Spufford, Francis. Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin. London: Faber and Faber, 2003. ISBN 0-571-21496-7.
It is rare to encounter a book about technology and technologists which even attempts to delve into the messy real-world arena where science, engineering, entrepreneurship, finance, marketing, and government policy intersect, yet it is there, not solely in the technological domain, that the roots of both great successes and calamitous failures lie. Backroom Boys does just this and pulls it off splendidly, covering projects as disparate as the Black Arrow rocket, Concorde, mid 1980s computer games, mobile telephony, and sequencing the human genome. The discussion on pages 99 and 100 of the dynamics of new product development in the software business is as clear and concise a statement I've seen of the philosophy that's guided my own activities for the past 25 years. While celebrating the technological renaissance of post-industrial Britain, the author retains the characteristic British intellectual's disdain for private enterprise and economic liberty. In chapter 4, he describes Vodaphone's development of the mobile phone market: “It produced a blind, unplanned, self-interested search strategy, capitalism's classic method for exploring a new space in the market where profit may be found.” Well…yes…indeed, but that isn't just “capitalism's” classic method, but the very one employed with great success by life on Earth lo these four and a half billion years (see The Genius Within, April 2003). The wheels fall off in chapter 5. Whatever your position may have been in the battle between Celera and the public Human Genome Project, Spufford's collectivist bias and ignorance of economics (simply correcting the noncontroversial errors in basic economics in this chapter would require more pages than it fills) gets in the way of telling the story of how the human genome came to be sequenced five years before the original estimated date. A truly repugnant passage on page 173 describes “how science should be done”. Taxpayer-funded researchers, a fine summer evening, “floated back downstream carousing, with stubs of candle stuck to the prows, … and the voices calling to and fro across the water as the punts drifted home under the overhanging trees in the green, green, night.“ Back to the taxpayer-funded lab early next morning, to be sure, collecting their taxpayer-funded salaries doing the work they love to advance their careers. Nary a word here of the cab drivers, sales clerks, construction workers and, yes, managers of biotech start-ups, all taxed to fund this scientific utopia, who lack the money and free time to pass their own summer evenings so sublimely. And on the previous page, the number of cells in the adult body of C. elegans is twice given as 550. Gimme a break—everybody knows there are 959 somatic cells in the adult hermaphrodite, 1031 in the male; he's confusing adults with 558-cell newly-hatched L1 larvŠ.

May 2004 Permalink