Arsenic, quasicrystals and the myth of the science martyr

The story is straight out of Hollywood: an ambitious scientist makes a startling discovery that runs counter to everything that is supposed to be true in their field. Their initial announcement is met with near universal skepticism that quickly turned to scorn, earning them outright hostility from several prominent scientists. They are even kicked out of their lab for their heresy and the shame it brought to their advisor.

Am I writing about Daniel Shechtman, this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of quasicrystals? I could be, for this is his story, which reached its happy denouement last week. But I am not. I am writing instead about Felisa Wolfe-Simon, whose announcement last year that she had isolated a strain of bacteria that could use arsenic where all other life on earth uses phosphorous followed an almost identical trajectory.

I am not going to retell the story of #arseniclife or why I think FWSs actually IS more or less completely wrong. You can read about it here, and here, and here. What interests me about the parallels between these two stories is not their specifics – but how they highlight the way most tellings of scientific history glorify the ideal of the suffering, unrecognized genius, and how they also reveal the the destructive influence this myth can have on people who fancy themselves this kind of scientific martyr.

Of course we rightly celebrate Schechtman for recognizing the importance of his discovery, for not listening to those who derided him and told him that his claims could not possibly be true, and for stubbornly sticking to his guns even when it threatened his career. We should be disgusted at how often people who have just been awarded a Nobel Prize recount some version of this story.

Scientists – for all the lip-service they pay to the idea of discovery – are remarkably unwilling to accept it when it is amidst them. Perhaps the arsenic story also demonstrates why this is not necessarily always a bad thing. Most would-be world-changing discoveries turn out to be wrong, and a certain reticence in accepting them drives their advocates to seek the kind of compelling evidence that forces people to accept them.

But there’s another, less positive, side to this myth – exemplified by the way FWS responded to criticism of her paper. She almost immediately began portraying herself as the unrecognized genius – a story line she has cemented over time. But rather than taking this as motivation to prove people wrong, she seems to have taken the fact that she is being criticized as sufficient evidence to prove that she is correct. This was certainly the case when I saw her talk in Berkeley last spring, and was the definite impression I got from reading the profile of her in Popular Science.

I won’t try to predict the trajectory of FWS’s career. Maybe she’ll recognize the need to buckle down and do the hard experiments necessary to prove or disprove her ideas (I’m even willing to give her space in my lab to do it if she’s really been sent to the curb by her former advisor as the PopSci article implies). But people also sometimes find the idea of their own iconoclasm so intoxicating that they get stuck this way.

The most obvious example is Lynn Margulis. In the 1960’s she proposed ideas – initially scorned by the community – that mitochondria originated as bacterial symbionts in eukaryotic cells. Like, Schechtman, she stuck to her guns and, nearly two decades later, was vindicated. But Margulis seems to have taken the wrong lesson from her experience, and she now revels in her self-appointed role as scientific contrarian – championing a host of crackpot theories in evolutionary biology.

Another example is my Berkeley colleague Peter Deusberg, a smart and affable virologist who seems to have let the attention he garnered with his insistence that HIV does not cause AIDS (which, unlike Margulis’ more esoteric claims, has caused significant harm in the world) turn him into an all-purpose contrarian.

Schechtman’s response was very different. He stuck to his guns, even after Linus Pauling called him a “quasi-scientist”. He believed that his data was solid and would ultimately win out – which it did. And I’ve never seen anything to suggest he thinks he was right because he was ridiculed, or that his experience in and of itself entitles him to espouse other crazy ideas.

The real lesson we should take from Schechtman is that good ideas backed by compelling data almost always ultimately win – and that there is no lasting glory in being an outcast for outcasts sake. But I think we grossly underestimate just how tempting it is to slot oneself into that role, and how easy it is to succumb to that temptation.

Few of us ever are in Schechtman’s or FWS’s shoes – believing (right or wrong) that we have made an earth-shattering discovery. But many of us probably find ourselves in something akin to the position Deusberg found himself in with HIV and AIDS – as the chief skeptic of an idea that, at the time, wasn’t yet on completely solid ground.

Successful scientists are, for the most part, incredibly good critics of other scientists’ work. We can pick apart our colleagues experiments often better than our own – to see the controls they should have done and the methods they should have used, and we are particularly adept at coming up with alternative ways of explaining data that undermine their conclusions. This is an important, and constructive, part of the scientific process. If we turn out to be right, great. And if additional data erase our concerns, that great too. That’s the way it usually works.

But in the times when I have been that skeptic, I could feel the tug of something else. Of course recognizing the weaknesses in other’s work is nothing like making a new discovery – but it can feel like it. There is a pull – a sense that you are somehow tapping into the exalted realm of the scientific outsider who knows they’re right when everyone else is wrong. And the expectation of the vindication that will come when everyone realizes you were right. It can be hard to give up that taste of glory.

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  1. Rich
    Posted October 13, 2011 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    The connection between Margulis and Duesberg is interesting, too:

  2. Posted October 13, 2011 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Great post. It’s interesting that Donald Williamson, the biologist who championed the much-derided idea that the life cycle of the butterfly is the result of a hybridisation of two genomes, sees himself as being “on a straight-line course for posthumous recognition”. It’s as if he already knows he is right, even though he was at the time calling for someone to do the experiment to back up his claim.

