UNCG HSS 208W — Scientific Lives

A large part of our course will consist of in-depth discussion of the assigned readings. The questions below are intended to guide us in that discussion and provide starting points for further explorations.

Questions for Discussion on Watson and Franklin

How does Watson’s personality strike you from his writing in The Double Helix? Would you like to have him as a friend or co-worker?

Is Watson’s explanation (on p. 3) of the personal approach he takes in the book justified, or is it just an excuse for not bothering to give an unbiased report of what happened?

Scientists are often portrayed as far more intelligent than the average person. Do you think Watson and Crick succeeded in their work because they were more intelligent than their competitors?

How important to Watson and Crick was competition with other scientists?

To what extent was specialized technical knowledge necessary for Watson and Crick’s work? (That is, could anyone have done what they did?)

Does Watson’s book lend support to the idea that science is done by solitary geniuses?

Suppose Watson and/or Crick had been run over by a truck early in their careers. Would we not know the structure of DNA today?

What role did chance play in the discovery of the structure of DNA? What role did model-building play?

On pp. 122–124 Watson expressed surprise that his rivals Wilkins and Franklin weren’t resentful of his success. Do you think his surprise was justified?

How do you account for the difference between Watson’s description of Rosalind Franklin on pp. 14–15 and on pp. 122–126 and 133?

More Questions for Discussion on Watson and Franklin

Sayre admits to being a personal friend of Franklin; can we expect an unbiased report from her any more than we can from Watson? Isn’t it likely that Franklin was just as obnoxious as Watson and that Sayre is romanticizing her?

Suppose Franklin had not died of cancer. Could The Double Helix have been written as it was? What might her reaction to it be?

Should Franklin have been awarded the Nobel Prize along with Watson, Crick, and Wilkins? (Technically speaking, the prize is never divided more than three ways, and is never awarded posthumously.)

On p. 105 Sayre notes that Franklin didn’t suffer fools gladly. Isn’t it likely that Watson didn’t like Franklin because she was so much like him (Watson)?

On p. 133 Sayre points out that Franklin didn’t consider herself a crystallographer, and yet she is listed as such in the capsule biography given out in class. How can this be?

Does your opinion of Watson change with the realization that his kind words for Franklin at the end of The Double Helix had to be squeezed out of him and that he hadn’t intended to include that section in the book when it was originally written?

Study note 21 on p. 212 carefully. Does Crick’s opinion of The Double Helix change your view of the book at all?

Is it possible that Watson’s entire opinion of Franklin came from Wilkins (see p. 95), and not from personal experience? Does this exonerate him?

Questions for Discussion on Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind

Jamison’s father was a scientist (a meteorologist) and her maternal grandfather was a professor of physics (p. 11). She certainly never would have become a researcher on her own if it weren’t for these influences. (Do you think that is true?)

How important was the encouragement she received from various people to the development of her career? (p. 26)

Jamison’s research has shown that a disproportionate number of artists of various kinds have suffered from manic-depressive illness. Speculate: do you think the same is true of scientists also? Why hasn’t she done the same sort of research on scientists?

Are the academic “rites of passage” described on pp. 61–63 fair or unfair, helpful or harmful? (Would you like to go through them yourself?)

Science requires that researchers be unbiased and disinterested. Jamison is clearly unqualified to do research on manic-depression because she has a personal involvement with the subject. (Do you agree or disagree?)

How can Jamison possibly be a good researcher if she is mentally ill? (Is she mentally ill?)

Science is supposed to proceed rationally and carefully, but the psychology conference described on p. 104 seemed to be governed by fads. How do you account for this?

Should Jamison have been given clinical privileges to treat patients? (p. 199ff) Would you be comfortable having her as your doctor?

How does Jamison’s experience as a female researcher compare with Rosalind Franklin’s? To what do you attribute the similarities and differences between their two careers?

Questions for Discussion on Darwin’s Autobiography

What happens in a scientist’s childhood (pp. 21–28) is irrelevant to a scientific career. The only important influences begin in a university. (Do you think this is true?)

If Darwin had not come from a well-off family he never would have become a scientist. (True? How does he compare to Jamison in this respect?)

Darwin claims repeatedly that he wasn’t a good student, either in school or in university (pp. 27–28). How could he ever have become a good scientist?

How much did Darwin’s father weigh? (p. 29)

Darwin claims that his father didn’t have a scientific mind, while he (Charles) did. What does he mean by this? Did his father have any intellectual influence on him? (p. 42)

What did Darwin consider to be his own most important traits and habits as a scientist? (pp. 43, 78)

How old was Darwin when he first went to the University of Edinburgh? (p. 46)

What role did Professor Henslow play in the development of Darwin’s career as a scientist? (p. 64, etc.)

If Darwin had had a differently shaped nose, we would still not know about evolution today. True? (pp. 72, 77)

Darwin gives the impression through most of his writings of being a very modest person. Do you take this to be genuine?

What role did collecting play in Darwin’s development as a scientist? (pp. 53, 62, etc.)

More Questions for Discussion on Darwin’s Autobiography

Are Darwin’s literary interests surprising? What is a scientist doing reading Milton? (p. 85) Did the change in his literary interests (see p. 138) have any effect on his science?

