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Science Book Essays

BRUNO LEMAITRE, APRIL 2016Niels Jerne, the great seducer

Niels Jerne (1911–1994) was a charismatic Danish immunologist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1984. An interesting biography by the historian of science Thomas Söderqvist, Science as Autobiography—The Troubled Life of Niels Jerne, gives us an insight into his private and scientific life. This biography is based not only on written documents but also on a long series of interviews between Jerne and Söderqvist. Jerne did not want to accept a normal life but aimed for the sublime. He had gathered together all his personal papers in the secret hope that they would be kept for posterity. However, what he did not realize was that from these notes, his future biographer would be able to more accurately assess the development and success of this narcissist.

According to Jerne’s biographer, Jerne was not a bench scientist, could not pipette accurately and did not enjoy experimental work. Thomas Söderqvist notes that "Jerne later came to be considered very theoretical and 'extremely economical' in his experimental planning; it is said that he thought intensively before going into the laboratory, after which he carried out 'one or two critical experiments'." For Jerne, bench work was an inferior activity for a scientist of his calibre. His Nobel Prize was awarded for theories, rather than discoveries, notably the natural selection theory of immunology. Niels Jerne told his contemporaries that he had discovered the immune theory of selection while he was crossing a bridge in the middle of the night in Copenhagen. But in his article, he neglected to mention that he was strongly influenced by previous work from another immunologist Paul Ehrlich, which of course he did not quote. He transformed his discovery into a special and mythic moment, without recognizing any filiation with other scientists.

As is often the case for narcissistic scientists, he liked keywords and invented multiple innovative names such as epitope, paratope, idiotope, xenotope, pantachotope, cis- or trans-immunology, but only the word epitope is still in use. We will see later in this essay how the use of catchy keywords is often a way to increase recognition within the scientific community. Scientists high in narcissism are attracted by fields that use a special language full of jargon, as did immunology in the past, as this denotes that it is a conceptual field, whose main concepts can only be explained with difficulty to the lay public.

Interestingly, given narcissists' skill at networking, Jerne is also credited for a theory called the "idiotypic network" that was taught for many years (Jerne, 1974). It describes a speculative framework in which antibodies self-recognize each other, establishing a network paralleling the nervous system. This theory lasted for one or two decades, but now has been discredited as simply speculation based on very few empirical observations. But it did attract a lot of fans—an entire book is devoted to this network theory (Hoffmann, 2008). A significant number of prominent immunologists based their careers on this theory. While it could be imagined that past errors might cause these immunologists to become modest, this is far from being the case. In more general terms, many scientists, some being highly arrogant and dismissing other fields as minor, have built their careers on incorrect theories or papers that are completely insignificant today. In science, incorrect statements are rarely criticized openly. Eventually they simply discreetly disappear from the collective memory. Narcissistic people, as exemplified by politicians, have this capacity to impress and to appear to have the right answer at the right time, adapting all the while.

Jerne did not like to participate in communal activities such as teaching, considering it a lower-class activity. Söderqvist notes that "his duties as professor were confined to a couple of lectures per term to the medical students; furthermore, he declared that he did not want to teach microbiology, since it has nothing to do with immunology ('bacteriophages don't make antibodies')." Jerne viewed certain disciplines such as microbiology, so important for understanding the origin and function of the immune system, with contempt. This illustrates the perpetual need of narcissists to differentiate themselves from others. During his interview with his biographer Söderqvist, Jerne often referred to "the happiness of feeling superior to a lot of people" and declared that he felt himself to be "superior or more intelligent than other scientists." He asserted that many of the researchers he had met were "so stupid that the lady in the bread-shop is more intelligent than them, she has an awareness and an ability to observe and articulate her observations."

Jerne excelled in the art of conversation, exercising a real fascination around him. It was one of his great talents, at the centre of his social existence. His colleagues noticed that Jerne often took an opposing position during discussions, which is a classic way of staying at the centre of attention. While he considered himself above the base material condition of the world, money was essential to maintain his high standard of living and was an important criterion for his accepting a job.

Jerne was married three times and was regularly unfaithful to his wives. His first wife, Tjek Jerne, was somewhat neglected by Jerne and later in life committed suicide. After an initial period of excitement, his second wife rapidly became essentially a domestic servant and nanny to Jerne's children. Jerne married a third time to what could be considered a trophy partner (see Chapter 5). Jerne exhibited many features related to what could be called sexual narcissism. Studies have shown that narcissists are not particularly interested in loving and caring romantic partners who can provide them with real intimacy. Instead, they prefer partners who can enhance their image and their self-esteem: partners who have high social status or partners who are physically very attractive (Campbell, 1999). Experts in social personality used the term "trophy partner" for a physically attractive partner that brings attention to the narcissist. Reading Jerne's biography, it becomes obvious that science at the time was much less competitive and, for some scientists, consisted largely of talking and being part of a club of well-respected experts. The book also reveals periods of difficulty with alcohol in Jerne's life. Narcissistic personalities can be prone to depression in middle age, notably when they realize that their life does not fit their expectations (Debray, and Nollet, 1997). Obsessed by their own image, they are also very sensitive to their appearance and to ageing. This is due to the fact that narcissists approach human relationships based on seduction rather than empathy, and more by a need to impress rather than to affiliate.

This portrayal of Niels Jerne reveals that the art of conversation and seduction, so essential for success in science, is also a great asset for narcissistic people. Narcissistic scientists are found everywhere, but their proportion is particularly high in research fields such as immunology and neuroscience, which are in the public's focus and more sensitive to swagger and catchy wording. Narcissistic scientists (and intellectuals in general) have a capacity to attract attention and to fascinate other narcissistic persons, this fascination greatly exceeding their real achievements.

