If you thought that science was all about truth and black-and-white answer, Experiment Eleven: Dark Secrets Behind the Discovery of a Wonder Drug will show you that politics, personal rivalry, and money can combine to wrest a discovery from a brilliant young researcher, bring a small fortune to his scheming advisor, and even mislead the Nobel prize committee into awarding a prize to the wrong person. With a wily university board, unclear intellectual property laws, drug companies unduly close to researchers, and ugly personal vendettas, the story could read like detective fiction. Alas, I found it to be rather boring, even if it shows the precious lab notebook showing the “experiment 11” of the title.
Smart people are calling The Social Conquest of Earth a masterpiece, but I’m afraid I just did not get the point of the book. I suspect it is that we (humans) are meant to be social, and from this social instinct comes our strength — but I’m not sure that I got it right, or if I did that I saw a proper justification of it.
The book is divided into two parts, one about humans and the other about the author’s lifelong object of professional study, social insects. I struggled with the first part, despite the brilliant statement at the beginning that we have built a “Star Wars civilization with Stone Age emotions”. For instance, the author asserts that our level of intelligence cannot arise in the water because fire cannot exist in the water. OK, but isn’t it possible, in theory, to evolve a completely different kind of intelligence and civilization that does not use fire? Maybe not, but that’s never explained.
The second part was much more satisfying, especially the anecdotes of life as a scientist, including tasting ant poop (really!) and the jealousy against younger, brilliant colleagues — although he somehow manages to go back to how brilliant he is (and he is, but why trumpet it?) Still, I could not quite discern the thesis of the book or its justification.