Thursday, September 03, 2015

Nature: the biography

Here is a review of Melinda Baldwin’s basically sound and thoughtful “biography” of Nature. It was destined for the Observer, but scheduling complications left it orphaned. So it comes to rest here instead.


Making Nature: The History of a Scientific Journal
Melinda Baldwin

University of Chicago Press, 2015
ISBN 978-0-226-26145-4
299 pages

When James Watson and Francis Crick figured out the structure of the DNA molecule in late 1952 – as they put it with characteristic exaggeration, “discovered the secret of life” – there was no argument about where they would publish their epochal work. Of course it should be sent to Nature.

The science journal is still the most prestigious in the world, a British institution comparable to Punch or the Spectator. The scientists who have published there include Darwin, Einstein, Hawking, Niels Bohr and Enrico Fermi. As Melinda Baldwin puts it in this biography of the journal, “Nature has not only shaped scientific research… [it] has been a site where practitioners defined the very idea of modern science.” A natural history of Nature was long overdue.

If Nature shaped the business of science, the converse is also true. The hope of its founder, astronomer Norman Lockyer, in 1869, was that the journal would speak to “men of science” (a deliberately gendered label) and lay readers alike. But few leading scientists showed much inclination or aptitude to write for the non-specialist (plus ça change), and within a decade most contributions to Nature were beyond the ken of the educated public. As physicist Oliver Lodge professed in 1893, “Perhaps few are able to say that they read Nature all the way through as Mr. Darwin did.” By extension, few were equipped to contribute either: parsons reporting the first robin of spring were no longer welcomed, and as Baldwin says, “Nature was a key site where the qualifications for membership in British science were proposed, debated, and established.”

Nature’s purpose and status depended on who chose to contribute. It was lucky to attract the patronage of New Zealand-born physicist Ernest Rutherford, whose ambitions to establish priority for his discoveries in nuclear physics and radioactivity were well served by its rapid publication times. Sir John Maddox, the (non-contiguous) editor from 1966 to 1995, attested that one of its greatest early assets was the speed of the Royal Mail.

What ultimately distinguished it, however, was character. As Maddox, who revitalized Nature’s flagging reputation as a place for scientific news, gossip and controversy, put it, “A journal really has to have an opinion.” That, more than the quality or significance of published papers, is what has set it apart from its American rival Science, established in conscious imitation in 1880 but, as the official organ of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, less free to ruffle feathers.

Baldwin convincingly demonstrates that the story of Nature is the story of how science has been reported and to who, of science’s authority, conduct and sense of internationalism. In short, it is about the position of science in society. The journal’s editors, of whom there have been just seven, have been key to this role. Both Maddox and Sir Richard Gregory, editor from 1919 to 1938, had an acute sense of how to situate the journal at the centre of current scientific debates. All the same, Baldwin risks making same mistake as many of the journal’s would-be contributors in imagining that the editorial position was monolithic and determined by the editor; in reality, the modern Nature has also been shaped by a strong-willed staff, sometimes through stormy internal conflict.

Happily, though, she gives due credit to Maddox’s erstwhile assistant Mary Sheehan, who often seemed the only person capable of holding the maverick editor in check. By the late 1980s his office had become a black hole for submissions, stacked high with loose papers. Somewhere in there a promised special issue on the Chernobyl accident vanished, to my knowledge forever.

That John Maddox was so unpredictable and stubborn did nothing to deter the loyalty and affection he induced in his editors. It was often frustrating and infuriating to work for him, but it was never dull. His journalistic instincts might sometimes have got the better of him, but usually they were sharper than those of his younger staff, who he doubtless often felt were too conservative and timid.

The modern Nature is covered only sketchily here. Its current editor Philip Campbell has been in the post for two decades, yet is denied the analysis awarded to all his predecessors. The expansion of the journal into the Nature Publishing Group, with almost 40 spin-off publications now bearing the "Nature" brand, is as important a development as anything that happened in the journal’s earlier history, but is awarded only a paragraph.

This neglect of the near-present is odd, since there is no shortage of stories, nor of witnesses to them. The battle with the Sunday Times over its AIDS denial shamefully indulged by Andrew Neil, de-recognition of the editors’ trade union in the Thatcherite 1990s, the takeover of Macmillan by the Holtzbrinck group – all are overlooked. Perhaps the biggest lacuna is the absence of debate about the dominant role today of “prestige” journals like Nature and Science in scientific tenure and grant decisions. Nobel laureate biologist Randy Schekman recently announced a self-imposed boycott, somehow forgetting that this inflated influence has been awarded by no one but his own colleagues and community. For better or worse, they are still making Nature.

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