Righting wrongs & reading writings

Now this story is not invented, and reality is always more complex than invention: less kempt, cruder, less rounded out. It rarely lies on one level. – The Periodic Table by Primo Levi

Today I would like to firstly share a book recommendation: The Periodic Table by Primo Levi. Levi, born in Turin, Italy in 1919, was a chemist by training and a writer by necessity. He also happened to be Jewish. The Periodic Table (1975) contains, chapter by chapter – each named after an element that featured in Levi’s life, work or imagination – short stories, memories and anecdotes: ranging from the history and ancestry of his own family, to the story of a lone lead miner, the attempts at finding closure after surviving the concentration camp at Auschwitz, all the way to the life-affirming story of a single atom of carbon. You don’t have to be a chemist (although you can be) to enjoy the humour, the writing style and the humanity of this collection. It would make a good pairing with the psychologist Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning (1946; the original German title …trotzdem Ja zum Leben sagen more literally means “Yes to Life despite it all”), a different survivor’s account of Auschwitz.


Primo Levi – image copied from Nature

And on another more literary than scientific note: I had the opportunity to attend a talk by Brett Benedetti, an Associate Editor at Nature Medicine. He explained the processes that manuscripts go through when they are received by the journal’s editorial team and what “tricks” authors can use to give their manuscripts a better chance. Among these were so-called “pre-submission enquiries”, which are letters (i.e. e-mails) that potential authors can send in advance of their manuscript to double check whether their work will be appropriate to the journal. In many cases this may save a lot of time if the answer to the enquiry is a resounding “no”: the work can be revised or immediately sent to a different journal instead, without going through the time-consuming process of submitting the entire manuscript.

The most common reason that papers are rejected from leading journals such as Nature, Science or Cell is that they are not “novel” enough. After this talk I think I have understood a little better what exactly is meant by novel: if you imagine knowledge in a scientific field as a two-dimensional line or arrow, it is never a smooth line. There are always gaps and, maybe more often than not, branches that come to a sudden halt. So something that is novel and publishable in high-impact journals contains work that pushes this arrow further and does not merely fill in the preceding gaps. This kind of work, of course, is no less important and needs to be done rigorously, perhaps even more so than those types of experiments that are novel.

Lastly, when asked by the audience about his own career path into scientific editing/publishing, Benedetti replied that he had had no experience in this field whatsoever (apart from the scientific prerequisites of a PhD and post-doc as a neuroscientist). I found this surprising but also highly encouraging.


2 thoughts on “Righting wrongs & reading writings

  1. good to see that you’ve discovered primo levi……. I remember doing the same myself when I too was in the early throws of a PhD. My sense is that being able to work in science without the constraints of formal exams at the end can liberate the educated mind to explore precisely that type of new territory. Or perhaps I’m just blathering there (as usual)…. Have you had a look at any of feynman’s stuff (musings) yet? I suspect you’d either love it or hate it.

    Hope all is going well.


    • Hi Martin,
      Yes, I definitely enjoyed Levi – and I’m glad I’m in good company with that opinion. Did you ever read “Advice to a Young Scientist” by Peter Medawar? Also quite good, but maybe a tad too prescriptive.
      No, haven’t read any of Feynman’s writings yet, but I still have three and a half years of PhD to go – so there’s still time!
      Science is going alright for me actually: I have some data and some of it is even quite encouraging. What more could I ask for.
      Hope you and your Pseudomonas are doing equally well.
      Warm wishes,


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