetics--all emerge as offbeat and strong-willed. Luc Montagnier, co-discoverer of the AIDS virus, happily confirms that he has a lot of enemies. Geologist Farouk El-Baz tells how he incurred the wrath of the Nasser regime in Egypt when he refused an undesirable assignment to teach chemistry at a technical school in the Suez region. Thomas Adeoye Lambo, a British-trained psychiatrist, dared to hire traditional healers--"witch doctors"--to work beside the psychiatric staff in his native Nigeria, with apparent success. Says Lambo, speaking for many of his peers: "I'm restless."

To be sure, it's no surprise that scientists like to go their own ways. What Reinventing the Future makes clear is that their independence is deeply entwined with their creativity. Take away one, and the other dies. That's a message to be heeded by directors of government, academic, and corporate laboratories who have lately been intent on channeling scientists' efforts into what they see as more productive paths.

Happily, though, Reinventing the Future is much more than a how-to work for research directors. In their own words, these scientists talk about their lives and their eye-opening research. For instance, Sarah Hrdy, an American anthropologist, went to India to study the mating habits of hanuman monkeys, considered sacred by many Indians. There she developed a controversial but now accepted theory of why female primates mate with many males. The evolutionary logic: They intentionally confuse paternity so that the males will refrain from killing the females' offspring, since they might be the father.

Interviewee Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, an influential book published in 1976 that portrayed humans as robot vehicles controlled by their genes, is a self-described dabbler. He once devised a mathematical model for how chickens peck and wrote his own word-processing program for his Apple II computer--software no one else has ever used. Today, Dawkins imagines that artificial intelligence could someday develop to the point where large organizations will be taken over by machine intelligence. "Humans," he says, apparently seriously, "will then sink into the background as functionaries or slaves."

Of all the scientists featured here, El-Baz can lay claim to the most varied career. After defying the Nasser regime, he emigrated to the U.S., where he eventually ended up supervising the collecting of moon rocks by Apollo astronauts. He later moved on to Boston University, where he has taken up the cause of "nondestructive archeology" in his native Egypt. The idea is to use remote sensing technology to explore ancient mummies, wall paintings, and solar boats without removing them from their tombs. Says El-Baz: "The era of archeology as high-class grave-robbing is over."

Bass, a veteran science journalist, clearly has a knack for getting people to talk, and he has been in touch with some of his interviewees off and on for years. One, chaos theorist Norman Packard, was a protagonist in Bass's 1985 book, The Eudaemonic Pie, which chronicled an attempt by Packard and colleague Doyne Farmer to beat Las Vegas by using a toe-operated microcomputer to track where a roulette wheel's ball was stopping and calculate where it was likely to stop next.

By his own account, Bass has edited these interviews to eliminate jargon and minimize his own appearance. Black's tirade, for example, is mentioned in a preface but left out of the interview itself. In addition, Bass took the unusual step of showing the pieces to his subjects before they were printed. Far from trying to bowdlerize their remarks, he says, the scientists tended to strengthen and amplify their arguments.

Readers interested in research and development strategies would do well to turn to the interview with Black. Prickly though he may be, he's also a seminal thinker with strong opinions on scientific freedom. He has invented not one but two billion-dollar drugs--first beta blockers, which prevent heart attacks and reduce high blood pressure, and then the active ingredient for the anti-ulcer drug Tagamet. In both cases, his employers gave him free rein. "Research has to be constrained and channeled," says Black. "But the more you try to make it efficient, the more inefficient it will become. You'll kill the goose."

Etienne-Emile Baulieu, inventor of the RU 486 abortion pill, laments in his interview that to the world at large, the scientific enterprise has become faceless: "Nobody cares about the lives of scientists." Truth be told, most scientists are just drones like the rest of us. But a precious few are true explorers. Thomas Bass has brought 11 of them to life.

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