Sat 23 August 2014
C. Titus Brown
I just finished reading Svante Paabo's autobiography,
Man: In Search of Lost Genomes.
The book is perfect -- if you're a biologist of any kind, you'll
understand most of it without any trouble, and even physicists can
probably get a lot out of the story (heh).
The book describes Svante Paabo's journey towards sequencing the
Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes, and the attendant scientific and
popular science implications. It's a fantastic portrayal of how
science really works, from the perspective of a driven, charismatic,
and successful scientist.
Beyond the scientific story, which I had not known much about at all,
there were two particularly interesting parts of the book.
First, I was surprised at the candor and simultaneous shallowness with
which Dr. Paabo discussed his various relationships and bisexuality.
Throughout the book there is occasional mention of men, women,
marriage, and relationships, and while I don't get much of a sense of
how impactful all of this was on him
personally, it is striking how
little it seems to have impacted his scientific life. There was one
particular bit in the middle that I found very understated in
reporting, where he and a couple all move into the same apartment
building, and then depart with different spouses. I guess I was
surprised at the choice to report the personal relationships while
avoiding any depth whatsoever. (Craig Venter still takes the cake
with a single paragraph in A Life Decoded where
he starts the paragraph with a divorce and ends with an engagement.
It's a long paragraph, but still.)
Second, it was somewhat dispiriting to watch Dr. Paabo's transition
from an enthusiastic young scientist concerned primarily with getting
accurate scientific knowledge out there to one who was very focused
not only on scientific correctness but on publicity. There's a great
section at the beginning where he talks about publishing the first
mtDNA sequence from Neanderthals, and he chooses Cell because it
allowed longer articles and a better representation of the science; he
also spends a lot of time making sure his mtDNA sequence can be
reproducibly generated by another lab. By the end, however, he's
publishing in Science and Nature, and agonizing over whether or not
he'll be first with the publication. (The latter approach seem much
more harmful to good scientific practice to me; both the secrecy &
competitiveness and the desire to push out papers in Science and
Nature are problematic.)
I don't know how much self-reflection went into the narrative, but it
would be interesting to know why his approach towards publication
changed so much during his career. Is it because science changed as a
whole towards requiring the splashy high impact papers? Or is it
because he grew in stature and funding requirements to the point where
he needed the splashy high impact publications to justify the funding?
Or (as he says towards the end) is it because of the perceived career
needs of his junior colleagues? Or all three? Or more?
Anyway, a great read. Highly recommended for the sci-curious.