In what way did Darwin’s religious beliefs influence his science? (Or did they at all?) (p. 85ff)

If Darwin had not married he never would have been a successful scientist. True? (pp. 96–97; compare p. 231ff)

How did Darwin get anything done if he was sick all the time? (p. 98 and throughout)

Does Darwin’s social and scientific life in London after his return from the Beagle voyage sound appealing? (pp. 96–114) Was it of use to his career? How does his account of social-scientific life compare with Watson’s and Jamison’s?

Does Darwin’s domestic life sound happy from the one-page description of it on p. 115?

In many respects Darwin seems like a rather ordinary person (p. 140ff). How can we and how does he account for his great success as a scientist?

Questions for Discussion on the Miller Readings

You may find these writings on the nineteenth-century geologist Hugh Miller more difficult than our other texts because of their age. Please prepare to discuss the following questions.

Questions on the sketch of Miller’s life and work by Louis Agassiz (the preface to Miller’s Footprints of the Creator):

What is the specific occasion that had prompted Agassiz to compile this account of Miller’s life?

What formal education did Miller have, and what experience prepared him for his work as a geological researcher?

Do you understand how Miller is trying to work out a complete geological column from the description on p. xx?

What significant discovery did Miller make in the Old Red Sandstone? Why was this discovery regarded as significant?

How can religious sentiments like those expressed in “the antiquary of the world” (however well-written they may be) appear in a scientific work on geology?

What is meant by “the development hypothesis”? (p. xxvii and vicinity) Miller is writing before Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species in 1859, so how is it that these issues even arise?

What does Miller mean by the claim that “superposition is not parental relation”? (p. xxxiv)

Questions on the memorials to Miller published just after his death that appeared in his Testimony of the Rocks:

What is meant on the title page of the volume by “the two theologies, natural and revealed”?

See if you can identify and understand all of the theological and geological references in the memorial poem that appears on the first page.

Miller apparently suffered from an increasingly debilitating mental illness near the end of his life, and this led to his suicide. What impressions do you have of the way his illness was spoken about, in comparison to the ways people speak about mental illness today?

One of Miller’s main activities in his life was his political work in the Church of Scotland. Why would a scientist be so much involved in religious activities?

The geologist William Buckland said he “would give his left hand to possess such powers of description as this man [Miller].” Can’t anyone describe things? Is there anything special about scientific description, or is it just like any other kind of description?

“Generally wrapped in a bulky plaid, and with a garb ready for any work, [Miller] had the appearance of a shepherd from the Rosshire hill rather than an author and a man of science.” (p. 27) What is a man of science supposed to look like?

Questions for Discussion on the Agassiz Readings

Questions on Lyman’s “Recollections of Agassiz”:

This piece is classic eulogy: a celebratory essay on someone who has recently died. How can we possibly rely on it for an accurate picture of the person’s life?

Is Agassiz similar in any respect to James Watson, another influential scientist? How does he differ from Watson? Given that Watson’s book is a personal memoir and this essay is a celebratory eulogy, would we expect the two scientists to appear similar?

“That material form was the cover of a spirit appeared to him a truth fundamental and almost self-evident.” (p. 11) How can Agassiz be a scientist and believe such a thing? Suppose Watson had expressed such a view; would we still consider him a scientist?

Questions on Whittier’s “The Prayer of Agassiz” and Parson’s “Agassiz”:

Whittier’s poem was published shortly after Agassiz’s death by a memorial committee (perhaps as a fund raiser). Is it of any use to a serious historical biographer?

With respect to the condemnation of “careless hearts” and “doubters” in the poem: do you think this is Agassiz’s condemnation or is it perhaps Whittier’s condemnation?

Do you think nature employs “masking and disguise” as the supposed words of Agassiz say?

In Parson’s sonnet: does science “blind” mankind’s “highest vision”?

Questions on Davenport’s “Louis Agassiz”:

Davenport seems to think that Agassiz was admired by many people who didn’t really understand him. (p. 231) If they didn’t understand his work (which is central to the life of a scientist), why would they admire him? Do you suppose this is a common problem scientists face?

Agassiz is said to have described himself as “librarian of the works of God.” (p. 232) Is that any job for a scientist?

To the end of his life, Agassiz rejected Darwin’s work on evolution. He must not have been a very good scientist then, wouldn’t you say? Suppose Watson had done the same; would he be a good scientist?

Davenport seems to argue against any distinction between the language of science and the language or art. (p. 238) Do you accept his argument?

Questions for Discussion on Feyerabend

Feyerabend claims in chapter 1 to have never saved any records on purpose and to have forgotten many things about his family. Do you think he is being truthful, or is this a literary pose to make him look clever?

Feyerabend fought for the German army in WWII. Shouldn’t we just lock him up and not let him work in the United States? (Is he the same or different from von Braun in our video about Robert Goddard?)

Is Feyerabend’s polemical style useful or just annoying? Should you believe everything a polemicist says?

Who are some other polemicists in contemporary society? (Not necessarily in science.)

Science is a serious business. Doesn’t Feyerabend appreciate that?

A common style of polemic is satire. Why don’t we see much satire in science?

Does Feyerabend think people should stop doing science?

© RJO 1995–2016