Matthew Cobb is professor of zoology at the University of Manchester, where his research focusses on the sense of smell. He has published books on 17th-century science and the French resistance. His most recent book is Life's Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code.
Matthew Cobb is professor of zoology at the University of Manchester, where his research focusses on the sense of smell. He has published books on 17th-century science and the French resistance. His most recent book is Life's Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code.
Your day job is as a geneticist studying the sense of smell but you also write and translate history books. What is it that draws you to history and, in particular, the history of science?
It’s a bit of a cliché, but if we don’t understand where we’ve come from, it’s very hard to know where we are going. Just as Dobzhansky said, “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” I don’t think much makes sense about all aspects of human culture, including science, unless you know something about its history and where it came from.
Is there anything particular about science where its history tends to get ignored? It’s important to understand the history — because that’s how we know what we know, right?
The key thing about scientific knowledge is that science is cumulative: we now know more about the world, in a better way, than we did 100 years ago. That doesn’t hold for artistic creation. So, for example, we can’t prove that Keats was a better writer than Shakespeare. ‘Better’ doesn’t really mean anything in that context. Science is progressive, in that it builds upon previous knowledge. What’s interesting—and what scientists are aware of—is that that progress is incredibly nonlinear. You make mistakes all the time and the road not taken is often, in retrospect, the interesting one. However, when scientists describe what the history of their subject looks like, especially in text-book accounts, it’s all linear and it inevitably leads us to where we are today. That’s the main reason why historians get very frustrated about scientists who write history. Professional historians are trained to be very critical and think in a very rich way about their subject matter, in a way that scientists generally are not.
“You’re not allowed to think people in the past were stupid. Most of the people I write about were much smarter than we’ll ever be. And yet they often believed all kinds of nonsense.”
In my first book, I drew a parallel between the way that science develops and the way that each of us grew from a single cell into an adult human. It looks like it was inevitable that we ended up the way we are, but in reality there was nothing inevitable about it. There are a whole set of possibilities that could have produced completely different versions of us which don’t exist. If you’re trying to untangle the processes involved in organismal development, then you need to understand all those conditionalities. Otherwise, you end up with a very simple, inevitabilist view of what is going on.
You’ve got books by both historians and scientists in your list. We’ll start with the first one, which is John Pickstone’s Ways of Knowing: A New History of Science, Technology, and Medicine published in 2000. Why did you choose this one?
John died last year. He was a very good friend and colleague here at the University of Manchester. When I started thinking about the history of science in the late 1990s, I wanted an anchor to understand the big picture of how science developed. ‘Science’ in fact covers a whole set of disciplines: scientific discoveries bleed into technological discoveries and, vice versa, technology allows us to discover things. We also have a lot of scientific applications in the form of medicine. John’s book looks at all these aspects, largely through the lens of universities, which are the places where a lot of the key discoveries have been made over the last 100 years or so, using Manchester as one of the examples. I found it extremely enlightening. It made me realise that a lot of what I saw as the classic structure of scientific research—you’re funded by the state, you go and get the money, you do the research, you publish your article, and you go onto the next project—is in fact a description of a very particular period, perhaps three decades, in the second half of the 20th century. Before that, the interpenetration of commercial interests and more focussed research were extremely important. We’re at that stage again now: we’re under great pressure to provide impact—preferably financial in terms of patents and new processes. For those of us who don’t work in areas that lend themselves to such immediate exploitation, this can be a difficulty.
What John also does is to focus on science as a form of labour. Many academics might not think of their research in terms of work—after all, it’s a very fantastic and privileged form of labour—but we do work, we work collectively, and we try and engage with the world and understand it. John draws a parallel with developments in industry, where you start with very simple craft techniques that were gradually built up into largescale industry. You can see similar changes in various scientific disciplines: molecular biology is a very good example. It started off with very simple, relatively crude techniques carried out by a handful of individuals. Then there was a wave of ‘industrialisation’ with the creation of larger and larger research groups. Finally, we ended up with machines taking over a large part of what were extremely important human technical skills for much of the second half of the 20th century, many of which are now forgotten. Nobody knows how to do them anymore and it doesn’t really matter—anymore than we know how to repair our washing machine or our car. There are parallels in these different aspects of culture that I found really interesting. The book anchors science as a form of culture—a very unusual form—but a form that has similarities with other things we do.
Often, history of science tends to look at different disciplines individually. You might get a history of genetics or a history of physics but he has really integrated them.