In contrast to many scientific biographies that further contribute to the idealization of their subjects, the biography of Niels Jerne by Thomas Söderqvist illustrates all of the facets of his scientific and private life, thus providing a unique opportunity to penetrate the mind of a narcissistic scientist. The reader can even sense the biographer's disappointment and disillusionment as he truly gets to know the person he had initially thought of as a great scientist.

From An Essay on Science and Narcissism: How Do High-Ego Personalities Drive Research in Life Sciences? By Bruno Lemaitre, published by Bruno Lemaitre. Copyright by Bruno Lemaitre, 2016.

Algebra textbooks are something I’ve tried hard to avoid since high school. Deciphering pages of what seemed incomprehensible sequences of numbers—not to mention the x’s and y’s that seemed so friendly when known as “letters” and so forbidding as “variables”— consumed my after school hours. But historian and UW–Madison special collections librarian Robin E. Rider says the book itself may have been at fault for my confusion.

“Good typography highlights and reinforces ideas, indifferent typography (or worse) obscures ideas and stymies the reader,” Rider argues, in an essay exploring how the text and layout of algebra textbooks shapes the teaching and learning of mathematics.

That’s just one of the insights to be gained from Science in Print: Essays on the History of Science and the Culture of Print. An edited anthology of nine essays, the book grew out of a 2008 conference at the University of Wisconsin–Madison on “The Culture of Print in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medicine.” While focused in some measure on the past, the conference used historical examples to illustrate the continuing importance of how scientific ideas are presented and circulated.

Broadly speaking, print culture refers to the production, distribution, and reception of ideas through the printed word, often books but not necessarily books alone. While it is something that people outside of academia rarely think about or even really understand, the practices and products of print culture are and have been “the crucial means of recording, distributing, and consuming knowledge for centuries,” according to anthology editors Rima D. Apple, Gregory J. Downey, and Stephen L. Vaughn.

“Books and journals, pamphlets and posters, newspapers, and magazines [all] have been essential to virtually every human endeavor.” For lovers of the printed word, it seems an argument with which it is impossible to disagree, and the essays that follow attempt to illustrate the centrality of the printed word to the creation and sharing of scientific knowledge.

However, it’s not easy going as the essays are geared toward a decidedly academic audience already familiar with the terms of the field. Print culture covers a broad range of methods and disciplines, and as such there is no agreed upon way of approaching the topic. That flexibility invites many voices to contribute perspectives but can also be confusing to the print culture neophyte.

Broken into three parts, the essays in Science in Print roughly correspond to the production, distribution, and reception of printed material. However, the titles of each section, including “Natural Philosophy and Mathematics in Print” and “Science Education and Health Activism in Print,” suggest topics rather than the means of communication (i.e. newspaper, online scientific journal), so the real focus may be lost on the lay reader.

There are definite riches to be found, though, in essays that range across a huge span of time and space, from mid-17th century engravings of the natural world to children’s books on human evolution and the cultural impact of Stewart Udall’s 1963 environmental book The Quiet Crisis. That these disparate subjects can even share the pages of the same book demonstrates the tremendous range of print culture and its impact on nearly everything humans do.

For example, in “Crossing Borders: The Smithsonian Institution and Diffusion of Scientific Information between the United States and Canada in the 19th Century,” Bertrum H. MacDonald, a professor of Information Management at Dalhousie University, explores the crucial role the Smithsonian played in the expansion and maturation of scientific research in North America. Through letters written by Smithsonian secretary Spencer Baird (among others) to scientists on both sides of the border, MacDonald traces the development of a mutually beneficial collaboration: Scientists saw the Smithsonian as a source of information on developments and discoveries in the field while the Smithsonian used these correspondence networks to build a world-class scientific specimen collection.

In “Writing Medicine: George M. Gould and Medical Print Culture in Progressive America,” Jennifer J. Connor, an associate professor in both the Faculty of Medicine and the Department of History at Memorial University of Newfoundland, deals with an issue that remains highly contested to this day: the ownership of knowledge. Connor tells the story of medical editor, writer, and publisher George M. Gould who fought for the right of doctors to control the production and distribution of medical communication. Gould denounced corporate and other moneyed interests that he claimed restricted the free-flow of scientific ideas while profiting on the output of uncompensated physician authors. Connor demonstrates how Gould’s criticisms remain strikingly relevant to modern medical communication and a medical publishing system that has seemingly made few changes over the last century.

Connor’s essay is only one of several that touch on issues still pertinent to science today. Rima Apple’s “Basic Seven, Basic Four, Mary Mutton, and a Pyramid” examines the conflicting consumer messages around meat consumption in the 20th century. What’s a consumer to do when simultaneously presented with exhortations from the government to eat meat and scientific arguments against it? Federal dietary guidelines beginning in the late 19th century gave meat a primary place at American tables. These guidelines have scarcely diminished, even with more modern messages to “reduce consumption” or to “go lean with protein.” Protein still means meat—beef, pork, poultry—with beans, nuts, and seeds mentioned as afterthoughts even as science has shown the health and environmental benefits of these alternative protein sources. Apple convincingly shows the power of print to influence our meat-centric diets even in the face of contrary scientific evidence.

Science in Print is a fascinating glimpse into the expansive world of scientific communication. For those new to print culture, this could be a challenging introduction. Many contributors use jargon specific to their field and assume a baseline knowledge of history, scientific literature, and theory. But there are real gems and fascinating stories to be found here that will likely change the way you think about the printed word. It might even cause you to reconsider algebra.

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