Keith Briggs

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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 noises.

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 Programme.

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!

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