Nathaniel Comfort has spent 10 years of his life studying music, 10 years studying science, and the last 20 years studying history. “What I try to do, really, is integrate all of those things,” he tells me. “I try to write about science musically if I can.”
He did just that in his 2001 biography of the geneticist and Nobel Laureate Barbara McClintock, which tackled the science and gender politics of the iconic researcher head on (“This book dismantles the McClintock myth in seven steps …”). He’s since published and edited books on intelligent design and genomic medicine, and is working on a project on the origins of life.
Today a professor at the Institute of the History of Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Comfort has devoted himself to what he sees as the science historian’s role: to make science intelligible, and to provide context and social relevance.
Nautilus sat down with Comfort in his Baltimore home.
The video interview plays at the top of the screen.
What’s the role of a science historian?
Why do we need historians if we’ve got journalists and scientists themselves? Journalists are excellent. Good journalists are superb at tracking down the story of what somebody is doing or the recent chain of events, but it’s not usually considered a journalist’s job to interpret those findings. They’re reporting. A scientist, him or herself, is usually explaining … Scientists are usually explaining what they do, and they have a particular view of what they’re doing and what it means and why it’s important. By definition, it’s self interested, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s one of several possible takes.
Robots can’t completely do science. They can crunch data, but they can’t do science.
I can tell you what I do, but someone else might look and tell you that what I do is something very different. I can tell you that I’m trying to make science accessible and understandable to the public, and somebody else might tell you that I’m trying to rip science down from its lofty ivory tower or something like that. So there are multiple interpretations possible. What a historian does, someone like myself who tries to reach out to wider audiences, is to make science intelligible, but to put it in context, in the larger context, the context of society, and social relevance, and sometimes also the broader political context can have a big influence on why a given body of science is interesting. That’s not usually considered the job of either journalists or scientists themselves.
What often gets left out of the history of science?
It’s the human side of science that often gets left out of histories of science.
What I try to do is capture the behavior of scientists—almost like animal behavior, which I used to study—but also the human side of it, the personalities, the interactions, the friendships, the rivalries, the competition, the gossip, whatever. Because I think that shapes the way scientists investigate nature.
You try to leave your life outside the laboratory. The laboratory is designed to take nature out of context, but a lot of these people study nature out in nature, and even when you’re in the lab you still bring your head with you and all of your experiences, and all of the relationships that you’re in, and the mood that you’re in that day. All of those can shape the way that you investigate your research questions.
You’re always a human being, whether it’s how you frame your research question, what counts as interesting to you, why you investigate those questions as opposed to other ones, why you investigate them using those particular tools, things that you were trained with—and you’re trained with them because of your experience, [like] when you were a kid you had a chemistry set, so you went into chemistry or whatever.
Your experience also shapes the way you interpret your data. There’s a myth that there’s only one correct interpretation of data. Sometimes there’s one correct interpretation of one particular data, but if you’re talking about a larger order research question, for example, how did life begin, where did life come from—there’s no way you cannot bring your experience, your psyche to bear on that question. You have to be a human being in order to do science. Robots can’t completely do science. They can make measurements. They can crunch data, but they can’t do science.
Is the Nobel Prize good for science?
I just returned from Stockholm, and I have a good friend who runs the medical library at the Karolinska Institute. I worked in the Nobel archives and spoke to people who have served on the Nobel committee, so I got a really fascinating inside view that a lot of people don’t get. At the Karolinska, they talk about Nobelitis as a kind of disease. The prestige of the Nobel Prize is really out-sized, and that’s probably exactly what Nobel himself, Alfred Nobel, wanted. He wanted an enormous legacy. He wanted everybody to know his name. It is an inspiration. It’s a motivation. It does some good public relations work for science. It puts science in the spotlight, and that can do some good.
It also has some negative effects, I would say. It makes science political in some interesting ways. It’s not the only thing that makes science political obviously, but it is one factor, and it’s the most publicly visible factor in the politicization of science. People lobby for the Nobel, and they campaign, and they will sit on committees. They will write op-eds. They will lobby their friends.
There’s a whole anthropology to the way science, each of the different sciences, and medicine work.
