Buy the Book
The Road to Stockholm
The following are reviews of the book that have appeared in the media.
Have you seen a review that is not featured here? Please let us know by
writing to reviews @ roadtostockholm.com.
Would you like to receive a review copy? You can do
so by sending a
request on your publication's letterhead - attention Molly Symmonds -
to Oxford University Press at the following mailing address or fax
- Laura Ikwild
Oxford University Press
198 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016
Fax (212) 726-6442
From the Chemical and Engineering News, American Chemical
Society, September 16, 2002, Volume 80, Number 37)
LIVES OF NOBEL SCIENTISTS
REVIEWED BY MITCH JACOBY
Have you ever wondered why some great scientists win Nobel Prizes and
others don't? Or whether Nobel Laureates tend to fit some sort of profile
based on upbringing, personality, and education? Maybe you've thought
about changes in lifestyle that come to prizewinners upon being thrust
into the Nobel limelight.
THE ROAD TO STOCKHOLM: NOBEL PRIZES, SCIENCE, AND SCIENTISTS, by István
Hargittai, Oxford University Press, 2002, 342 pages, $29.95 (ISBN
If you've ever spent time--even now--dwelling on these sorts of questions,
or if you're just hoping to win your own Nobel science prize some day,
then "The Road to Stockholm" is required reading.
István Hargittai doesn't quite set out to answer these questions directly
in his new book. Rather, by drawing upon a career filled with interviews
with some 70 Nobel Laureates, the Hungarian chemist-turned-writer lets
readers form their own answers by sharing with them an impressive
collection of anecdotes and interesting tidbits about the lives of
Conducted mainly during the 1990s, Hargittai's interviews reveal a world
of details about the background, family life, influence of mentors, and
other factors that shaped the lives of scientists who won Nobel Prizes.
His examination of documents such as those in the Nobel Archives provides
readers with a scorecard full of statistics and historical facts, and
offers a peek at some of the inner workings of the nominating and awarding
In a chapter addressing adversity, Hargittai points out that some
prizewinners grew up in relatively privileged and ideal environments--but
many did not. For example, Kenneth G. Wilson, who won the 1982 Nobel Prize
in Physics, is the son of Harvard University chemistry professor E. Bright
Wilson Jr. And D. Carleton Gajdusek, who was awarded the prize in
physiology or medicine in 1976, grew up in an intellectual setting where
he became acquainted with great scientists and their work early on.
In contrast, Roald Hoffmann's father was killed in 1943, when Hoffmann was
five years old. Hoffmann spent the years of World War II hiding with his
mother in Poland to avoid concentration camps, and his later childhood
continued to be chaotic. For a short while, he attended a Ukrainian school
and then switched to a school in Krakow. Later, he studied in a
displaced-persons camp in Austria, but by the fifth grade, he had to
switch again--this time to Munich. Each change in location brought a
change in the language spoken at school. Yet despite the turmoil and
tragedy of his youth, Hoffmann, who did not own a book until he was 16
years old, made great contributions to theoretical chemistry and was
awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1981.
Similar stories about hardship, poverty, or discrimination in the lives of
youngsters--which could have destroyed their educational
opportunities--are told by other prizewinners, especially those who lived
in Europe during World War II or in the U.S. during the Great Depression.
Hargittai writes, "I do not believe that handicap is a prerequisite for
the success of Nobel Laureates, rather, they prevailed in spite of these
When it comes to personalities, Nobel Prize winners come in all colors of
the rainbow. Some famous scientists are known for their assertiveness,
self-promotion, and high degree of self-confidence. But while those traits
can certainly thrust successful researchers toward center stage, where
they're sure to be noticed by their peers--and members of the nominating
committees--they are hardly prerequisites for winning a Nobel Prize. In
fact, some Nobel Laureates are known for their unobtrusive, soft-spoken
nature and for shying away from the spotlight.