Yes, this book has a very broad view, which is extremely impressive. I write histories about things I understand – I would find it very difficult to embrace the history of technology or physics in any detail. Before John could accomplish this in his book, he had to master a huge range of material and was then able to present it in a very readable way. John was originally a physiologist before he moved into history. He masters these whole areas of science and is able to explain them in a straightforward way. It’s an excellent read.
Your next book is completely different: the illustrated and annotated version of Jim Watson’s The Double Helix. This is Watson’s account of his role in the discovery of the structure of DNA. Before we talk about the book, can you say a bit about that discovery because I know you’ve written about it. Why was it so important?
It’s up there with Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Einstein’s theory of relativity, or the discovery of cosmic background radiation. One of the great breakthroughs of human knowledge. Before Watson and Crick began their work, it was realised that genes are made of DNA; the double helix structure revealed two things. First it tells us how genes replicate—which was what Watson was particularly obsessed about—because the two strands of the molecule are reciprocal and so, if the cell can read what’s on one strand, it can then copy it and you get two daughter double strands. That’s what happens in the cell every second, it’s happening in your cells right now. What I think is even more exciting is that Watson and Crick realised that the order of bases—the rungs that hold the ladder of DNA together—is highly significant. The sequence of those bases is what they called in their second 1953 article in Nature (after they had described the double helix structure) ‘genetic information.’ This is what genes contain. This realisation was an incredible moment in human history. In his book, Watson described what was a very exciting time to have been alive. Anybody who reads The Double Helix is drawn into this world of competition and excitement and academic existence, much of which no longer exists because of the changes in the way that science is done, and the increasing pressure on academic time from various sources.
Watson’s account is very personal. He talks about picking up girls at parties, he’s quite rude about some of his colleagues. Is that a strength or a weakness, do you think?
It’s both. I think this is a fantastic book. It’s catty, it’s extremely opinionated and it’s also unreliable because it’s Watson’s personal account. Crick didn’t want him to publish it—they had a huge row in the mid-1960s over whether it should be published. Crick thought the book was ill-conceived because it was so personal. This might be a difference between Cambridge and Harvard as to how you should behave—or even a difference between UK and US attitudes. Watson was presenting events as he saw them at the time. This is one of the issues with the book: why it’s so powerful and also why it misleads a lot of people. It’s renowned for the awful way Watson treated Rosalind Franklin, including calling her ‘Rosie’ throughout, which is a name she never used. But if you read the book right to the end there is a longish epilogue in which Watson—the mature man in his late 40s in the late 1960s—looks back on his younger self (who comes over as a braying, incredibly intelligent ass) and moderates what he wrote in the book. As an insight into the mind of an incredibly smart, ambitious and irritating young man at a key moment in history, this book is unparalleled. But you must not take everything in there as true. It is Watson’s account as he saw it at the time, filtered through twenty years of subsequent reflection. In that sense it’s a very honest book. If Crick had prevailed and Watson had written a more restrained account, it would probably have been less interesting.
You chose the illustrated and annotated version, so there are lots of supporting notes but also a lot of photographs and copies of original letters where you can see their handwriting. What does that add for you?
This additional material helped bring the period to life. The writing is very dynamic, very exciting, but when you actually see the people and the places involved, it brings it all into focus. Jan Witkowski and Alexander Gann from Cold Spring Harbor worked with Watson on this edition, going through the archives and digging out all the material. In writing my book, I found this additional material invaluable. Some of the notes give you extra insight into people. For instance, it turned out that one of Watson’s colleagues in Denmark was having an affair, which meant that things were difficult in the lab—that was one of the reasons Watson ended up in Cambridge. The photos, the notes, the reproductions of archive material, provide an extra insight into some of the characters that are in the book.
So, really science is a human endeavour.
Absolutely. Warts and all. In a way, Watson deserved credit for describing himself as he was. Maybe he didn’t realise quite how irritating he was. His casual sexism was certainly very typical of the time. One issue that gets overlooked is how young he was—only 25 when he published the articles in Nature. Franklin was 8 years older than him, and she must have found him intensely annoying. He describes how she frightened him, how he thought she was going to hit him. And I thought ‘Well, yes, I can imagine that happening because you have got this woman who’s in her early thirties who is established faced with this brilliant jackass cackling at her and being annoying.’ Even a saint would lose their temper under those circumstances, I think.
Next on your list is another classic: Stephen Shapin’s The Scientific Revolution, published in 1998. Can you tell me about this?
