On how to show the spirit of scientific enterprise
Original possibly published in Punch in the 1960s.
This version was scanned from a typescript
found in a drawer of an old desk at Adelaide University
Physics Department in 1984.
There are three principal groups of spurious scientific
activity, which come under the heading Bandwagon, No Stone
Unturned, and Fancy That. Take Chigwell, for instance,
cosily installed in a well-equipped laboratory at Oxbridge
University, but without an idea in his head. He reads in an
obscure Italian journal that Fettuchini of Bologna has
isolated a new anti-cancer principle from an extract of
alfalfa. He immediately sets his whole organization to work
on the same subject, repeating the original experiment over
and over again with certain minor modifications.
Within a year he has a whole series of publications ready on
the same subject, and he begins to fire them like buckshot
all over the world. The editors of the scientific journals
find themselves in a quandary. Chigwell's work is tedious,
repetitive and unoriginal, but the subject on which he is
working is so important that it is hard to turn down
anything even remotely connected with it. So they take the
line of least resistance.
As a result of this, Chigwell soon ends up with more
publications than the man who made the original discovery.
His name begins to dominate the literature. In any review of
the subject he must be mentioned; if there is to be an
international discussion he must be invited. He is after
all, in many ways better value than Fettuchini.
He speaks English, he is an amusing orator, he has a knack
for explaining technicalities in simple language - and he is
always available. Very soon people forget the meagre nature
of his contribution "Chigwell!" they say. "Yes, of course -
the Cancer man. A brilliant fellow". From that moment
onwards he has nothing to worry about. He can dig away
happily at the same hole for the rest of his life.
No Stone Unturned is a much less ambitious game than
Bandwagon. It is thought to have been taken over originally
from scholars in the humanities, who have made most
effective use of it to maintain themselves in sudsidised
idleness over the centuries.
No Stone Unturned rests on the assumption that no piece of
knowledge, no matter how apparently boring or useless, is
too small to demand a lifetime's investigation. Indeed in
certain academic circles, where the study of large issues
is regarded as showy and journalistic, triviality in itself
may hold a kind of cachet. A biologist who dedicated his
working life to the study of variations in the biliary
passages of the codfish carries the same aura of
scholarships as a historian who has immersed himself in the
lesser-known texts of the Venerable Bede.
The other great research game, Fancy That, is an extension
of No Stone Unturned into the more modern science of
psychology and sociology. Fancy That consists essentially of
a series of elaborate and time consuming investigations
designed to give irrefutable scientific proof to a cliché.
The practice of this game on a wide scale has filled the
world of scientific literature with papers designed to show,
once and for all, that animals learn more quickly if
properly fed, or that human beings are distracted by loud
Another group of games is connected with publication. The
object of all publication games is to gain the maximum
credit from the minimum of useful work. An expert player can
make a little research go a very long way indeed.
The original published paper is merely a beginning. After
this it is possible to deliver the same results, assembled
in a slightly different way, at a variety of meetings and
discussions, all of which are in due course printed and add
in a most gratifying way to the author's bibliography.
Letters can be written to learned journals, calling
attention to minor additions to the work, and ultimately
review articles covering the subject in question, with
particular reference to the writer's own work.
Specific games, the names of which are more or less
self-explanatory, are Priority, in which half-digested
experimental work is published in letter form so as to
establish a leading position in the field, and Chasing the
Grant, in which similar publication is made with the object
of pressuring some organization into financing further work.
Linked with publication games is the great travelling game
Symposium. This has the merit of wasting not only time, but
money also. Symposium is a seasonal game. Every year, in the
spring and autumn, the great scientific migrations begin.
The scientists can be seen like a flock of birds settling on
Vienna or Tokyo or San Francisco, sometimes in small groups,
sometimes in enormous clouds of several thousand at a time.
Their shrill cries can be heard reverberating through
meeting halls and hotel lounges. What are they doing there?
Nobody really knows. Certainly no new scientific information
is ever given out at these international meetings. The
papers read at the formal proceedings are never anything
more than short summaries of previously published work.
Indeed, it has been suggested that the only reason papers
are read at all is to satisfy donors of travel grants and
income tax authorities.
With any kind of luck, a conscientious scientist can retire
from all useful work around the age of forty and still
convince himself, by the use of the techniques outlined
above, that he is leading a busy and useful life.
Indeed, if he wishes for material success he'd probably be
better advised to do so than to devote himself to the very
chancy business of experimentation. He will soon find out
that no man can serve two masters, Being an important
scientific figure is an occupation in itself. It leaves
little time for playing about in the laboratory.
Consider for instance, our old friend Chigwell at the climax
of his career. Now Lord Chigwell, OM, FRS, syrupy of voice
and portly of physique, he steps from the door of his
Belgravia house into his chauffeur-driven Rolls. He has a
heavy day in front of him. A committee at the Ministry of
Technology about the peaceful uses of atomic energy, a board
meeting at International Chemicals; then after lunch he has
to give a lecture at the Royal Society of Arts on the
importance of population control. In the evening, dinner,
with Lady Pamela Berry and a quick appearance on the Frost
He casts his mind back with nostalgia to the good old days
in the lab, when he (with, of course, some help from
Fettuchini) finally cracked the problem of the alfalfa
principle. That was a really basic piece of work, not the
kind of half-baked rubbish the young chaps are playing about
with now. Ah, he thinks sadly to himself, they don't do work
like that any more....I'm sorry to have to tell him - they do!