Reflections on Science and Scientists

By P.B. Medawar

HarperCollins. 256 pp. $22.50

(Available in bookstores next month)


Life With Peter Medawar

By Jean Medawar

Norton. 256 pp. $19.95

FOR YEARS now, we've been hearing that the American people need to know more about science. Reports, commissions and luminaries routinely demand better courses, tougher curricula, longer school years, more qualified teachers. But if the scientific establishment is serious about raising the level of public sophistication, what we really could use is more Peter Medawars.

The late Sir Peter stood at the very pinnacle of biological thought. His Nobel Prize honored work that fulfilled every scientist's twin wildest dreams of both opening a vastly fruitful new field of research and leading to lifesaving treatment. But what truly distinguished the man who laid the theoretical foundations for organ transplantation, what raised him above the ordinary run of gifted obsessives peopling world-class laboratories, what made him valuable to humanity far beyond his insights into the immune system, was his passion to explain his work and his world to the rest of us.

Throughout his life, the Brazilian-born British-educated son of a Lebanese businessman ignored social conventions he considered senseless, most pointedly the one that "serious" scientists only write for their peers. The Threat and the Glory is, alas, the final collection of the splendid writings he addressed to an obscure life form little known to most of his colleagues -- the intelligent general reader. Medawar was, to use a term often opprobrious in the reaches of academe he frequented, a genuinely brilliant popularizer.

Because ordinary people can't understand science unless scientists make it understandable, Medawar made elucidation a lifelong task. He deplored scientists' penchant for giving unexpected meanings to ordinary words -- "fitness" and "inheritance," for example, or "chaos," a more recent coinage -- and then proceeding to "brandish these special usages at the layman, as if they had some sort of inner rightness; but it would be more gracious, and would reveal a better sense of language, if they apologized for them or explained them away." And he committed the further heresy of valuing the accomplishments of less prestigious contributors to the scientific enterprise -- nurses, technicians who care for laboratory animals, social scientists, even science writers.

Perhaps this attitude grew from his abiding belief in the unity of human creativity. The inspiration sparking a scientific discovery, he argued, is the same as that igniting a poem. The schoolbook notion of a separate, inductive scientific method, the one we all learned from John Stuart Mill, he termed a "fraud." "Scientific discovery or the formulation of the scientific idea on the one hand, and demonstration of proof on the other hand are two entirely different notions." Much as poems occur in poets' minds, "hypotheses appear in {scientists'} minds along uncharted byways of thought . . . they are imaginative and inspirational in character . . . they are indeed adventures of the mind."

And yet, as he knew from experience, the same hypothesis often occurs to several people at once. For Medawar, the difference between scientific and artistic creativity lies not in process but in the nature of priority, in what it means to "own" a piece of work. "Darwin's claim could not be defended against Beethoven's, even in fun," he writes. ". . . Scientists are always dispensable; for, in the long run, others will do what they have been unable to do themselves." There was a ferocious race to DNA, but none to compose the "Ode to Joy" movement of the Ninth Symphony.

So it may be as a writer that Medawar earned his true indispensability. Few scientists of his stature have even attempted what he achieves in these pages. From the rigorous and deeply humane perspective of a leading researcher who, in middle age, also valiantly fought back from a series of crippling strokes, Medawar examines great issues of our age: population control, intensive care, scientific fraud, the prospects for human betterment, the dignity of the dying. The sixth of his BBC Reith Lectures on "The Future of Man" is alone worth the price of this volume.

Medawar was both "an experienced, longtime, virtually award-winning hospital patient" and a scientist whocared deeply about each of his topics. Yet the essays invariably embody "hard" thinking, which is "thinking about particulars or thinking in terms that can convey a clear and precise meaning to other people; putting forth ideas which can be tested . . . Soft thinking is thinking that makes an appeal to or through the emotions; which gives one a nice cozy feeling inside; which attempts to persuade one of what ought to be intellectual truths by non-intellectual methods."

"In spite of these sterling virtues," though, as he writes of another author's work, his "book contrives also to be interesting and readable." Indeed, much more than readable; elegant and sparkling. To wit: This world-renowned immunologist terms auto-immune diseases "the kind of blunder which, in human affairs, calls forth a question in the House, or even a strongly worded letter to The Times." HOW TO explain this extraordinary man? His widow's loving memoir doesn't even try. Friends warned that marrying him would dash her chance to be "received into society." But before long, the Royal Society, among others, was clamoring to claim him. Jean Medawar celebrates the "very decided preference for remaining alive" that carried him to glory over incalculable adversity. Fifty-five years ago she saw in a tall, curly-haired Oxford student "an uncut diamond, packed with light and fire . . . I still have no idea how I recognized his quality. Later on it became obvious and everyone saw it." Indeed, we lucky readers need look no further than his essays.

Beryl Lieff Benderly is the author, most recently, of "The Myth of Two Minds: What Gender Means and Doesn't Mean." She is at work on a book about cancer.