    Williamson is already wrong, though:

    (Of course, Einstein had a similar attitude, but a better outcome when the experiments were done)

  3. Posted October 13, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Although I generally agree with what you have said in this post, I find it discouraging that so many people are coming down on Felicia so soon after the publication of her paper. I think it would be helpful to put yourself in her shoes. She was a young ambitious scientist who may have discovered something really cool, and had the backing of 11 other collaborators. Her boss even named the bacteria “Get Felicia a Job.” When the slightest bit of blowback occurred, the story became 100% about Felicia and how terrible her science was and the 11 other people who had an intellectual contribution to that paper were off of the hook. I can totally understand her attitude, for now, and think it completely unreasonable for you to compare her to Margulis and Duesberg. She’s had less than a year to digest this sideshow. When and how exactly did you expect her to buckle down, knock out the data, and prove the world wrong? So I guess what I’m saying is that maybe your criticism of her would be more justified after you actually gave her some time to digest everything and get back to work.

  4. Posted October 13, 2011 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    Moreover, Shechtman’s story has been greatly simplified, itself. In mathematician Paul Steinhardt’s view many of the objections to Shechtman’s discovery at the time were, at least for a while, quite valid; the crystals had defects, for example, so that alternative theories about crystal twinning were not outlandish given the data; and Shechtman’s own explanation of the mathematics was (in Steinhardt’s view) known to disagree with the data. Steinhardt thinks that a firm conclusion that there really are such things as quasicrystals was only arrived at five years afterwards, when materials that make more perfect quasicrystals were found. Finally, I have not been able to confirm from anyone at NIST (then NBS) that Shechtman did actually have to leave his research group, although I’ve no reason to doubt what he says.

    That said, there is a big difference between polite, reasoned skepticism, and the outright scorn of calling someone a ‘quasi-scientist’, as Pauling did. That’s going over the line. If anything, Pauling’s outbursts should remind us that we should stick to criticising the theories and the data when we see weakness in another’s work, and avoid casting ad hominem aspersions on the scientist where possible. Very hard – perhaps impossible – to remember that in the heat of a real disagreement.

  5. Posted October 13, 2011 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    I prefer a society that cherishes eccentrics and contrarians, to one that doesn’t tolerate them. Even if the cost is a few highly irritating “martyrs”, denialists, etc.

  6. Karel Rei
    Posted October 13, 2011 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    This article seems to make a confusion between problems of
    scientific process (partly a social problem) and personality problems that may or may not be primarily a result of the scientific process.

  7. Posted October 13, 2011 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic post. My latest Twitter follower, I just noticed, is Dan Shechtman himself. True story. This so cool, because on the day of the announcement I posted something outright sarcastic about quasicrystals, and still he chooses to follow me. Kudos. A week ago I knew nothing about quasicrystals, but now I do – and I have learned a lot.

  8. Malay
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Quoting Latour acceptance of scientific theories is largely derived from “mobilization of allies”. Any practicing scientist will agree that we are human, and we passionately “believe” in our theories, bordering on irrational. We are lucky if the theories we believe in get vindicated in future. Only future holds the right to say, in retrospect, who was a martyr. As scientific theories are a growing piece of work, I completely agree with Ian Homes that we should encourage “cotrarians” as much as we can, rather than judging them too soon.

  9. Posted November 7, 2011 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    You could certainly see your skills in the work you write. The arena hopes for more passionate writers such as you who are not afraid to mention how they believe. Always follow your heart.

  10. Posted May 3, 2012 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    Fifty years from now, I think that most people who recognise the name Linus Pauling won’t associate it with his work on chemical bonds or nuclear disarmament … they’ll remember him as the **** who denounced work on quasicrystals and almost destroyed a fellow-researcher’s career, just a few years before the guy won a Nobel for the work. Kids will be taught about Pauling as a cautionary example, and his Nobels will only be mentioned as background to his admittedly great “There are no quasi-crystals, only quasi-scientists” put-down.

    The closest precedent I can think of is Simon Newcombe, prolific polymath, astronomer, physicist, inventor, multiple award-winner and practically a household name in his day (H.G. Wells namechecked Newcombe’s lecture on 4D spacetime geometry in “The Time Machine”). Newcombe seemed to badly want a place in the history-books, but nowadays he’s mostly remembered for being the **** who “proved” that research into building people-carrying flying machines using current technnology couldn’t possibly produce a functioning device, just before the Wright Brothers managed it.

  11. Posted May 3, 2012 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    I think that fifty years from now, most people who recognise the name “Linus Pauling” won’t associate it with his work on molecular bonds or nuclear disarmament, they’ll recognise the name from school where they were taught it as a cautionary example. The fact that he won two Nobels will only be considered relevant as back-story to his great “There’s no such thing as quasi-crystals, only quasi-scientists” quote, which came close to destroying a fellow-researcher’s career just before they won the Nobel prize for the work that Pauling was dismissing as non-science.

    I think that “There’s no such thing as quasi-crystals, only quasi-scientists” is now pretty much indelibly carved on Pauling’s metaphorical tombstone.

    The closest historical predecessor I can think of is Simon Newcombe, prolific polymath, multiple award-winner, astronomer and physicist, who was practically a household name in his day (H.G. Well referred to his lecture on 4D geometry in “The Time Machine”), but who nowadays is chiefly remembered for being the **** who declared that people-carrying heavier-than-air flying machines were impossible with current technology, just before the Wright Brothers went ahead and flew one.

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