Shapin’s book is probably the best brief introduction to what science is and how it appeared and when it appeared. It begins, famously, with a sentence which is enough to make many people roll their eyes: ‘There was no such thing as the scientific revolution and this is a book about it.’ The book is full of this kind of ironic postmodernism that can be very irritating, especially to scientists who like to have things nailed down, but it is incredibly rich and interesting. Shapin describes what happened during the scientific revolution, but it’s above all a discussion of the literature, the historiography. It looks at how attitudes to the scientific revolution have changed, and where the term came from. Effectively, the idea appeared in the mid-20th century when scientists turning to history began to look back at the period when Newton and Boyle were working.
What Shapin has done in this book—and in other parts of his oeuvre—is to question the narrative scientists employ when they project what they think they do today onto the past, when people behaved differently and believed very different things. For example, some of the 17th century thinkers I’ve written about came up with material explanations for where life came from, but were driven primarily by religious feelings. Their argument was that spontaneous generation could not exist. Organisms could not come out of nothing because that would contradict the idea that the universe was ordered and the reason the universe was ordered was because God had created it. 17th century thinkers had very contradictory views; if you just read back, imagining that Newton was like Brian Cox, you won’t really understand what was going on. Newton held what might look like highly contradictory views—as well as setting out a mathematical basis for fundamental physical phenomena, he also believed in alchemy and so on. To understand Newton fully, we need to appreciate these interconnections and contradictions.
That’s why Shapin’s book is an extremely important work. I don’t agree with all of it—for example, I do think that there was a scientific revolution, but it did not conform to the caricature of a single event producing modern science overnight. This isn’t surprising—you can’t condense the French Revolution down to the events of the 14th of July 1789. Revolutions are very long, sprawling things that are contradictory and rarely proceed in any kind of linear or coherent manner, but nevertheless they do produce transformations in thinking, in behaviour, in organisation. That’s what was happening during what historians might call the ‘long 17th century’, which stretched from the 16th century, when people were beginning to investigate anatomy and astronomy using modern techniques, right up to Darwin. This was a very long period in which much of what we now recognise as science was slowly congealing and materialist explanations were being sought and found in all areas of investigation.
He’s arguing that the development of science, as we know it, was a much longer, messier process than we usually think. But, if I’ve understood it correctly, we often assume that science has to be the way that it is and that it’s this kind of straightforward, unquestionable route to true knowledge. He’s saying, ‘No, hang on, it’s full of human biases and assumptions and hidden agreements.’ Do you agree with that?
Yes and no. The book was written in 1998, just after the peak of the ‘science wars’ in academia, when the prevalence of postmodern ideas in sociology and history led some to suggest that all knowledge was up for grabs. Amongst the more extreme views put forward by sociologists of science there were some who argued that science was just another story, no more valid than myths from peoples throughout the world. Shapin’s book does not put forward this view, but he challenges our assumptions and make us think about what science is and how it got to be the way it is. Scientists would obviously argue that it is no accident that science and technology actually work.
Science is not just a story we tell ourselves, it is an increasingly accurate representation of how the universe works. It is striking that scientists simultaneously have two discourses about this question. On the one hand, we have knowledge, we know how things work. But we also say that we doubt things and that there’s nothing better than being wrong, in other words, the root of progress is that we don’t know how things work. The really exciting part of science is realising what we don’t know and how we can find it out. For example, it is technically possible that evolution by natural selection might turn out to be wrong, but given the vast amount of evidence, that possibility is so unlikely that I’m not going to bother about it. If we discovered tomorrow that it were wrong, that would of course be very exciting—just like physicists get very excited about the possibility of Einstein being wrong—it would open up a new challenge.
In general, however, we’re proceeding stepwise towards greater knowledge. For example, the validity of Newtonian mechanics wasn’t negated by Einstein’s discoveries: it simply became applicable to one particular realm. Despite our subsequent discoveries, we use equations derived from Newton’s laws to send probes to distant planets or to moons like Enceladus. My disagreement with Shapin is that I think science is different from other forms of human knowledge, and there are things that we most definitely know. I think.
You just mentioned Enceladus so, talking of space missions, we’ll go on to your next book: William Burrows’s This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age published in 1998. What do you like about this book?
