Thursday, February 26, 2015

Becoming a Scientist ~ A Very Short Introduction to Keith Stewart Thomson

It was inevitable that, after I discovered the Oxford University Press’ Very Short Introductions (VSI) series, I would discover the preeminent evolutionary biologist Keith S. Thomson.  I should have known about both the series and the scientist long ago.  But, perhaps, the best in this sequence of discoveries is coming upon the brief autobiographical essay titled Becoming a Scientist that Thomson included in The Common But Less Frequent Loon and Other Essays (1993).  I will treat each of these discoveries in the order in which I made them.

Very Short Introductions

The VSI series is twenty years old, its first volume published in 1995.  How could I have missed these short (an average of 133 pages each), pocket-friendly books written by experts in their fields?  These slender volumes cover such a wealth of subjects, from metaphysics to stars, the devil to terrorism, probability to magic, the Magna Carta to the U.S. Supreme Court, climate to Malthus.  You name it, VSI has a title on point or probably will have shortly.  Four new titles came out this past January – the American West, Love, Exploration, and Psychotherapy.

There are now 413 titles in the series of which I’ve read a total of 3 – Teeth by Peter S. Ungar (2014), Dinosaurs by David Norman (2005), and Fossils by Keith Thomson (2005).  Yes, a crappy sample size, for sure, so I wont make any broad pronouncements about the overall quality of the offerings in the VSI series.  But, in this tiny slice of VSI were two brilliant hits and one miss (well, mostly a miss).

Teeth is informative, well-written, accessible, and substantive (a difficult combination to achieve, for sure).  It wasn’t the obvious choice for the first VSI volume I read though it did exactly what these works are intended to do:  it served an immediate need for an authoritative, albeit quick, overview of a subject   I drew on it for a blog post last year.

Dinosaurs is the one that mostly disappointed me.  The paleontologist author David Norman, a renowned expert on dinosaurs with much work on the Iguanodon, not surprisingly places that particular dinosaur at the center of the story, too much so in my opinion.  A better title might be Iguanodon:  A Very Short Introduction.

And then there is Fossils, an outstanding, thoughtful and thought-provoking introduction that provides the basics and much more in its scant 147 pages.

Thomson has brought not only his extensive expertise to this 2005 effort, but his well-honed literary skills as well.  This volume reflects Thomson’s own dictum that “there is a simple positive correlation between the quality of the thought and the quality of the writing.”  (The Literature of Science, The Common But Less Frequent Loon and Other Essays, p. 69.)

Though the fundamentals are here – such as the fossilizing processes themselves, and some stories of fossil hunters in the 19th century – Thomson’s reach is broader.  He begins with the earliest human perceptions of fossils and considers the revolutionary implications (theological, cultural, and scientific) of the developing understanding of what fossils actually are.  He explains well, and at some length, why and how fossils became keys to our knowledge of the evolution (speciation and extinction) of life on this planet, and of the evolution of the planet itself.  In the process, he succinctly summarizes debates within the scientific community over the processes and pace of evolution, highlighting the role that the fossil record has played in shaping those debates.  Thomson’s research and writing on evolutionary development (“evo-devo”) of organisms is reflected in the latter parts of this volume though, even then, he maintains a clear focus on the contribution of fossils.

Perhaps I really did not need to read another introductory treatment of fossils, though given my porous memory and my haphazard introduction to paleontology, I had no doubt, when I first cracked the binding, that the book was likely to offer some things new and refresh the memory of things mislaid.  What I have come to appreciate most about Fossils:  A Very Short Introduction is its introduction to Keith Thomson.

Keith Thomson

Thomson, who was born in England in 1938 and grew up there, has had educational and academic careers of the first rank.  He’s been associated with some of the leading institutions in the research of . . . no other way to say it . . . natural history.

Among the milestones in those careers are a Ph.D. in biology from Harvard University (1963); a two-decade career as professor of biology at Yale University during which time he also served as the Peabody Museum of Natural History’s curator of vertebrate zoology, and, for two years, its director (1965-1987); the presidency of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia (now the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University) (1987-1995); and appointment as professor of natural history at the University of Oxford concurrent with his election as director of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and fellow of Kellogg College (1998-2003).  Thomson is currently the president of the American Philosophical Society.

I remain awestruck by this vita – a surfeit of rich accomplishments.

