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The Strange Case of the Spotted Mice and Other Classic Essays on Science Paperback – 4 Apr 1996


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Product details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford Paperbacks; 1996 rep edition (4 April 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 019286193X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0192861931
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 1.7 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 577,524 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

Medawar on anything means genuine profundity, elegance and above all, joy. (Roy Herbert, New Scientist)

About the Author

Sir Peter Medawar, OM, 1915-87, was born in Rio de Janeiro and educated at Magdalen College, Oxford. He began research in H. W. Florey's department at Oxford in the early days of the development of penicillin. After professorships at Birmingham and University College London, he became Director of the National Institute for Medical Research. His scientific reputation is based mainly on his research in immunology, which helped make transplant surgery possible. In 1960 he won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his work on tissue transplantation. Elected to the Royal Society at the age of 34, he was also a Fellow of the British Academy - a rare honour for a scientist. Sir Peter wrote a number of books for a general audience, including Pluto's Republic (1982), TheLimits of Science (1985), and Aristotle to Zoos (1983, with Jean Medawar). A further collection of his essays, The Threat and the Glory (1990), was published after his death.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
This little bouquet of aphorisms, each one thought sufficiently important by its author to deserve a paragraph to itself, is taken from Pere Teilhard's The Phenomenon of Man. Read the first page
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Simon Barrett 'Il Penseroso' on 19 Oct. 2013
Format: Paperback
I feel impelled by the other, lukewarm review to come to this book's (and its author's) defence. In the words of an American reviewer

<This collection includes some of Medawar's most famous essays and debunkings, including his evisceration of psychoanalysis; "Is the Scientific Paper a Fraud?"; and his review of Teilhard's "Phenomenon of Man," which exposed a lot of prominent and self-important people -- many of them editors of powerful publications -- to be fools>

Of course you are better off getting hold of the individual volumes that Oxford have lamentably allowed to go OOP. In these switched-on days that should not present too much of an obstacle

Oh, and Richard Dawkins called him the wittiest of all science writers!
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Daddy on 11 July 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
An authoritative and very persuasive writer and thinker, but this is not his best book, or even his best book of essays.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 2 reviews
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Stroke of genius and other ironies 3 Mar. 2007
By Harry Eagar - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In his introduction (written in 1996), Stephen Jay Gould calls Peter Medawar "our century's greatest spokesman for the power and humanity of science." Certainly, he should rank near the top, but Medawar has never been as popular as some others.

It may be that his fearsomely sharp tongue frightens people. We think, If Medawar can be so scathing about (insert famous name), what might he say about us? Well, we're safe now. He died in 1987.

Or perhaps he is not romantic enough for us.

As an example of the first: "Disputants so naïve should abstain from public controversy."

Of the second: "There is poetry in science but also a lot of bookkeeping."

This collection includes some of Medawar's most famous essays and debunkings, including his evisceration of psychoanalysis; "Is the Scientific Paper a Fraud?"; and his review of Teilhard's "Phenomenon of Man," which exposed a lot of prominent and self-important people -- many of them editors of powerful publications -- to be fools.

Little wonder people were careful around Medawar.

However, he had a mild side. To me, "The question of the existence of God" is the least satisfactory. Medawar did not believe in a god, but he was (uncharacteristically, some might think) inclined to be somewhat wistful about those who did. One would have expected him to have brought them to book for their crimes.

Another reason Medawar's collections of essays may not have worn so well is that many were written for an occasion (often as a book review), which led him to restate his firm positions, such as that there is no such thing as a "scientific method." True, and it very much bears repeating to each new generation. But it does not bear repeating in the same volume so well.

It is too bad Medawar (a very busy man who won a Nobel for his research and was a director of important laboratories besides) never wrote a magnum opus. The collection of essays in "Pluto's Republic" is probably his most popular and solid. The essays in "The Strange Case of the Spotted Mice" do not hang together so well, although anyone who got to know Medawar through "Republic" will want to meet the man in person in "Son of Stroke" and "On living a bit longer," products of his long period of physical debility.

Medawar was among the first to expose the vapidity of Lacan and Foucault -- though in brief fashion -- and this is so surprising coming from an active scientist, who one would have thought had little time to be plowing through turgid tomes of dubious French "scholarship." But he was always interested in what C.P. Snow called "the two cultures," and he was not shy about lampooning the fatuities of overeducated scientific illiterates: "If a scientist were to cut his ear off, no one would take it as evidence of a heightened sensibility."

He died before the global warming hoax took hold, but he identified one of its vectors when he wrote "reporters want clear stories without the cagey reservations scientists are always introducing." Well, they used to do, but Medawar lived in a more careful age.

