Nutty professors science would rather forget

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 September, 2009, 12:00am

History is supposedly written by the victors or from the barrel of a gun. That may have been true a long time ago. But, in our age of saturated information, and unless you live in North Korea, you can pretty much get every side of a story if you dig hard enough. But, of all types of history, the history and philosophy of science has remained the most censorious and one-sided.

Science is usually written from the perspectives of the winning or surviving theories of the day. That is the version usually told to practising scientists and laypeople alike. It is the triumphant history and theory of science where knowledge-seekers/scientists progressively capture larger chunks of physical realities. In this vein, a recent column on this page by Santiago Montenegro, from the Centre of Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami, has advocated teaching innovation in business by studying the history and philosophy of science.

Actually, the philosophy of science already has a profound influence on business and management, or at least their vocabulary. When was the last time you went to a business conference or management seminar where a speaker didn't use the word 'paradigm' or the phrase 'paradigm shift'? These words come from US physicist and science historian Thomas Kuhn's 1960s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

It is a peculiarity of this academic discipline that its history and philosophy are usually lumped together: you can't study or write a scientific history without an explicit philosophy of it, a general conception of what science is or how it is done. Because you start with a defined set of beliefs and biases, you inevitably take out facts, theories and people who don't fit your story.

With some exceptions, you rarely read about false starts and bungled conclusions in science, ruined careers, and delusional people with impeccable scientific credentials and their egregious theories that had exerted a powerful influence on their contemporaries. Such books exist, but they usually fall under social history, rather than science. Such grand failures and scientific delusions may make people less respectful of science and scientists, but more people will want to read about them because they are so much more interesting.

Until recently, the philosophy and history of science have focused mainly on physics, astronomy and mathematics. But what about the wet sciences? The history of endocrinology - the science of glands and hormones - for example, offers endless entertainment and amusement. Of course, it too has its own - boring - triumphant history. In 1921, Canadian Frederick Grant Banting and Scotsman John James Richard Macleod isolated insulin from the pancreatic gland and helped save millions of people. In the 1930s, testosterone was synthesised, followed by estrogen, cortisol and progesterone.

But the inspiration behind this highly fruitful line of research actually came from a group of delusional visionaries and inspired madmen. Men like Charles Edouard Brown-Sequard, professor of physiology at Harvard, who, in the late 1880s, tried to rejuvenate himself with a self-injection of 'an emulsion of dog and guinea pig testicles'. There was Serge Voronoff, a luminary from the College de France who, after studying eunuchs in the court of Khedive Abbas II in Egypt, pioneered transplanting monkey thyroid glands and testicles into humans to reverse the biological clock.

But the one who really took the biscuit was G. Frank Lydston, professor of genitourinary surgery at the University of Illinois. He believed that human-to-human gland transplants were more effective and so he implanted testicles from young, executed prisoners to his own abdominal wall and gave himself a third one in his scrotum.

As one writer puts it: 'From the nut, a mighty oak would grow.' Few academics today would deny the influence of these men on early endocrinology. But they are just too embarrassing to be remembered.

Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post