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The Road to Stockholm


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    From the Chemical and Engineering News, American Chemical Society, September 16, 2002, Volume 80, Number 37)



      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 0-19-850912-X)

      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 prizewinners.

      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 processes.

      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 handicaps."

      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 study science.

      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 Association), no. 82, September 2002, pp. 20-21, by Kate Crennell

      "... the book is very good value for money, a well produced hardback for 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 Nobel 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 by a physical chemist and informed by his own outstanding career as a scientist, as well as some 70 interviews with Nobel Laureates, is engaging, rich with anecdote, and full of detail. István Hargittai provides an engaging account of the dynamics of nomination, lobbying, nationalistic interests, and the attendant secrecy that surrounds the nomination process. We also learn about the vicissitudes of the prizes at different times--for example, during World War II Hitler interdicted the Prizes for Germans on the basis that one had been awarded to a German pacifist a few years before. The geographical distribution of scientists who have won prizes is perhaps not too surprising: there is a disproportionate number of scientists from the USA, the UK, Germany, and Hungary, with only a few winners from Japan, Spain, or the former USSR. Such variation undoubtedly reflects national investment in science, the primacy of science 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. Indeed, according to Peter Medawar, humility is not a useful characteristic at this level of scientific pursuit. Generalisations are less easy to make, however, about the process of scientific discovery itself. Hargittai suggests that the diversity of research approaches precludes any simple characterisation. 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, but 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 because they were premature and therefore not adequately recognised, or because of 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 had a justifiable claim. Sometimes such omissions resulted from the fact that each prize is limited to three recipients, but in other instances, seem simply to be egregious errors--for example, the award for the discovery of insulin went to Frederick Banting and John Macleod, whereas Charles Best was overlooked.

      Although The Road to Stockholm is factual and reliable, it has the flavour of a lengthy conversation with an intelligent and engaging friend. In that sense, it is somewhat idiosyncratic, even though engaging. Hargittai recognises this idiosyncrasy in his citation of a story about Leo Szilard, who, in putting together some materials on the Manhattan Project, remarked 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 the 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; Istvan Hargittai tells it with gossipy aplomb and more than 100 interviews with living laureates."

      "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 awards, including Einstein for the law of photoelectric effect. Were German scientists somehow superior? Hargittai points out that Swedish science had 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 Nobel prizes after the German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, then being detained by the Nazis, was awarded the peace prize in 1936. Nevertheless, three German 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 excerpt:
      "Therefore, Hargittai is certainly a master."

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