There are amazing stories of people who have written letters to their friends asking them to nominate them to the Nobel Prize. There are people who have actually submitted, have forged nominations for themselves, on behalf of their friends gotten ahold of a Nobel form, and forged the nomination for themselves, and written it, and sent it in.
I actually saw at the archive a trophy cup that somebody had sent in. Just the kind of thing that you can buy at any trophy store, like for a soccer MVP or something, and they had had it inscribed saying, “Nobel Peace Prize Nature Science,” and with his name on it, and he mailed it to the Nobel forum and said, “Please simply put this in the attached self addressed envelope and mail it back to me so that I can say that I’ve received a Nobel prize.” That’s where it becomes out-sized, the prestige of the prize. It drives people to crazy lengths sometimes, and I don’t think that’s good for science.
Is the importance of the Nobel Prize declining?
I think the Nobel Prize, the prestige of the Nobel, is probably being diffused somewhat now just anyway without my waving my magic wand, and there’s several reasons for that. One is that science is so collaborative now, and the discoveries are—if you leave aside the really major things like CRISPR, which was headline news around the world, and has been, and continues to be, and will continue to be … many of the big discoveries in science are very collaborative and are pieces of a puzzle. There are so many people doing science now. You have many fewer of those kind of titans that you used to have in the second half of the 20th century.
I’m a little bit rusty now, but I used to be able to rattle off the physiology or medicine and chemistry prizes from the 1940s through about 1980 or so year by year, and it’s much harder to do that now. It’s still an enormous deal in Stockholm, but it doesn’t have quite the same impact because of the collaborative nature of science, and I would also say because of the amount of money that’s going into science. There are other prizes that are also big. The impact of the Nobel Prize itself I think is being diffused somewhat.
How has the role of women in science changed?
If we look over the sweep of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st, there has been of course an enormous change in the role and reputation of a woman scientist. It’s no longer a strange thing to be. It’s much less common for a woman to experience somebody, a male scientist who says, “Well, what are you doing in here little girl? Get out of the lab and go make some coffee.” I mean, if you find somebody like that nowadays, he’s going to probably lose his job, and the woman is probably going to get promoted. That kind of behavior is considered very retrograde and is not tolerated. Recent examples at Berkeley, for example. It does happen, but when it’s discovered, it is quashed very rapidly.
That’s something that’s really happened since, it really began to pick up in the 1970s with the feminist movement of the ’70s and ’80s.
I think there’s pretty good evidence now that women, young women in science, are attracted to laboratories run by women, laboratories that have lots of women in them, and institutions that have substantial representation. I think a lot of that has really changed, and it has gotten a lot better.
Why aren’t we there yet? We’re getting pretty close to there, I think. A recent study at Hopkins, at Johns Hopkins, my institution, has shown that there really was no statistically significant income disparity between men and women at a given level. The number of women principal investigators, women deans, women university presidents has been increasing rapidly. There’s still a ways to go, but it is happening steadily. I would say that the most severe, the most serious disparity now is really racial. It’s very difficult to get minorities, Hispanics, African Americans, and others into the lab. Science is still perceived as a very white and/or Asian discipline, and I think a lot of effort needs to be placed on that in order to recruit and get more diversity in that way in the world of science.
Have women scientists made greater strides in biology than in physics?
Physics is a very macho field, yes. Physics is a very macho field. What I’m speaking from is really, my expertise is in biology and medicine. When I say Johns Hopkins, I mean Johns Hopkins medicine. I’m in the School of Medicine there, and that’s the study that I heard when I was on the faculty senate there, so I cannot speak for … Physics is definitely a much more macho science and, I don’t know. You’re going to have to talk to a physicist about that. That’s on them, but I think the biologists, people in basic sciences have really made great strides to actively draw more women in. Now I think they need to put the same amount of effort into drawing more minorities in.
I think this is a golden age of science writing, honestly. We have some of the best science writers out there right now that we’ve ever had, but we’ve also had some of the worst.
