I recently re-read the classic science-fiction comedy Bellwether by Connie Willis. Bellwether, which is set in a fictional research company called “Hi-Tek,” is one of those books that reminds us how science really works:
“People like to think of science as rational and reasonable, following step by step from hypothesis to experiment to conclusion. Dr. Chin, last year’s winner of the Niebnitz Grant, wrote, ‘The process of scientific discovery is the logical extension of observation by experimentation.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. The process is exactly like any other human endeavor—messy, haphazard, misdirected, and heavily influenced by chance. Look at Alexander Fleming who discovered penicillin when a spore drifted in the window of his lab and contaminated one of his cultures. Or Roentgen…”
Connie Willis keeps us laughing as she describes the ups and down of grant applications, staff interaction, chaos, confusion, recalcitrant laboratory animals, and management fads (I will always remember the ridiculous “1. Optimize potential. 2. Facilitate empowerment. 3. Implement visioning. 4. Strategize priorities. 5. Augment core structures.”).
The lead character’s own research project concerns the sociology of fads:
“Coffeehouse (1450–1554) – Middle Eastern fad that originated in Aden, then spread to Mecca and throughout Persia and Turkey. Men sat cross-legged on rugs and sipped thick, black, bitter coffee from tiny cups while listening to poets. The coffeehouses eventually became more popular than mosques and were banned by the religious authorities, who claimed they were frequented by people ‘of low costume and very little industry.’ Spread to London (1652), Paris (1669), Boston (1675), Seattle (1985).”
Bellwether contains some inaccuracies both in the discussion of chaos theory and the history of coffee. However, it is such a great comic novel that it was nominated for the Nebula Award in 1997, even though it is only science fiction in the sense that it is fiction about science, written by a science-fiction author. On the whole, a highly recommended book – one that is both funny and insightful.