The Experimental Life
Investigative Pathways: Patterns and Stages in the Careers of
Experimental Scientists. Frederic Lawrence Holmes. xxii +
225 pp. Yale University Press, 2004. $35.
The late Larry Holmes was, to put it simply, our best historian of
experiment. His death last year was a major loss to the
history-of-science community. Using published sources, laboratory
notebooks, correspondence and, where possible, personal interviews,
he gave us extraordinary accounts of the experimental work of
Antoine Lavoisier, Claude Bernard, Seymour Benzer and Hans Krebs,
and of what has been called "the most beautiful experiment in
biology"—Matthew Meselson and Franklin Stahl's
demonstration of how DNA replicates. Now we have the excellent short
volume Investigative Pathways (published
posthumously), which provides us with generalities about
the experimental life that Holmes gleaned from those studies. These
conclusions are amply supported with details from his earlier works
and also serve as a very nice introduction to them. Here Holmes
examines experimental careers from the broadest scale—what he
calls "investigative pathways"—down to the fine
structure of the "Aha!" or "Eureka!" moments.
This is a book that I will use in my own work.
Although Holmes focuses on those who have made significant
contributions, he suggests that his observations apply to almost all
scientists. This claim is supported by the work of the other
historians he cites and by Jed Z. Buchwald's afterword to the book;
also, my own experience in science confirms it.
Holmes notes that even important scientists take a considerable
period of time to acquire mastery in a particular fairly narrow area
The older heroic image of the great scientist as one who
possesses from the beginning more profound, unerring insight than
those already active in the field, who takes up from an entirely
original point of view problems that have stalled his predecessors,
or that they have failed to notice as problems, can no longer be
Because of the time needed to develop expertise, scientists tend to
continue working in a single area for a substantial length of time,
perhaps even throughout their lives. Hans Krebs, for example, spent
almost his entire career working on intermediary metabolism. Holmes
points out that this concentration on a single relatively narrow
area of research is a very effective strategy, allowing scientists
to recycle their expertise.
At the much shorter time scale, Holmes discusses momentary flashes
of insight or discovery. Although both scientists and historians
often give accounts that support the existence of such dramatic
moments, he shows that what may appear to be a sudden break from the
past sometimes turns out on closer examination to be a progression
of small steps. He cites the work of Howard Gruber, who believes
that memory simplifies the past, conflating the single most powerful
of a series of similar experiences with that sequence. Holmes notes
that Seymour Benzer, in an account written 11 years after the event,
remembers his work on the mapping of the T4 bacteriophage as a
sudden insight: "To me the significance of this result was now
obvious at once." However, when Holmes and Benzer examined
Benzer's laboratory records for that period, they found that the
series of events leading to that insight were spread over a period
of 15 months. Holmes also reports that Krebs denied that any of his
discoveries took place in a short period of time. However,
Holmes presents other instances in which a discovery does seem to
have occurred within a very short span—for example, James D.
Watson's insight concerning the structure of DNA. He concludes that
in fact, the Eureka view and the notion that creative thinking is a
slower growth process are not opposed and mutually exclusive ideas,
and that we must keep this in mind when studying the fine structure
of investigative pathways.
Holmes also discusses several recent trends in the study of science.
Commenting on the problem of presenting the complexity of the
technical content and argument of science (something that has
disappeared from much of contemporary history of science) and on the
view that science is merely a social construction, Holmes remarks,
"If we are to truly understand experimental practice, however,
we cannot evade that problem, or be satisfied with surrogate
solutions that would tell us that even the knowledge pursued or
acquired by . . . towering intellects is merely constituted by
social processes." Commenting on the current view that science
is purely local, he refers to his own histories of experimenters:
Each story is unique, local and personal. To that extent I
agree with the constructionist viewpoint that all scientific
knowledge originates in local, contingent circumstances.
Told at a local level alone, however, such stories have
little meaning. Each of these stories is situated within
successively larger stories. Each episode is connected to
everything that the experimenter had previously experienced. . .
. None operated, even for a day or a moment, in isolation from
the contemporary state of the field in which he practiced. None
of the moves that we can follow him making from experiment to
experiment could have led to recognized achievements had his
thoughts and actions been based purely on local considerations.
Each story is, therefore, at once personal and unique, and
representative of features common to scientific research in
general. Each story is a small piece both in the individual
quest for a meaningful, well-spent life, and in the collective
advance of science.
A book review as short as this one can provide only brief glimpses of
the richness, complexity and nuance of Holmes's observations on
experimental practice. I strongly urge you to read this truly excellent
book in its entirety.—Allan Franklin, Physics, University of Colorado