Murray Gell-Mann, winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physics, is anything
but shy and understated. According to Sheldon L. Glashow, also a Nobel
Prize-winning physicist (1979), "Gell-Mann knows almost everything about
almost everything, and he is not averse to letting you know that he does
and you don't." Similarly, Gilbert Stork of Columbia University found that
his Harvard colleague, Robert Burns Woodward, who won the Nobel Prize in
Chemistry in 1965, "had an implicit belief that if he did not produce or
suggest something, it had no particular importance."
At the other end of the spectrum are Paul A. M. Dirac and John Bardeen.
Dirac, who was famous for his modest, quiet manner and for choosing a
career in physics because he doubted whether he had the aptitude for
electrical engineering, won the physics prize in 1933. Bardeen won two
physics Nobel Prizes: in 1956 and 1972. According to Hargittai, the
taciturn Dirac once was asked by physics Nobel Laureate Richard P. Feynman
how he felt upon discovering the Dirac equations. Rather than launching
into an account of his contributions to science, Dirac humbly replied,
"Good." End of conversation.
The day Bardeen and coworkers at Bell Labs discovered transistors--a
finding worthy of considerable excitement--all he managed to share with
his wife that evening was, "We discovered something today." In much the
same way, Bardeen met a colleague in a hallway after making his second
prizewinning discovery. The colleague sensed that Bardeen had something to
say, yet it took a while before Bardeen spoke up. Finally, he said, "Well,
I think we've explained superconductivity."
Based on extensive interviews with Nobel scientists, Hargittai documents
wide-ranging sources of motivation that may have led future prizewinners
to pursue careers in science. Chemistry Nobel Laureates William N.
Lipscomb (1976), Robert F. Curl Jr. (1996), and Paul D. Boyer (1997) were
turned on to science after having received chemistry sets at around age
10. And Paul de Kruif's 1926 book, "Microbe Hunters," about uncovering
nature's secrets, was cited by several scientists as inspiring them to
Influential teachers certainly played a key role in exciting many young
students to concentrate on science. An interesting example is Sophie
Wolfe, who was the manager of the science stockroom at Abraham Lincoln
High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., in the 1930s. Although Wolfe was not a
teacher per se, her after-school science clubs and teaching style
influenced a number of future prizewinners, including Arthur Kornberg, who
won the 1959 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and chemistry Nobel
Laureates Paul Berg (1980) and Jerome Karle (1985).
"The Road to Stockholm" is filled with interesting comparisons between
scientists who won Nobel Prizes and those who did not, and between
scientists whose lives were disrupted by Nobel fame and those who tried to
carry on with business as usual after standing in the international
spotlight. You won't find a universal recipe for winning science Nobel
Prizes in the book, but the variety of ingredients in these success
stories makes this a flavorful and interesting read.
EYES ON THE PRIZE Chemistry Nobel Laureates Curl (standing), Richard E.
Smalley (front row, second from left), and Sir Harold W. Kroto (to
Smalley's left) pose with colleagues Sean C. O'Brien (left) and James R.
Heath prior to 1996 Nobel Prize presentation in Stockholm.
From Crystallography News (British Crystallographic
82, September 2002, pp. 20-21, by Kate Crennell
"... the book is very good value for money, a well produced hardback
just under GBP20, ...If you are interested in the history and sociology of
science or just wondering how to groom your students to become future
prize winners buy this book."
From The Lancet (August 17, 2002 issue)
Scientific discovery and the Nobel prizes
The Nobel Prizes are just over 100 years old, and are awarded in physics,
chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, peace, and economics. The
science prizes are awarded for outstanding discoveries, rather than as
recognition of individuals, however distinguished. This volume, written
physical chemist and informed by his own outstanding career as a
as well as some 70 interviews with Nobel Laureates, is engaging, rich
anecdote, and full of detail.
István Hargittai provides an engaging account of the dynamics of
lobbying, nationalistic interests, and the attendant secrecy that
the nomination process. We also learn about the vicissitudes of the
at different times--for example, during World War II Hitler interdicted
Prizes for Germans on the basis that one had been awarded to a German
pacifist a few years before. The geographical distribution of scientists
have won prizes is perhaps not too surprising: there is a
number of scientists from the USA, the UK, Germany, and Hungary, with
few winners from Japan, Spain, or the former USSR. Such variation
undoubtedly reflects national investment in science, the primacy of
for young people in these countries, and traditions in research that have
translated in part into training grounds for young scientists.
