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Jeff's View: on Science and Scientists by…

Jeff's View: on Science and Scientists (edition 2006)

by Gottfried Schatz

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Title:Jeff's View: on Science and Scientists
Authors:Gottfried Schatz
Info:Elsevier, Hardback, 2005. 8vo. x+192 pp. Foreword by Felix Wieland.
Collections:Your library
Tags:Science, Essays, Biochemistry

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Jeff's View: on Science and Scientists by Gottfried Schatz

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Gottfried Schatz

Jeff's View
on science and scientists

Elsevier, Hardback, 2006.

8vo. x+192 pp. Foreword by Felix Wieland.

First published, 2006.


About the author

1. Letter to a young scientist
2. How (not) to give a seminar
3. Me and my genome
4. My other genomes
5. The tragic matter
6. My secret university
7. Mighty manganese
8. My two blues
9. Postdocs
10. The art of stepping back
11. Networks, fretworks
12. Euro-Blues
13. The severed chains
14. Five easy steps to get rid of your lab
15. The risks of playing safe
16. Chauvinism in science
17. Letting go



My introduction to this book was a kind of public reading of the essay How (not) to give a seminar. I remember well that I laughed my head off. I thought it at the time the funniest thing I had ever heard. I still do. Immediately after the lecture was over, I rushed to the bookstore and ordered Jeff's View. Rarely have I bought a book on so small a recommendation which turns in the end to be such a revelation. Since then I have read most of these 17 essays quite a number of times and have reached the firm conclusion that Jeff's View is a book that every scientist in the field of molecular biology or every person who works in that field (no, the two things are not at all the same!) must read. I venture to claim that the book would also make a fascinating read for every layman as well, provided that he has a lively interest in the molecular branches of the biological science and some background knowledge of biochemistry.

I have one very easy test to decide whether a book is great or not: if after reading it I very much want to know its author and have a long conversation with him, it certainly is. I wish I knew Gottfried Schatz, aka Jeff. Not because he has made quite a career in the field of mitochondria and bioenergetics, a field I find particularly appealing, and not because he obviously knows his subject very well - many have and do - but because he has a philosophical view of science which is quite uncommon in today's hectic business world, especially among scientists. Born in a small Austrian village, studied in Graz and Vienna, but made most of his career in the USA and Switzerland, Jeff is truly a man of the world - but by far not only in the mundane geographical sense. He is also a keen amateur violinist, connoisseur of arts, happy husband of a Danish wife and affectionate father of three children. And Jeff has another extremely rare asset in the rarefied scientific circles: prodigious sense of humour. His enchanting wit permeates his writing style like protein channels a plasma membrane. He almost always writes with his tongue in cheek but he never sounds flippant, even when - seldom - his humour is a trifle overdone or seems a bit contrived. More importantly, his style has lucidity and succinctness that - déjà vu - you don't often find among modern scientists. It is also peppered with history, philosophy and mythology, all areas which the great majority of modern scientists, regrettably, have no idea about.

Now let's have a closer look at the 17 essays. These gems originally appeared between 2001 and 2005 in FEBS letters, a scientific journal published by Elsevier on behalf, naturally, of the Federation of European Biochemical Societies (FEBS). They aroused such an interest that their publication in book form became a necessity and that's how Jeff's View - the original title of the series in FEBS letters suggested by its editor Felix Wieland - appeared in the bookstores in 2006. The wide reading public may well be grateful for that. The essays fall distinctly into two very different categories - popular science and organisation of modern science - that really should be discussed separately since there is virtually no overlapping between them. For those who want to sample Jeff's writing first hand, instead of wasting their time reading reviews, almost all of the original essays are available - free of charge at that - on the website of FEBS letters. Just perform a search for ''Gottfried Schatz'':

(The original versions are slightly different than the ones in the book, but the differences are purely cosmetic.)

The group of popular science consists of seven essays: numbers 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10 and 13. They are beautifully written and highly informative, though it would perhaps be a mistake to read them for information. Their most important asset is Jeff's fascinating ability to summarise vast and complex subjects in a very few words without ever losing their magisterial scope and without unnecessary digressions. Certainly, reading these essays does require some background knowledge in biochemistry and cellular biology, but not more than that of an intelligent layman with a lively interest in science. If words like ''mitochondria'' or ''reactive oxygen species'' are not unknown to you, or you have some rough idea what is the major biochemical link between ATP, ADP and Pi, you will have no problem with incomprehensible passages. Indeed, I can hardly imagine a serious science written in a more readable and accessible style. And of course Jeff's compelling sense humour makes for immensely entertaining read. Isn't it charming to read that the notorious, and ''nefarious'', reactive oxygen species (ROS) react so avidly with everything inside the cell and with such deleterious effect that they ''put any soccer vandal to shame''?

