These reflections result from a February 2014 address at OSU’s Center for the Humanities delivered by Mary Jo Nye, Professor Emerita of History at OSU. Professor Nye, who spoke on “Biography and the History of Science,” has written biographies of many scientists including the English physicist and Nobel laureate P.M.S. Blackett (2004) and the Hungarian chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi (2011). Professor Nye suggested that there are three principal forms of biography in which the subject is a scientist: the life of the scientist, the scientific life, and the life of scientific collaboration.
Biographies of scientists, something not often encountered by undergraduate science majors like me, can enrich our knowledge of scientific practice and methods. Good biographies can help us learn about and remember complex scientific concepts. I have come to think that the biography itself is a kind of science. Provided they are well-written and can hold the reader’s interest, biographies of scientists contribute to scientific literacy and allow for increased dissemination of information through the avenue of art. A biographer must be critical, aware, and objective in their work in order to produce writings that fully encompass the life and impact of the subject. Thus biography conveys scientific concepts in a way that this marine biology student and many non-scientists can grasp.
The requirements for a “perfect biography” can’t be summed up. Writing a good biography is an art, but the book should illustrate highlights of the subject’s life and, more importantly, provide a flavor of his or her impact on the historical context of the time. Biographies cannot be fully objective as the author inevitably judges the subject. Additionally, readers attend go through a similar evaluative process in reading by identifying with the subject’s struggles and triumphs. Biographies generally adhere to certain rules: veracity, sequential order, inclusion, and verifiability. From the base of these rules, a plot is developed often including popular elements like a “hero’s quest” and an account of a “turning point” or “epiphany.”
The biography can also portray life events as key points in the development of a particular scientific discipline. In this style of biography the story of the subject provides insights into the science of the era through critical analysis of the cultural, scientific, and historical context of the science being conducted. Biographies can also highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the subject’s achievements and the choices made throughout their life. Still others document the dynamics of scientific collaboration. While we are retrospectively learning about these social aspects of science, we cannot help but apply them to our own situation, and most scientists these days want to know about and embrace effective teamwork, motivated inquiry, and innovative problem solving.
However, some biologists, chemists, and professional scientists object to scientific discoveries being portrayed in the context of personal character, individual personality, and narrative story. We are trained that way to regard the laboratory as an objective venue. Others respond by saying that science truly is a journey, reflective of personal narratives similar to popular detective stories, love stories, and adventure stories. Our private lives are entwined with our investigations, and without an understanding of the personal story and context behind a discovery, the significance of it cannot be fully appreciated. Thus, I believe that biography is an appropriate way to synthesize the life of historical scientific figures and learn something of science.
The market for books and the intended audience for the biography influence its style. Students, professors, and the larger public enjoy the chance to know these scientists as real people and to identify with their journey. We enjoy taking part in the scientific journey and the creative process of popular figures. Biographies of science give the public a window into the life of people they hear about in classrooms and popular media in a way that is otherwise elusive and hidden from view. Perhaps more importantly, it gives us an enriched view on the events of the time.
I have found parallels between my studies of the history of science and the genre of biography. In analyzing work by Charles Darwin, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, or James D. Watson and Francis Crick, their personal lives and backgrounds are important. Biography can provide context of the state of the nation and diverse scientific communities as it enables readers to follow a scientist’s experimental and investigative process. It can teach us about scientific method, decision-making, and problem solving. I can see many of my struggles as a student-researcher in the quests of famous scientists. I understand their scientific journey has parallels to my own. What a valuable resource – to have not just technical references, but examples of problem solving in the every day life of the impactful scientist. By looking at how scientists in the past have studied and worked, we can improve and in the best of cases model our thinking after their successes.
Biographies resonate with scientists and citizens alike. We identify with common struggles, triumphs, fears, hopes and goals. We can realize how vastly different modern science is now yet weigh similarities in the investigative pursuit then and now. We become aware that disciplines across science, ranging from marine biology to quantum physics, are united through common themes of the investigative journey.
Embracing the analysis of biographies helps develop a framework for future scientific work by learning about the history of science through subjects, ideas, and characters in an embodied context. The biographical representation of personal experiences of historical figures and the portrayal of fact in an artistic setting enlighten and inspire this marine biologist. Without question, the writing of biographies is an artistic science deserving respect and attention as the genre has impacts extending beyond its own discipline.
*Ariana Meltvedt Snow is a graduating senior at Oregon State University in the Honors College where she studies marine biology. In Fall 2014 she will continue her interests in coral reef ecology and public education on the value of the oceans in the Ph.D. Program in Marine Biology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She encountered Professor Nye’s scholarship in Mike Osborne’s “Three Revolutions in Biology” course.