Space! Rockets! When it came out I was about to go on holiday and wanted a thick book to read. Burrows is a science journalist: not a historian or a scientist. I find it incredibly readable, very exciting. Although it was written by an American, it didn’t cover up the fact that Wernher von Braun, the brains behind the Apollo programme, was a Nazi Party member who was absolved for his involvement with the Hitler regime because he could build ICBMs. The book contains a good account—as good as there could be at the time, given the archives in the USSR hadn’t fully opened—of the huge advances the Russians made, which became obvious as they first flew up the Sputnik and then put the first man in space. I find it an extremely readable account of a time I grew up in—almost like a novel. I wasn’t reading it with a professional eye because I don’t know much about space history.
Burrows’s book is very dramatic—especially some of the moments like the first moon landing.
I remember it! I was 11 years old at the time. I was watching it with my uncle Brian in the middle of the night. Although I remember the excitement of seeing Neil Armstrong’s feet stepping down on to the ground, I was equally amazed by the fact that Brian was eating four Weetabix at three o’clock in the morning. We have lost a lot of the excitement about space flight. A year ago NASA trialled the Orion space capsule, which they may use to fly to Mars. The launch was in the middle of one of my lectures, so I decided to take a brief break and show the students the NASA live stream. You don’t see rocket launches on live TV anymore. The space shuttle has been scrapped and although there are rockets going to the Space Station, and private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin developing reusable rockets, they doesn’t enjoy the same media attention as in the 60s and 70s. So we all sat and watched it—the students were very excited.
Do you think that there’s an important role, then, for history books written by non-historians? What can non-historians bring to a history book that you might not get from an academic historian?
I hope so. As you may know, I’ve also written a couple of books about the history of the Second World War. One of the leading historians of the period wrote a very nice review of my second book, about the liberation of Paris, in which he addressed this exact question. He argued that because non-professional historians are writing for a popular audience we can bring things to life in a way that academic historians tend not to do. We focus on individuals, we use quotations and maybe even occasionally slightly creative writing about smells or sounds or other things that you can infer from historical sources. For example, in all my books I see if I can find out what the weather was like on a particular day, to see whether that can add to my description, for example when a particular meeting at the Royal Society took place in the 17th century. That helped to set the scene before I went on to what was actually discussed.
I think professionally trained historians—who amaze me by their ability to integrate very complex issues—may miss out on that simpler detail which the ordinary reader enjoys. The main thing in writing history is that it’s a narrative. You know where the beginning is, you know where the ending is. I’ve sometimes thought about being tricksy and trying to tell a story backwards or to group chapters by theme, but each time I’ve decided it’s better for the reader to know where the story starts and where it ends.
For your last book, we’re going to go right back to the ancient world: Galen and the World of Knowledge, edited by Christopher Gill, Tim Whitmarsh, and John Wilkins from 2012. This is quite an academic book. Why did you choose it?
Yes, this is a purely academic book—although the writing is not. The book I’m writing at the moment is about the brain and how we know what we know about this amazing structure. I needed to understand some of the earliest studies into brain function, in particular those by Galen, who did a series of remarkable and extremely distressing experiments proving that the brain controlled movement. These were public events, not laboratory studies. This is something Stephen Shapin talks about—scientists have to find a way of convincing other people that their results are valid. As the Royal Society’s motto says, ‘Nullius in verba’—don’t take anybody else’s word for it. Galen did his experiments in front of an audience to prove to the great and the good that the brain, not the heart, controlled movement. These experiments were on live pigs, and were extremely distressing. I was both horrified and astonished by the audacity of Galen and by the power of what he showed. Interestingly, it didn’t resolve the question of whether the heart or the brain was in charge—it would be another 1500 years before that was finally settled. And we can still see the traces of this argument in the words we use in English—‘heartfelt’, ‘broken-hearted’, ‘spoke from the heart’. The argument lives on in our language and in our thinking, a kind of intellectual fossil.
This book shocked me by showing what an amazing thinker Galen was. I had this vague idea that his main legacy was the concept of the four ‘humours’, which dominated medical thinking for 1500 years or so. In fact, Galen wrote on all sorts of areas, not just medicine. He was a leading philosopher of the first and second century AD and he had a fantastic library—much of which has been lost, sadly. There’s a fascinating chapter about his lost library in the book.
The chapter on Galen’s pig experiments is by Maud W. Gleason and is called, “Shock and Awe: The Performance Dimension of Galen’s Anatomy Demonstrations.” She’s absolutely right, that is exactly what it was: a performance. She also points out that there’s one character completely absent from Galen’s descriptions of what he did: the pig. What should have been at the centre, he doesn’t describe at all. One explanation is that he found the experiments extremely distressing. He said he couldn’t do these experiments on monkeys because their expressions were too distressing, too horrible.
