Grandpa's biology - 15


" the baby is cute, the mother a monster and I'm afraid that the
ugliness of the one will mask the beauty of the other " etc

1. In autumn 1968, the laboratory director said to Grandpa: "You've been here for several years now. You must publish something to prove your existence". Grandpa set to work, starting as follows: In the beginning was a hypothesis. This hypothesis is right or wrong, etc. etc. Just as he told me the story. Just as I wrote it down. Once the article was finished (it was entitled: "Le fonctionnement de l'organisme vivant" - Function of the living organism), the director sent it to several specialists of his acquaintance. For a scientific document to be published, two specialists must give their agreement. This is the result of these consultations (according to Grandpa):

- The first specialist: "The baby is cute, the mother a monster and I'm afraid that the ugliness of the one will mask the beauty of the other:" In fact, this geneticist himself had a hypothesis concerning the mode of action of plant hormones, a remarkably sophisticated "molecular" hypothesis which, unfortunately, had revealed nothing under experiment. He would have liked this hypothesis to use Papy's experimental work, which Grandpa suggested in the form of a contradictory publication, proposing a single baby with two possible mothers, with this conclusion: "Dear reader, if you also have an explanation to suggest, please send it in". A proposal refused and no signature given.

- The second specialist: "This is a courageous piece of work but…". Grandpa never knew the rest of the comment which started off so well. No signature.

- The third specialist came from Paris to give his opinion: "I don't see why the hypothesis should be wrong. I find the experimental verification very clever, but…". and since the rest was a long time in coming, Papy asked questions to try and understand this "but..." In fact, for this gentleman, who was otherwise perfectly decent, the title was pretentious and the hypothesis was either 10 years too late or 10 years too early..., unpublishable. If his signature was required, the title must be changed and the hypothesis eliminated… which should not be difficult because the demonstration was indirect. This man was a chess champion. Grandpa suggested a game of chess to reach a decision. Proposal refused. Still no signature.

- The fourth specialist came with his leading assistant. He read the work carefully, found nothing to say about the experimental part, but did not wish to give a final judgement on a hypothesis which did not bother him personally: "It is possible that this hypothesis is right, and even if it isn't right, it at least makes us aware of the fact that so far no real synthesis has been made in biology". Having asked a series of relevant questions, he turned to his assistant who had remained in the shadows and said to him: "Dear friend, you, who have studied this work much more closely than myself, would you write ‘passed for publication’, and sign it?". Phew! a first signature! Long live first assistants.

2. All this took several months. In February 1969, at the request of the laboratory director, Grandpa started to rewrite his article, with the new title of "Several aspects of host-parasite relations relative to treatment with indolacetic acid and gibberellic acid". This would take a couple of hours according to the director, but in fact took a year. For one good reason: it was not the same work. Certain experiments had to be eliminated and others added.

One year later, the laboratory directory, apparently satisfied, wrote in his annual activity report: "The work continued to study the role played by regulatory factors in the evolution of host-parasite relations has demonstrated:
- the global, non-specific nature of the regulation performed by both auxin and gibberellin;
- the permanent interaction of these substances which leads to a question of balance in the strict sense of the term;
- the existence of direct relations between auxin/gibberellin balance and the plant's general physiological status;
- the basic role of the plant's general physiological status in evolution of the disease;
- the level of hormonal imbalance provoked by the parasite in the affected tissues".

This new version was sent to the "Annales de l'INRA", a journal in which he wanted it published, with the pertinent knowledge that it would perhaps be difficult. "There will certainly be some more modifications to make, but we'll see…". The result was not long in arriving.

21 April 1970… The director of the Annales in question, wrote:

"This work should be held up as an example of what not to publish. The writing is vague and imprecise. The author uses ideas such as hormone balance and physiological balance, which mean nothing, particularly at a time when work is moving towards molecular regulatory mechanisms. Some people don't realise that physiology is an experimental science which cannot be satisfied with oral explanations. Certain sentences give the impression that the author is conscious of these weaknesses. The illustration is poor. All the details will disappear during type-setting. No serious scientific publication would accept this piece of work for publication. This type of article would cause the greatest wrong to the Annales de l'INRA in the scientific community".

23 April 1970… the laboratory director, furious, told Grandpa who had his colleagues read this criticism:

"You should not laugh about this criticism. It has some very relevant points. In fact, it is a slap in the face for you. You don't seem to want to understand that we live in a system where there are big people and little people and the little ones must know how to back down. This is the last time I'll say this to you: You back down or get out! Publish your story in ten or fifteen years!".

30 April 1970…... Grandpa is fed up with all this carry on.

Dear Sir,
Although your criticism of my work is surprising in its violence, I am, however, ready to accept the grounds for this. I have been studying hormone action for 7 years, at a time when, it is true, the trend is towards molecular study of cell regulation phenomena. You may be sure that I am up to date with the literature. Like you, I am conscious that the phenomena involved in intermediate metabolism cannot contradict the basic reactions which govern them.
However, although it must be acknowledged that today the tendency is to ignore ideas of hormone balance and physiological balance acquired using traditional methods, I have never found in the literature any demonstration of experiments proving that these concepts are baseless.
I would therefore be grateful if you would send me the references you may have acquired on this subject, when you have the time. Biology is an experimental science which cannot be satisfied with oral explanation, so you will understand that, without proof of what you say, and in the light of the results obtained, I must continue to think that ideas of balance and regulation are indeed two aspects of the same problem… Thank you in advance.

2 September 1970… Grandpa.

Dear Sir,
Please find enclosed a copy of the letter I sent you on 30 April last, and to which I have not yet received a reply.
Please excuse my insistence, but our respective conclusions concerning the value of concepts of balance are such that our exchanges, at a time when the trend is moving towards a molecular study of regulation phenomena, are eminently instructive.

16 September 1970… the director of the Annales.

Dear Sir,
I thought I had replied to you before the holidays, but preparations for the Strasbourg conference prevented me from doing so. Now I no longer remember your work well enough to make more constructive criticism. The impression I have is that you proposed a multitude of hypotheses without experimental proof and that you included in your conclusions phenomena as different as fungal and viral infection.
I have no doubt that these various pathological events alter hormone balance, but the literature is very poor on this subject and gives us only poor isolated information. It is therefore important to perform in-depth experimental analysis in each case. You doubtless know this etc. And, after explaining very politely how to approach a subject as serious as that of hormone action: Yours sincerely…

2 October 1970… the laboratory director, to the director general of the INRA with whom he had already spoken on the "Grandpa" problem:

On 31 March 1971, the work contract signed between the Director General of the INRA and Grandpa led to the performance of work concerning both parties. I therefore have the honour to ask that this contract be terminated on 31 March 1971.

presentation/contentsa work of popularizationstory of modern biologythe point of view of French citizenssome basic concepts to recallgrandpa's hypothesishow to verify this hypothesisfirst testsevolution of plants according to auxin and gibberellin treatmentshost-parasite relationsaction of the fungus on the plantaction in return of the plant on the fungusaction of the virus on the plantaction in return of the plant on the virusa plant subjected to double attack by both fungus and virusthe scientific debatethe Peter principleconclusion - answer to some questionsimages

Grandpa's biology - 15