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Excellent, and not all that fictional
on January 22, 2005
"The Double Helix", James Watson's classic account of the elucidation of the structure of DNA, is often cited as an excellent description of how science is really conducted. However, this work of fiction supplants it. Djerassi describes many of the calculations, both professional and interpersonal, that go into the making and reporting of a scientific discovery. He covers everything, from the prestige accorded to anything from Harvard, to the assignment of referees to examine submitted papers.
Professor Isidore Cantor, a researcher with his own large laboratory, has an "aha" moment, where he suddenly understands the mechanism behind a type of cancer. He presents the idea at a conference and everyone immediately realizes that if it can be confirmed, it is Nobel Prize material. Cantor assigns the experimental verification to Jeremiah Stafford, a postdoc that he considers his best experimentalist. With the assignment comes a great deal of pressure, as the experiment must be completed in a few months. Stafford succeeds, but under the strain, he does not completely document the lab work. This creates a problem when another lab cannot duplicate the work and the process that leads to them sharing a Nobel Prize for the work has already begun.
Cantor and Stafford then try to duplicate the experiment and all appears to go well. However, an anonymous tipster informs Cantor that Stafford re-entered the lab at a late hour, which leads Cantor to believe that Stafford is altering the experiment. This prospect terrifies Cantor so much that he devises a second experiment that he carries out in his own private lab, where no one else is allowed to enter under any circumstances. That experiment succeeds, although there is a rift between them, as Cantor is not completely sure that Stafford did not massage his experiments and data to create the desired results. Hence the title of the book, where Cantor has a difficult time deciding how to handle his doubts regarding his junior colleague.
It is difficult for someone who is not in the competitive area of science to understand Cantor's fear. Having to retract a published experiment is one of the greatest public humiliations that a scientist can endure. If scientists were polled, I have no doubt that the overwhelming majority would readily endure a severe public flogging rather than have to admit professional failure. The shadowy and often unstated worlds of recommendations, reciprocal praise and assistance; competition to be first, the proper ways to criticize the work of a colleague and even the "proper" way to have a sexual relationship with a student much younger than you are all covered. I consider this to be the best book on how science is really done that has ever been published. I spent two years as part of a physics research group and I can state from personal experience that the descriptions of how group competition takes place are right on.