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The benefits of writing books
Gerald Edelman Scientist
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Sure, absolutely what you can do is die and hope that someone will read them. I mean, effectively they're a longer range instrument; let's put it that way. That it is a subject in itself to ask what makes books disappear and what makes certain books reappear? In the scientific world, something specialist happened again that didn't have the same implication. Let me give an example. You had a great thinker like JBS Haldane in your field – well, you remember he wrote these wonderful essays, and then the essays were compacted into books; that it wasn't that he was so, sort of, trying to do a sexy thing for the public, although those books really made an impression on scientists. And from time to time this happens in science; something... is it Williams's book on evolution? Things of that kind where it just grabs you at the right time.

[Q] The Origin of Species.

Well, The Origin of Species was something unbelievably beautiful of that case; it sold out in a day. That didn't mean by the way that people accepted Darwin, and there's a whole story there. So I think maybe what you're bringing up is the question of the temporal range of an idea – namely that certain ideas come and they're embedded and then they're not even recognised as such. Other ideas are not recognised but, in due time – like the idea of natural selection, one of Darwin's theories – it becomes appreciated in the light of genetics and vice versa in such a way that now it's inescapable. And I don't know that any one person sort of governs that event, right? Things have to dip. It's like when you do camembert cheese you've got to age in the cave, right?

[Q] But then also, aside from that sort of temporal trajectory there's the whole business of what's required to develop an idea. How much... how much space does it take to develop an idea, and can it be done briefly? I know some things that defy being done briefly.

Well, for sure there's a contrast between observation and experiment. Darwin first and foremost was not an experimentalist. He did a few experiments on seeds in salt water and things like that and plants, but he was the greatest observational scientist this side of Aristotle; he was amazing. And this is something which is really interesting to me, because there are parts of biology that remain observational but they're not in the mainstream. They are fundamentally; evolutionary ecology is an example. There are some things you just can't do as an experiment, but what you can do is observe like crazy and come up with a way of interpreting them. In general what we have now is terribly focal, and very much related to practicality.

Now, I think that's a shame because while the greatest by-product of science proper is technology in the everyday sense, it isn't what science is really about except in the recursive sense that you need it to do more science. What science is really about is understanding, generality, predictiveness and, if you will, I'll add the word strangeness: an unusual set of thoughts, of which, for instance, quarks are an example. So I guess the picture we're talking about is a picture which says, look, you're not really in control. You're part of your historical web. You have some good luck if you find the right colleagues and you have some taste and you've thought about what other people have done, you come up with some kind of constraint. But you really don't know until it's all over. I'm reminded of the fact that recently I tried to trace down a quote that I attributed, and other people have attributed, to EM Forster and particularly to his book Howards End, his novel where the lady is supposed to have said, 'How do I know what I think until I see what I say?' Well, I've actually pursued that for a whole week, and everyone agrees it's Forster but no-one can find out where he said it. In any case, I think it's like that.

US biologist Gerald Edelman (1929-2014) successfully constructed a precise model of an antibody, a protein used by the body to neutralise harmful bacteria or viruses and it was this work that won him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1972 jointly with Rodney R Porter. He then turned his attention to neuroscience, focusing on neural Darwinism, an influential theory of brain function.

Listeners: Ralph J. Greenspan

Dr. Greenspan has worked on the genetic and neurobiological basis of behavior in fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) almost since the inception of the field, studying with one of its founders, Jeffery Hall, at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where he received his Ph.D. in biology in 1979. He subsequently taught and conducted research at Princeton University and New York University where he ran the W.M. Keck Laboratory of Molecular Neurobiology, relocating to San Diego in 1997 to become a Senior Fellow in Experimental Neurobiology at The Neurosciences Institute. Dr. Greenspan’s research accomplishments include studies of physiological and behavioral consequences of mutations in a neurotransmitter system affecting one of the brain's principal chemical signals, studies making highly localized genetic alterations in the nervous system to alter behavior, molecular identification of genes causing naturally occurring variation in behavior, and the demonstration that the fly has sleep-like and attention-like behavior similar to that of mammals. Dr. Greenspan has been awarded fellowships from the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation, the Searle Scholars Program, the McKnight Foundation, the Sloan Foundation and the Klingenstein Foundation. In addition to authoring research papers in journals such as "Science", "Nature", "Cell", "Neuron", and "Current Biology", he is also author of an article on the subject of genes and behavior for "Scientific American" and several books, including "Genetic Neurobiology" with Jeffrey Hall and William Harris, "Flexibility and Constraint in Behavioral Systems" with C.P. Kyriacou, and "Fly Pushing: The Theory and Practice of Drosophila Genetics", which has become a standard work in all fruit fly laboratories.

Tags: The Origin of Species, Howards End, Daniel Williams, JBS Haldane, Charles Darwin, Aristotle, EM Forster

Duration: 4 minutes, 6 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008