Science is a social activity, and each field, each school, each department, each lab has its own culture. That culture gets passed down just like tool use among primates. You do get cultural traditions. Medicine is very different from the basic sciences in biomedicine. That’s reflected in the architecture at Johns Hopkins. At the medical school at Hopkins downtown, the clinical buildings are on one side of Monument Street and the basic science buildings are on the other side. It was in, I think, the beginning of the late ’70s into the ’80s. They started to build bridges, literal bridges across the street to connect them because they were trying to get more dialogue between them, but still the doctors walk around in white lab coats, so you always know a clinician when you see one.
Those cultures persist, and they mingle, but there’s a whole anthropology to the way science, each of the different sciences, and medicine work.
What do you make of the recent secret meeting in Cambridge co-organized by George Church?
Mostly hype. I think they were stirring up headlines. There’s no need to make it secret, and I don’t think they decided anything all that important. From the commentary that I’ve read and what I’ve read about what actually happened in that meeting and from Church’s own comments in the press, it sounds to me like mostly a way of a dog and pony show. It was a campaign event.
What do you make of the advent of billion-dollar CRISPR companies, like Editas?
There’s an old cliché in biotech that you buy on the rumor and sell on the product. I mean, don’t get me wrong. Biotech has a lot of power to do some remarkable good and some power to do some ill. I would say both are over hyped, but there is real potential there. It’s sensationalized a great deal. I don’t know if this can go on your, if you’re willing to put this on your website, but one of the things I try to do is call bullshit. When I see hype in science and medicine, I try to call it. I want to say what the real potential is, but I also want to say where I see hype. I think CRISPR has, at the moment it’s got … The hype is things like, “Oh, we’re going to have designer babies, or we’re going to make armies of Hitlers,” whatever. None of that is likely to happen.
The CRISPR revolution is a quiet one, and it’s already happened, and it’s continuing to happen. CRISPR has infiltrated almost every lab I know of in the basic experimental biological sciences and biomedicine. Everybody is doing it, and they’re finding new ways of using it. Just like polymerase chain reaction in the 1980s, it’s not one technique; it’s a whole suite of techniques, and there are new applications for it. It’s transforming the way that people are doing the day-to-day work of science that leads incrementally to greater understanding. It’s not the big explosion that’s going to transform your world overnight. It’s the incremental increases of knowledge and in technology that’s going to really change the way we lead our lives.
What grade would give the science media overall?
Overall, C-minus. I try to stay in closest touch with … There’s a good population of A-plus science writers out there, and those are the ones I try to interact with as much as I can. When I see one of those D-minus science stories, I throw it out there on Twitter, and I mock it. I mean give me a break. If I get enough of them, I’ll write a blog post, satirical blog post, about it. That’s a lot of fun, but I do want to emphasize, there is a group of really good science writers out there. I think this is a golden age of science writing, honestly. Some of the best science writers. I’ve read the history of science writing for 150 years, and I think we have some of the best science writers out there right now that we’ve ever had, but we’ve also had some of the worst.
How did you decide to become a science historian?
I started out in college as a music major, and I realized pretty quickly when I got into music theory and musicology and so forth that those people, men and women, had a different style of mind than I did. I was not actually one of those, so I needed to find something else to do. I went to the career guidance counselor at UC Berkeley, and that person told me that basically my choices were either English or philosophy. I dropped out for a semester, and in the middle of a phone call I realized suddenly that I wanted to work on marine mammals, and the conversation had nothing to do with marine mammals. My mind wandered. I stopped paying attention to the person I was talking to, my girlfriend at the time or somebody.
I figured out a way to do that, and there was a place called Marine World near where I lived, and they had a dolphin research project going on there, and I went down there, and I interned for them for about four months, and loved it so much I decided to go back and major in marine biology. I did that, and I had to basically start over as a freshman again and take all of those pre-med classes—inorganic chemistry, and intro to physics, and so forth. I majored in marine biology and I loved doing that. Then I decided to look at the physiological basis of animal behavior, so I went on to Cornell where I studied neurobiology and animal behavior. I studied electric fish in South America, and enjoyed that a lot, but again realized that the people who were really good at that weren’t like me. Again, I had a different style of mind. I finally came around to realizing that what I am is a writer, but what I’d done in all that time was find out what I want to write about, and so what I wanted to write about was science.