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23 November 2015 @ 08:35 pm
A Sixth Sense by Michael Oristaglio and Alexander Dorozynski  
I was given A Sixth Sense while on a work visit to Schlumberger's research centre in Cambridge. It is a biography of Henri-Georges Doll, the brother-in-law of the two Schlumberger brothers who founded the company, and the key technical and scientific mind behind the company's development of well-logging techniques upon which its success is, in part, based. It must be said, I went into it with fairly low expectations, reasoning that any history a major global company gives you as a freebie is going to have more than a little of the hagiography about it.

I was pleasantly surprised. As far as I can tell it is an honest attempt at a biography, since adopted by the company, rather than something commissioned by them. That said, it is clear, especially in the later chapters, that the necessity to keep on the right side of the Schlumberger family in order to access records means that some aspects of company politics have had to be alluded to in passing, rather than examined in detail. Pierre Schlumberger's time as the head of the company was presumably troubled, but this is visible only as a few passing references to a difficult personality and then his sudden removal from control. Doll himself suddenly ceases to have active control of the Ridgefield Research centre that he founded, and moves to Manhattan to become chairman of the board but, it would appear, is a chairman in name rather than actual fact. He commented ruefully that decisions were made and apparently signed off by him without his even being aware of them. The politics behind this demotion dressed as promotion are not discussed.

Where the book is excellent though is in discussing Doll's early years of technical innovation, as he seeks develop the use of electrical resistivity to help locate oil-bearing layers in exploratory bore holes. As well as being a discussion of scientific discovery, this is an interesting look at the conduct of science in a commercial setting, where the need to be profitable (or at least solvent) has a strong bearing on the direction and pursuit of research. All this plays out against the backdrop of Europe in the first half of the 20th century, including an ill-fated collaboration with Russia (which ultimately ends when the head of Schlumberger's Russian branch is arrested, his fate at the hands of the regime only finally revealed decades later) and the company's flight to America and participation in the American war effort.

It is a flawed book, but its flaws are those of historians constrained by their sources and the wishes of the living, not of writers for hire for a global corporation. As gifts in corporate goodie bags go, this was pretty classy.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/178825.html.