(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Is there a science of science? Is there a formula for scientific discovery, especially for the sort of theoretical or experimental breakthrough which transforms the way scientists look at the universe? Can lessons be learned from the history of science which are applicable to current science policy? Will societies be able to create environments in which scientific creativity will flourish? These are some of the questions that Robert Scott Root-Bernstein, a scientist and historian of science, and recipient of the MacArthur Prize fellowship (1981- 1986), asks in Discovering: Inventing and Solving Problems at the Frontiers of Scientific Knowledge. His investigation, which incorporates data and ideas from the history, philosophy, and sociology of science, is presented in the form of the edited transcription of an imaginary, informal colloquium held at the house of Imp, a university scientist. The debate ranges over five days, with commentary supplied by Imp’s journal and his wife Jenny’s notebook. On the sixth day, the participants summarize their conclusions in five reports.

Using a fictitious dialogue or colloquium to present philosophical, historical, or scientific ideas is not new: Plato and Galileo are but two past masters of the genre. It is not, however, a form of presentation commonly used by historians or philosophers of science in the twentieth century. Nor will anyone mistake Root-Bernstein for a novelist or dramatist using literary forms to illuminate significant and complex human issues. His characters are composites from the historical or scientific communities, functioning as representatives of particular views rather than as three-dimensional characters. This is not great literature. Yet the strategy works. The debate between characters does illuminate the thought processes by which the author has reached his conclusions. In addition, the format makes the content less daunting to the general reader than it otherwise might have been. Root-Bernstein also manages to inject his characters with some life. Imp is clearly the author himself, and Imp’s journal provides opportunities for what otherwise might appear as intrusive editorial comments.

Root-Bernstein has no doubt attended many formal and informal scientific colloquia. Only two aspects of his colloquium seem contrived. First, his characters have an inordinate number of quotations from the scientific and historical literature memorized or carefully recorded on note cards for the colloquium. Art had to give way to his need to interject appropriate and complete quotations to buttress his arguments. Second, the characters are ultimately too ready to accept the logic of the arguments being presented. Scholars often do not think logically or easily give up their own views, no matter how flawed their arguments might be and how strong the evidence for the opposing views. Richter, for example, is a very late and complete convert to Imp’s program, after having fought with everybody during the course of the colloquium. His conversion is not convincing. Otherwise, Root-Bernstein has successfully captured the mental processes and prejudices of the academic community.

One of Root-Bernstein’s challenges in presenting his theories concerning scientific creativity in this format was figuring out an unobtrusive way to make his discussions understandable to the nonscientist. To have his scientists use nontechnical language in the colloquium, or for Imp’s journal not to read like a scientist’s manuscript, would have appeared too unnatural. Scientists have their own languages and vocabularies, which are very powerful and exact, and they use them. Root-Bernstein’s solution for the...

(The entire section is 1505 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Los Angeles Times. January 9, 1990, p. E8.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, January 28, 1990, p.24.