His early research was on ancient fishes, air-breathing, and the transition from marine to terrestrial life.  In the mid 1960s, he conducted the initial study of a freshly-caught coelacanth.  Fossils have played a central role in his work.  His work on evolutionary development has drawn him into myriad subjects.  As the Kellogg College (Oxford) description of Thomson’s work puts it, the overarching objective of his scientific research “was to understand fossils in the same physiological, biomechanical, and ecological terms as we study living animals.”  (Kellogg College (Oxford) website,)  More recently, he has focused on the history of science, particularly the challenge that the emerging understanding of fossils, evolution, and deep time posed to the theological and cultural status quo of the early 19th century.

Becoming a Scientist

In the delightful essay Becoming a Scientist, Thomson tells the story of his conversion from a lackluster, uncommitted student to a scientist, a process that hinged on the intervention of adults who recognized his potential and, as he puts it, “took me seriously.”  There’s a moving poignancy to some of this account.  In school, his favorite teacher was Phillip Allen who taught English.  For some unknown reason, he was called "Ticker" Allen to distinguish him from another teacher also named Allen who was called “Tocker.”
Ticker Allen was perhaps the worst teacher in the school, at least for small boys whose innate need to read Shakespeare was very hard to uncover. . . . Everyone else hated English.  I looked forward to it.  I felt such sympathy with that quiet man sadly trying to teach us something he loved. . . .  But I look back and wonder if Ticker Allen ever knew how much his classes meant to me.  (p. 59)
What a beautiful, profound phrase – that quiet man sadly trying to teach us something he loved.  And how painful that Ticker Allen may have never known his influence.

As Thomson describes it, his transition from school to university was awash in teenage angst.  The drama and conflicting emotions embedded in this brief, matter-of-fact description almost beggar the imagination.
I fell in unrequited love with the girlfriend of a best friend (he was off in the army), failed in a competitive examination to win a scholarship to Cambridge, and was accepted to read zoology at the University of Birmingham.  (p. 59)
Once at Birmingham, Thomson discovered he could succeed adequately without trying – “Life was one long party . . . .”  (p. 60)  That is, until he was captured by one tutorial assignment to write an essay about the process of neural transmissions.  It was an issue that, unbeknownst to Thomson, had no answer in the early 1960s.  He worried the issue to death, discovering that the challenge, even without an answer, was “exhilarating, a real-life mystery story with me as detective.”  (p. 60)  At one point, in his research, he consulted with a resident fellow in his hall, a physiologist who clearly took him seriously and ultimately steered him to research in zoology.

His transition to graduate study at Harvard was partly because his acceptance to the University of Oxford came with no financial assistance, and also because Harvard offered an opportunity to study with the renown vertebrate zoologist Alfred Sherwood Romer.  Not surprisingly, Thomson discovered a truth about graduate education, one learned by countless others who chose a graduate institution because of who was teaching there:  “Romer was one of the very great men of American science, so naturally I did not see a lot of him:  he was always off lecturing or collecting fossils in South America.”  (p. 61)

Rather, Thomson writes, his real graduate education took place at the regular afternoon coffee klatches with those paleontology professors who were around, technical staff, and students.  They would gather in an outside stairwell at the Museum of Comparative Zoology where they could smoke.  “This is where I learned paleontology and evolution, not in the classroom.”  (p. 62)

At some point, whether in graduate school or in the ensuing couple of years, when he, after earning his Ph.D., married and returned to London for a stint at the University College, London as a temporary lecturer in zoology, Thomson took “control of my own fate.”  “From this mysterious moment, . . . , I felt free to follow my own interests wherever they would take me.  I was independent of any fashion, fad or faction. . . .  I had freedom to tackle my own choice of biological mysteries.”  (p. 62-63)  What a heady realization.

But, actually, it’s the second paragraph of this essay that perhaps captures best what attracts me to Thomson’s sensibility and his prose with its flow, understatement, and irony.
My grandfather had a brass microscope, and on rare occasions, when a very small child, I was allowed to help him set it up and to look through it. . . .  I wish I could report that my grandfather and I had a lot of fun with that microscope, but he was a disagreeable man and only got it out to amuse himself, with me and my sister as an audience.  Little did he realize that his selfish displays put me on course for a life in science.  (p. 57)

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