Fame is the spur

Rivals: conflict as the fuel of science

Michael White <em>Secker & Warburg, 400pp, £17.99</em>


I see that a man called Mutke, who became a gynaecologist, is now claimed to have been the first to break the sound barrier, in a Messerschmitt. But, in any quiz show, except perhaps in Germany, the right answer will be the American "Chuck" Yeager, who achieved the feat in 1947. As so often happens in life's competitions, the perception of having been the first is more important than the reality. The conflict that was to spell the end of German domination in science saw another, and far more deadly, struggle for the first nuclear weapon, and, indirectly, the aftermath of war led to the satellite and moon-landing race between the USSR and the US.

Michael White's eight illustrative cases of scientific rivalry include these two examples, plus six other episodes, old and new, from physics, chemistry and biology. But, strangely, the most topical example of all is not here - namely, the orchestrated disclosure, in February, of the results of research into the number of human genes. The orchestration failed, for two reasons. First, the harmony was imperfect - the two groups have been in dispute for a long time and barbed remarks were inevitable. Second, the human genome has yet to be fully disclosed. We still do not know exactly how many genes we have, though the total seems fewer now than once thought.

The idea of mapping the human genome began in the public sector (in the US Department of Energy, oddly) in 1986. The private venture, led by Craig Venter of Celera Genomics Corporation, arrived much later. Whatever one thinks of the long-running disagreements over patents and access to data, the Celera company lived up to its name. The public consortium more than once brought forward its planned date of revelation as Celera got closer to the same goal. This rivalry has at least achieved speed; whether science as a whole has benefited from the race is another matter.

Perhaps White left that story alone because it was being told by others, such as Kevin Davies, to whom Rivals is dedicated, in his recent book The Sequence. White ignores, too, the unhealthy competition over who discovered the virus that causes Aids, a row that embroiled the presidents of France and the US. The history of science is riddled with examples of scientists behaving badly - that is, not living up to the misleading public image of being saintly men (mostly) in pursuit of "truth" for whom competition, let alone the even more vulgar money, has no value.

To the vignettes about the atom bomb and the moon, White adds episodes from mathematics (is the calculus down to Newton or Leibniz?); the chemists' dispute over oxygen between Priestley and the soon-to-be guillotined Lavoisier; the commercial quarrel over the merits of AC and DC electricity; Bill Gates and Larry Ellison in the computer world; the overtrampled racetrack called DNA; and evolutionary theory. A heady octet, with every instrumental line composed from a fascinating mix of the science and the personalities involved. But, as an ensemble, it doesn't quite work.

The subtitle is "Conflict as the fuel of science". The implication is that the engine judders to a halt unless there is in the tank not mere competition, but actual conflict. Just as supposedly gentlemanly sports can degenerate into brawls, so it is with science; and when competitiveness leads to the withholding of information or to skulduggery, as it has from time to time, how can science be the better for it? Perhaps I am reading too much into a subtitle, but Michael White had 400 pages at his disposal and I would have welcomed more than the eight pages allocated to the rounding-up of his case that conflict in science, as opposed to mere argument, is a good thing.

He predicts that "the next great disputes" will be in those sectors of science that are "closely linked with commerce". No prediction that. Sadly, it's already happening.

David Sharp is the deputy editor of the Lancet

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Trapped in the human zoo