My personal favourites among these ''pop-science'' essays are probably the amazing story of how the aerobic life conquered the Earth and how, indeed, the oxygen ''gets us all'' in the end (The tragic matter), a beautiful ode for a very much underrated chemical element (Mighty manganese), the far reaching biological and philosophical aspects of the so called ''programmed cell death'', or apoptosis, (The art of stepping back) and the fascinating details of our colour perception (My two blues). There is quite a bit to learn and much more to think about here. The tragic matter has a grandeur which is indeed tragic. It is oxygen that made possible the immense variety of life today, because it gave life at once an energy source of unprecedented intensity, far exceeding the most efficient photosynthetic systems, not to mention anaerobic fermentations. Yet, the price might have been a bit too steep: for oxygen is a really dangerous stuff, chiefly because those aggressive fellows ROS which are inevitably and constantly formed. It is a rather spooky story, well fitting with my own rather pessimistic ''theory'' that life, from a thermodynamic point of view at least, is the most unnatural thing in this world. Very much in this line of thoughts is Mighty manganese, too. For it was precisely manganese, with its stupendous ''electronic talent'', that was responsible for the oxygen invasion on Earth due to the manganese-containing water-splitting complex some early photosynthetic bacteria evolved. Yet, manganese did a lot to alleviate the oxygen havoc it had caused: one of the most important enzymes for any aerobic cell, the superoxide dismutase which ''kills'' the very dangerous superoxide radicals, is manganese-containing one, too.

And of course there are many impressive facts and figures scattered through the pages. Did you know that gram per gram the human body converts 10 000 times more energy than the sun? Of course you don't believe it. But here are the numbers: a 70 kg human being consumes about 12 600 kJ daily, or about 2 mJ/g.s; the sun can boast no more than the miserable 0,2 microJ/g.s. Incredible as it seems, there are bacteria (Azotobacter) which can reach 10 J/g.s, thus outperforming the sun by a factor of 50 million! One can also learn that ''color-blind'' people are much more accurately called dichromats and they don't see black-and-white at all, as some rather badly deluded persons think; they just see fewer colours than the rest, who are trichromats. How about a tetrachromat? Or the link between the sex and the colour blindness? Or the very individual perception of colour any of us has? Or the difference between reading a genome and interpreting it? Or the link between manganese and resistance to tuberculosis? Or... One can go on forever. Even these short essays, just a few pages long, are a source all but inexhaustible. Yet they are only the door to an infinitely more complex and more compelling world. That's the best sign of a great essay: it makes you very impatient to open that door.

But the more important part of the book are the rest 10 essays which I have described rather lamely as treating the subject ''organisation of modern science''. I suppose they would be less interesting for the layman, but I am quite sure that everybody who has the (mis)fortune to work in the field of molecular biology will find these pieces not just amusing but extremely thought-provoking and, perhaps, not a little saddening. To the outsider many of the points here may seem much too obvious, even trite, yet the insider knows all too well how often these ''obvious'' points are completely neglected. The invaluable quality of Jeff here, yet again, is that even in his most hilarious pieces - surely these are How (not) to give a seminar and Five easy steps to get rid of your lab - he never loses his head. One doesn't need any great amount of imagination to realise the devastating picture behind the sharp satire, sometimes mingled with bitter sarcasm. Who is this pre- or postdoc fellow who has not come out of many a seminar with the uneasy feeling that he has just wasted his time? I also very much doubt that there will be many such guys who will not recognise quite a few features of their bosses in Five easy steps to get rid of your lab. And I don't mind telling you that if you happen to read the essay Postdocs in a certain period of your scientific career, it may very well be the most shocking experience you've had since your paper was rejected by a journal with an impact factor 0,5.

Nor does Jeff shy away from harshly criticising, but always with a great deal of common sense, on a grand scale: inefficient university policies, dull paperwork, tedious committee meetings, appalling chauvinism on the international scene, the art of retirement at the right time, nothing escapes his sharp eye and even sharper pen. Jeff's views are often described as ''personal'' - which simply means that they rub a good many people the wrong way. So much the worse for science.