Hargittai alludes what he perceives to be some general traits of science
laureates--drive and determination are identified as being crucial.
according to Peter Medawar, humility is not a useful characteristic at
level of scientific pursuit. Generalisations are less easy to make,
about the process of scientific discovery itself. Hargittai suggests that
the diversity of research approaches precludes any simple
With regard to whether there is life after the prize, once more,
unsurprisingly, variation is the answer. Some scientists have continued
productive research careers, others have gone off in new directions, and a
few have apparently found their competitive edge reduced sufficiently to
interfere with further productivity.
Of especial interest is a chapter about the scientists who might have,
did not win, the prize. Bruce Merrifield characterised the prizes as a
lottery, because of the size and quality of the candidate pool. Some
discoveries of unquestioned importance were never honoured, either
they were premature and therefore not adequately recognised, or because
the death of the investigator. The latter circumstance precluded award of
the prize for physiology or medicine to Oswald Avery, Colin MacLeod, and
Malclyn McCarty for the discovery of DNA as the genetic substance. Others
have, from time to time, been left out of prizes to which they perhaps
justifiable claim. Sometimes such omissions resulted from the fact that
prize is limited to three recipients, but in other instances, seem simply
be egregious errors--for example, the award for the discovery of insulin
went to Frederick Banting and John Macleod, whereas Charles Best was
Although The Road to Stockholm is factual and reliable, it has the flavour
of a lengthy conversation with an intelligent and engaging friend. In
sense, it is somewhat idiosyncratic, even though engaging. Hargittai
recognises this idiosyncrasy in his citation of a story about Leo
who, in putting together some materials on the Manhattan Project,
that "he was going to write down the facts. Not for publication, just for
the information of God. When his colleague commented that God might know
facts, Szilard replied that this might be so, but not 'this version'".
Within these constraints, the volume can be recommended as an interesting
visit to the world of the Nobels with a companion who, like some of the
subjects, may have a clinical variant of what he calls "Nobelomania".
Jeremiah A Barondess
From The Sunday Times (24 March, 2002 by John Cornwell)
A Beauty Contest for Brains
"The history of the Nobel prizes for science, first awarded in 1901, is an
absorbing chronicle of perseverance and triumph, rivalry and vanity;
Hargittai tells it with gossipy aplomb and more than 100 interviews with
"Hargittai's most intriguing theme is national politics. Allegations of
bias have been mooted down the years, until as recently as the award in
1995 to Mario Molina and F. Sherwood Rowland for their research on
depletion of the ozone layer - an issue of intense social and political
concern in Sweden."
"Up until 1921 German scientists accounted for almost 50 % of the
including Einstein for the law of photoelectric effect. Were German
scientists somehow superior? Hargittai points out that Swedish science
much stronger ties with German as opposed to American and British science
up to 1945. Germany invested more in education and research than its
rivals, and important scientific papers had for decades appeared in
German. Ironically, hundreds of Germany's best scientists were thrown out
in 1933 because they were Jews. Hitler banned Germans from accepting
prizes after the German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, then being detained
the Nazis, was awarded the peace prize in 1936. Nevertheless, three
nationals were awarded prizes in 1939."
"... by spotlighting the chosen handful, the prize demonstrates that
science is conducted not by faceless committees or caricature egg-heads,
but by dedicated individuals battling against an array of odds..."
From a Dutch publication NVOX (May, 2002 by Hans Bouma)
We are posting this review in its original
Dutch version as it's the only one we have. But here is a quick
"Therefore, Hargittai is certainly a master."
Do you know of a review of The Road to Stockholm that's not
featured here? Please let us know by writing to
[email protected] Thank you.
Sign the Guestbook
Last updated: July, 2002
web @ roadtostockholm.com