Surprisingly, toward the end of his life he was so incautious as to make predictions, four positive ones and one negative one.

"I roundly declare that within the next 10 years remedies will be found for multiple sclerosis, juvenile diabetes and at least two forms of cancer at present considered somewhat intractable" and "the doctrine of genetic elitism . . . is not thought likely . . . (to) ever again become a major factor in the causation of wars on a global scale."

He was mostly wrong, and, given that he was half-Arab, surprisingly so about that last one.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Great and funny read whether you're a scientist or not. 2 Oct. 2013
By Sharon Henning - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Peter Brian Medawar was a scientist (he died in 1987) who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960 for his work on graft rejection and acquired immune tolerance which fundamentally contributed to organ and tissue transplants.

He is also a really funny writer. (Richard Dawkins calls him “the wittiest of all science writers”- which proves that you can agree on some things with anybody.)

This is why a non science person like myself came to buy and very much enjoy a book geared towards scientists.

Even though his target audience is young, green behind the ears, science students at the colleges where he taught, his points are written in a format that even the most ignorant lay men (that would be me) can understand and laugh at.

He gives all sorts of advice from “How can I tell if I am cut out be a scientific research worker” to what to research on; how to equip oneself to be a better scientist; sexism and racism in science; the difference between younger and older scientists, and how to make a presentation without boring the audience into a coma.

(He advises practicing on children, whose attention spans he compares to mice. If they’re fidgeting and crawling all over each other, you’ve lost them. If they’re still and attentive, your presentation will pass muster with an adult audience as well.)

And he gives advice to the scientists who make up the audience of those lectures.

Scientists should behave in lectures as they would like others to behave in theirs. It is an inductive law of nature that lecturers always see yawns and a fortiori those hugely cavernous yawns that presage the almost complete extinction of the psyche.

A member of the audience thought to be an expert on the topic of the speaker's discourse is well advised to think of a question to ask in case the chairman turns to him and says, “Dr._, we have just a few moments for discussion, so why don’t you set the ball rolling?”

The person to whom this invitation is addressed cannot very well say, “I’m afraid I can’t-I was fast asleep,” but if he merely says, “What do you envisage as the next step in your research?” the audience will take it for granted that he was. (pg. 62)

Medawar gently guides these young men and women away from the temptation to cultivate an arrogant attitude-especially against older scientists.

He admonishes them to be careful not to assume that because they are experts in their field that they are experts on anything else. He warns them that non scientists believe one of two things about scientists. That:
“his judgment on any topic whatsoever is either (a) specially valuable or (b) virtually worthless...An attempt should nevertheless be made not to acerbate either condition of mind.
‘Just because I am a scientist doesn’t mean I’m anything of an expert on...’ is a formula for all seasons; the sentence may be completed in almost as many different ways as there are different topics of conversation. Proportional representation, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the fitness of women for holy orders, or the administrative problems of the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire...but when the subject is carbon dating or the likelihood of there being constructed a machine of perpetual motion, a scientist may allow himself the benefit of a few extra decibels to give his voice something of a cutting edge.”(pg 28)

I found his views on religion and God especially interesting. Not religious himself, he nevertheless contends that science is not qualified to make any assertive statement towards either.

There is no quicker way for a scientist to bring discredit upon himself and on his profession than roundly to declare...that science knows or soon will know the answers to all questions worth asking, and that the questions that do not admit a scientific answer are in some way "non questions" or “pseudo questions” that only simpletons ask and only the gullible profess to be able to answer...

....Philosophically sophisticated people know that a ‘scientific’ attack upon religious belief is usually no less faulty than a defense of it. Scientists do not speak on religion from a privileged position.. (pg. 31)

...Young scientists must however never be tempted into mistaking the necessity of reason for the sufficiency of reason. Rationalism falls short of answering the many simple and childlike questions people like to ask: questions about origins and purposes such as are often contemptuously dismissed as "non questions" or "pseudo questions", although people understand them clearly enough and long to have the answers. These are intellectual pains that rationalist-like bad physicians confronted by ailments they cannot diagnose or cure- are apt to dismiss as “imagination.” It is not to rationalism that we look for answers to these simple questions because rationalism chides the endeavor to look at all. (pg. 101)

An astute observation that I wish Richard Dawkins would wrap his mind around. It angers me that his books take up whole shelves of the science section in my local bookstore when his writings are philosophical NOT scientific. Science can only give us the sum of the parts, not the gestalt. It strives to explain “how”, not “why”.

And yet it’s those “simple questions” that imbue our life with meaning. Non sentient beings don’t ask those questions. Or turn to drugs, alcohol, or stay busy all the time in order to avoid them.

This book is short, a mere 100 small pages, but I’d recommend it to anybody science-minded or otherwise.
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