Letter to a young scientist is my favourite from this group of essays. It is an extraordinary piece of writing, as close to perfection as any. It is almost inconceivable that so much stirring reflections can really be caused by mere ten pages of printed text, yet that's what always happens when I read this essay. If there is any other place where all pros and cons of modern science are described with such lucidity and candour, let me know about it. The most appealing side of Jeff's view here, as in general, certainly is his spiritual outlook. On the one hand, science for him is neither a mere profession nor an exercise in materialism, but a vocation and a sceptical way to look at the world. The real scientific outlook has nothing to do with the arrogant know-it-all attitude which is usually - and often appropriately, alas - associated with scientists; I couldn't agree more with Jeff when he says, nay bets, that scientists say ''I don't know'' much more often than most people. They do indeed. Scientific knowledge, and hence personality, are always uncertain and sceptical, but that's where their real power lies; the absolute knowledge is for preachers, demagogues, faith healers, gurus and psychics.

On the other hand, if you already think that Jeff has an incurable disease of looking at the world through rose-coloured glasses, you are very much mistaken. Far from it. After the grand tour of the castle, as he charmingly puts it, he leads us to the kitchen. And that is a really dirty place: big money, hectic business, blockbuster drugs, wild claims to get funded, hypocrisy unless you get scooped, lust for power and finally, worst of all, distortion of the truth and the very idea of what science is all about. Then there is a great deal of loneliness, many types of it, in the life of the scientist which Jeff describes in a most affecting paragraph: from rejected manuscripts and losing the trust of your own research group until evenings with odiously self-absorbed colleagues and the painfully weak voices of your wife and children on the other side of a feeble phone line.

Last but by no means least, there is another fascinating thing about Jeff which is all but non-existent in scientific circles: keen appreciation of art and the firm conviction that it can give you something that science is quite incapable of. Mahler's Tenth symphony, a Rilke's poem or van Gogh's late paintings ''tell me things about myself science never told me'', says Jeff. I would myself substitute these names with Liszt, Maugham and Michelangelo, respectively, but the essence remains absolutely the same. The greatest tragedy of modern science is not that most scientists today don't have any time to appreciate art, but the fact that they regard it as a waste of time.

Jeff's View has but one defect, though rather a grave one. Gottfried Schatz originally wrote 18 essays for FEBS Letters, but only 17 are published in the book; the last one, titled Voices of the Night, is missing. I don't know who was the bright mind who conceived this omission but he did a great mistake. The essay is a marvellous piece, Jeff's own ''The Summing Up'', if you understand what I mean. In his clear and perfectly ordered, yet lively and vigorous writing style, Jeff sums up his whole life as a scientist: from those early years in the University of Graz, where there was not even a course in biochemistry, until his current series of essays which were inspired by Montaigne's ''experiments''. It is brilliantly written as a kind of tough questions and frank answers session, the questions being asked by persistent night voices and always answered by Jeff with his usual and so captivating candour. It would have formed a deeply moving, incredibly poignant and most suitable coda of the book. It is true that the Epilogue makes use of few sentences from this essay, but on the whole it is nowhere near as compelling a piece as Voices of the Night.

No matter. Even with this inexplicable omission Jeff's View remains, quite simply, a great book. It remains one of these books with unbelievably high substance to volume ratio. And as every great book, it cannot be recommended highly enough, nor can it be reviewed satisfactorily. It must be experienced personally and intimately. It doesn't matter whether a scientist, a person working in the field of science, or a curious layman, pretty much everybody should read this book - except relentless science-haters of course.

Again as every great book, it matters little, if at all, whether one agrees with Jeff or not. For sure I don't always agree with him. For instance, though I quite agree that science, like life, is a matter not so much of intelligence as of character, I am not quite sure that passion really has any place in science - for passion clouds the judgement. Unlike Jeff, I would certainly never describe Eduard Hanslick as ''artistic giant'' and put him in the company of Robert Schumann and Bernard Shaw. Neither, to some extent, did Jeff, at least in the book where Hanslick was wisely substituted with Brahms.

But, to repeat myself, no matter. It is still a book that bears one round of re-reading after another. It never fails to entertain me. Nor does it ever fail to change me at least a little bit. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Aug 24, 2010 |
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