Every now and again, a paper is published that’s so peculiar, or so apparently irrelevant to any important question, that it attracts derision rather than citation. Perhaps it picks up a Golden Fleece Award, or more fun, an IgNobel Prize; or perhaps it just gets roundly mocked on Twitter*. Much more than every now and then, a paper gets published that just doesn’t seem to connect to anything, and rather than being derided it’s simply ignored.
Perhaps you think this kind of thing is a recent phenomenon. Maybe you think it’s motivated by the professional reward systems that push us to publish more and more – to publish anything. Or maybe you think it’s driven by the proliferation of journals with their unquenchable thirst for content – so that just about anything finds a home in some journal. If you’re tempted by either of these notions, let me tell you a story.
About 350 years ago, modern science was transformed when a group of scholars in England founded the Royal Society of London and began to publish the first modern scientific journal, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. The Phil Trans, before long, was publishing recognizably modern science, in papers that have recognizably modern structure – reporting methods and results of experiments (or observations) and discussing their connections to other work. But the very first volume of Phil Trans is a fascinating read – and no paper is more fascinating than Robert Boyle’s Observables Upon a Monstrous Head (Phil Trans 1:85-86).
Yes, that Robert Boyle**. Boyle was a polymath, best known now for his contributions to chemistry, but he had interests in physics, philosophy, and biology, and was an inventor and an avid theologian to boot. If his contributions to biology, in particular, aren’t remembered today, it’s probably because they were pretty weird. Observables Upon a Monstrous Head reports on Boyle’s discovery and dissection of a colt born with no nose, a single eye (or perhaps a conjoined pair of eyes), and an odd membranous sac protruding from its forehead. Boyle didn’t know what to make of this, and the paper essentially ends in mid-description without suggesting any way the colt’s deformities mattered (except, obviously, to the colt). This wasn’t a one-off: the same volume also includes Boyle’s An Account of a Very Odd Monstrous Calf (Phil Trans 1:10), which is a similarly disconnected description of a calf with deformed legs and a divided tongue.
So what’s going on here? Couldn’t Boyle see that a deformed colt just wasn’t in the same league as his experiments with gasses (such as his demonstration that PV = k, a result now known as Boyle’s Law)? Why did he waste his time on unimportant oddities?
I think there are several reasons. One of them is that Boyle’s day was different from ours. Modern science was new, and still gelling; in an earlier post I argued that Boyle’s (and others’) oddities reflected a “chaotic, and perhaps somewhat credulous, period at the birth of modern science. It was not yet quite clear where the boundaries of science were – where to draw the lines between science and engineering, or architecture, or alchemy, or wild speculation.” That’s part of it, to be sure, but I think I missed some important points when I stopped my analysis there.
One of those important points is that scientists, like everyone else, live and work in a sociocultural context. It would be bizarre if that didn’t shape their scientific interests to some degree. Boyle’s interest in anatomical monstrosities reflects a long history (at the time) of fascination with them among the European upper classes. For at least a century before the publication of Monstrous Head, ”monsters” and other such oddities had been in heavy demand to stock cabinets of curiosities (Wunderkammern), and many books had been published describing monstrosities both real and fanciful***. In this context, there’s nothing odd about Boyle’s interest in the Monstrous Head, even if that interest didn’t really lead anywhere. Scientists in the 21st century are presumably just as influenced by the cultural milieu in which we work. But it’s our cultural milieu, so we don’t notice it.
A second important point is that we judge Boyle’s Monstrous Head with the benefit of 350 years of hindsight. Yes, we know now that Boyle’s deformed colt didn’t lead to any identifiable advances in science. But Boyle didn’t know that then. Much later, even more bizarre monstrous heads – like those of antennapedia-mutant flies, with legs where their antennae should be – would result in huge advances in developmental genetics. This is the thing about basic research: it’s never clear which bit is going to spark an exciting advance, and which bit is going to be a blind alley. Some of the science we’re doing today will look pointless in 350 years (or even in 50 years), and some will look brilliant, and it’s very hard to say now which will be which. But centuries of experience has shown us that in the long term, there’s no better way to advance human knowledge – and with it, human well-being – than to let smart people do the science that catches their fancy. That’s the idiocy of the Golden Fleece awards, and of the perennial efforts of governments to steer science funding into applied and “innovation” programs that try to forecast winners. Boyle’s “failure” with his Monstrous Head is just part of the system. Setting Boyle’s imagination free gave us the Monstrous Head, true. But it also gave us Boyle’s Law, without which neither jet engines nor human breathing could be understood.
So was Boyle’s Monstrous Head silly? Well, divorced from its context, it sure looks that way. But divorced from their contexts, a lot of things do. Seen in its context, the Monstrous Head has some things to say. It made me think a little; perhaps it will do the same for you.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) July 5, 2017
*^I’m not talking here about papers that are fraudulent, like Andrew Wakefield’s nonsense about vaccines causing autism. And I’m not talking about papers that are only pseudoscientific, like Jacques Benveniste’s nonsense about the hyperdilution memory of water. I’m talking about work that is real, but that isn’t obviously connected to any substantive question about nature.
**^Regular readers (or readers of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing) will know I have something of an obsession with Robert Boyle. You could call it a bromance, except that (1) it’s unrequited, because he’s dead; and (2) bromine was discovered by Antoine Balard, not Robert Boyle. No, I didn’t write this whole post just to make that very lame bromine joke. Although it didn’t hurt.
***^I learned this from The Rhinoceros and the Megatherium, Juan Pimental’s quirky book that uses two non-monstrous curiosities (a rhinoceroses and a fossil ground sloth, shipped to Europe in 1515 and 1789 respectively) to trace the history of natural history. Pimental cites Daston and Park’s Wonders and the Order of Nature for fuller discussion; I haven’t read that one yet.