July 16, 2003
Terence Kealey on hobby scientists

As all those multitudes who read everything I ever post already know, I've been reading Terence Kealey's The Economic Laws of Scientific Research. While I was reading what follows, I thought, I love this. I also thought, hm, maybe the place for this is the Culture Blog. Because that's what it's about. And then, as if to clinch it for me, along came Kealey's delightful final paragraph.

I wrote a short Libertarian Alliance piece in a similar vein, but about arts funding, at the end of which I say (approximately): for art read life. What Kealey says is: and in particular, for art read science. I've added a couple of links about two of the recent (and Nobel Prize winning) hobby scientists he mentions.

The hobby scientists flourished under laissez faire, but laissez-faire Britain came to an end in 1914. Before 1914 the Government sequestered less than 10 per cent of the nation's wealth in taxes, but between 1918 and 1939 the Government increased this to about 25 per cent of GNP, and since 1945 the Government has spent between 40-50 per cent GNP. Because of the attrition of inherited wealth and of private means, the hobby scientist is now practically extinct. By the 1930s, for example, half of the lecturers in the Department of Biochemistry at Cambridge University still had private incomes, but today's tax structure has dramatically cut the numbers of people who inherit sufficient private means to do science for fun. One rare survivor is Peter Mitchell who won the Nobel Prize in 1978 for discovering the chemiosmotic hypothesis in his private laboratories in Bodmin, Cornwall. The occasional hobby scientist can still be found in a theoretical subject; Albert Einstein, for example, was working as a clerk in the patents office in Zurich when, during his spare time, he conceived of his theories of relativity.

Even dirigiste France could produce hobby scientists, but its harsh taxes so restricted opportunities that, inevitably, its most distinguished hobbyist was a taxman. Lavoisier was indeed a Farmer-General, which ultimately led him to the guillotine (the judge who condemned him to death remarked that 'the revolution has no need for scientists'; Karl Marx would have disagreed).

The loss of the hobby scientists has been unfortunate because the hobby scientists tended to be spectacularly good. They were good because they tended to do original science. Professional scientists tend to play it safe; they need to succeed, which tempts them into doing experiments that are certain to produce results. Similarly, grant-giving bodies which are accountable to government try only to give money for experiments that are likely to work. But experiments that are likely to work are probably boring - indeed, if they are that predictable, they are barely experiments at all; rather, they represent the development of established science rather than the creation of the new (though science is so unpredictable that even so-called predictable experiments will yield unpredictable results on occasion). But the hobby scientist is unaccountable. He can follow the will-o'-the-wisp and he is more likely to do original than unoriginal research, because it is original research that is fun.

Most professional scientists spend much of their time doing repetitive work. Science has become a treadmill, and scientists must be seen to be publishing papers, speaking at conferences, getting grants, teaching undergraduates and training PhD students. These activities will not succeed unless they are predictable, and therefore even boring. The hobby scientist need never be bored. He need only do an experiment if it looks fun, The hobby scientist, therefore, will be attracted to challenging science to the same degree that the professional scientist is attracted to safe science.

The hobby scientist, moreover, will be a different sort of human being from the professional scientist. A professional scientist needs to be tough. It is a harsh, competitive world in a modern university, and if a scientist does not drive himself and his students to write the requisite number of papers and to win enough grants, then that scientist does not survive. But a hobby scientist does not have to be any particular sort of human being. Indeed, many of the great hobby scientists would transparently never have survived a modern university. Peter Mitchell, whose is chemiosmotic hypothesis changed the very nature of modern biochemistry, took seven years to complete his PhD. In Britain, PhD grants are only for three years, so Mitchell would never have completed his PhD had he depended on public funds (particularly as he was not a good PhD student, and no one would have fought for him). After his PhD, he obtained a lectureship in the Department of Zoology at Edinburgh University, but he found the job intolerable and left after a few years. He bought a dilapidated country house in Bodmin, in Cornwall, spent two years rebuilding it as a form of psychotherapy, and then started on his researches again, in his own way, on family money - to win a Nobel Prize.

Many of the hobby scientists were decidedly peculiar. Cavendish, a bachelor, only spoke to other human beings on Thursday nights when he dined with a coterie of FRSs. Otherwise he lived in solitude, communicating with his servants by notes and letters. Dinner was served to him through a contraption that shielded the butler from gaze, and if Cavendish ever saw a servant, he dismissed that person instantly. Darwin was also odd. He spent his whole life as a semi-invalid, and although it is claimed he suffered from Chagas' disease, Pickering showed in his Creative Malady that Darwin probably pretended to be ill to shield himself from the strains of everyday life. Neither Cavendish not Darwin would have survived in a modern university any better than did Mitchell, yet they were scientific giants (Darwin could not even survive undergraduate life, and he left before obtaining a degree). Another academic failure was Albert Einstein, one of the greatest of hobby scientists. Einstein did not do well as an undergraduate at university, and he failed to obtain a PhD position, so he had to get a job; he chose to clerk in a patents office because it left him with spare energy in the evenings.

When science was a vocation, personal poverty did not frustrate potential researchers. Michael Faraday, for example, was the son of a blacksmith, and he was apprenticed to a bookbinder, but science was his hobby and despite his lack of conventional qualifications Sir Humphry Davy was happy to employ him as a technician at the Royal Institution. It did not take long for his genius and passion to be recognised. (Even a chronic grumbler like Thomas Huxley prospered as a gifted career scientist despite his lack of private means.) Occasionally, a contemporary private scientific body will be as enlightened as those earlier institutions. Barbara McClintock, who won the Nobel Prize in 1983 for her discovery of transposable genetic elements, was employed from 1942 by the Carnegie Institution in Washington, DC. All they asked of her was that she wrote an annual report, which is all that she wrote. She could not be bothered with all the fuss and nonsense that it takes to publish papers in peer-reviewed journals, and anyone who wanted to know what she had done only had to read the Carnegie Institution's annual report. Only a private body could behave so unconventionally. A modern university would have found McClintock wanting, because she would not have been conventional enough to spend her days writing grants, sitting on committees, and driving PhD students, technicians and post-doctoral fellows to write their quota of papers.

The hobby scientists were the most romantic of scientists, approaching the poets in their intellectual purity and richly individualistic personalities. Rich or poor, the hobby scientists were driven by a vocation and a love of research. We are lessened by their extinction. Those who argue for more government funding of science, or of anything else, should never forget the cost of government money, namely the taxes that impoverish society to enable government to impose its particular, narrow, harsh vision of a modern university.

Terence Kealey

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:50 PM
Category: HistoryScience