This raises a general question about our morality and that of people in the past. Surely these people must have been heartless beasts – how could they go along and watch Christians being thrown to lions or people hacking each other to death? And yet, of course, they were fundamentally no different from us. Galen had initially served as a surgeon to the gladiators so he knew all about terrible wounds and their consequences—that’s how he discovered that the recurrent laryngeal nerves control the voice. Gleason’s close reading of Galen’s work shows the complexity of the ideas and the events that were involved; it provides what historians call a ‘thick’ description by putting the work into its social and cultural context so you can understand it more.
That seems to be a theme through a lot of your books: science as inseparable from that social, political, and military context.
Yes, science is part of culture and is affected by other aspects of society. The metaphors that we use to explain things are taken from culture and, in particular, from technology.
You’ve written about the scientists who unravelled reproduction in The Egg and Sperm Race and the race to crack the genetic code in Life’s Greatest Secret, published this year.
I try to describe scientific problems as people saw them at the time, without the benefit of modern knowledge. In the books I have written I describe people in the past who are struggling, either in a scientific context or, in the case of my books about the French Resistance, in a military-political context. They didn’t know what the outcome was going to be. To describe that uncertainty to the reader—and to explain why people thought the things they did and did the things they did—the writer needs to try and forget what’s to come. Following this kind of rule means that means there are certain things you can’t say, which can make matters difficult.
What attracted you to each of these stories? Is it the opportunity to put you and the reader in this very different mind-set and worldview to the one we’re in now?
I wanted to write The Egg and Sperm Race because I got obsessed with a 17th century microscopist called Jan Swammerdam. I really wanted to write a biography about him but it became apparent that no publisher—not even an academic one—was interested. Then I thought about a popular science book, focussing on one aspect of his work, which was about the importance of eggs in what we now call reproduction. The book is about the discovery of egg and sperm but it also extends into ideas about where animals like insects come from. When I write I try to put myself back at the time and to understand the choices that people made—whether they were political choices about what they were going to do, moral choices in the case of war, or scientific choices. Also, in the case of science, why people believed the apparently outrageous things they did. Because one thing I always emphasise to students is that you’re not allowed to think people in the past were stupid. Most of the people I write about were much smarter than we’ll ever be. And yet they often believed all kinds of nonsense.
“Science is not just a story we tell ourselves, it is an increasingly accurate representation of how the universe works.”
Why was that? How could these very clever people believe things that we now consider to be so palpably untrue? How did we get to where we understand things today? What was the process? To do that, you need to try and reconstruct what people thought; one of the ways of doing that is to banish all the words and concepts which come from later on. So, in the seventeenth century book I couldn’t talk about ‘reproduction’ because it wasn’t a seventeenth century term—people talked about ‘generation.’ That is what we would call ‘reproduction’ and ‘development’ rolled together in one word. Similarly, you can’t talk about heredity before the 19th century. Heredity only takes on a biological meaning in the 1830s—people didn’t have a word to describe the relationship between parents and offspring. Then you realise that there’s a reason why people can’t see things—they don’t have the words, the ideas. The concepts aren’t there and therefore you can’t think them.
I was very fortunate and lived for 18 years in Paris. I went with absolutely awful French and ended up pretty much bilingual. One of the things I realised is that when you can speak another language, you can think things you can’t think in your mother tongue. Words and thoughts are interconnected. That’s one thing that I tried to bring over in my books, by trying to look at what people thought at different times and how the ideas and concepts either limited them or finally enabled them to understand things in a richer way.
Does it make you more humble about the belief that we have now, having that perspective on the past?
That’s the contradiction! On the one hand I am very confident that I know what I know! However, I know that in the future people are going to look back and say, ‘How did they get it so wrong?’ I guess that, just like Newton wasn’t wrong in terms of the laws of motion, that reanalysis—that reinterpretation—is going to be partial. However there are massive challenges ahead. Physicists don’t know what 95% percent of the universe is made of, and we have very little understanding of how the brain works. So at the macro and the micro level, our ignorance is profound! There’s a long way to go.
Interview by Jo Marchant
December 4, 2015
Support Five Books
Five Books depends on donations to keep going. If you've enjoyed this interview, please consider giving a gift.