Thursday, April 28, 2016

New scientific biographies wanted....

Biographies fulfill several different roles: they may simply satisfy one's curiosity over the lives/achievements of the biographees, provide tasty morsels of gossip or interesting stories, or play an "educational" role. Traditionally, the "educational role" of biographies has focused on their presentation of "role models" - whether moral, political or social - or the conditions/life experiences which led to the special significance of the biographee. Scientific biographies follow the same pattern. Like traditional biographies, they are usually limited to people of special significance: trailblazers, mavericks, geniuses, and people who left a mark on their scientific discipline or on the public perception of the worth of their subject.

I wish there were also another kind of biography, devoted to the intelectual careers of "normal" researchers: people who simply follow their intelectual curiosity, who are constrained by the amount of funding they can get and who pass away in obscurity after adding their small contributions to our colective knowledge. I do not want "human interest stories" played by researchers: I rather long for a description of their intelectual journeys, why they decided to study a specific problem, what kinds of mental connections they made (and why), in what measure their interpretation of their results was "commonplace" or (in contrast) specifically triggered by insights coming from seemingly unrelated work they had performed earlier, etc.

I want to read stories that show how each of these normal people, in their own way, made work which seems ordinary but is, in contrast, highly personal: work that would not have been done, or which would not have yielded the same insights, if that scientific question had been tackled by someone with a different research history. I am reasonably confident that most rank-and-file scientists would be fitting subjects for this style of biography, and that the study of these stories would teach us a lot about the roles that creativity, personality, luck and culture play in the fostering of a thriving research environment. 

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