Click to follow
Outside their own habitat, scientists, as a species, are little understood. If they feature in popular awareness at all, it is through a limited set of media stereotypes. With a few exceptions, if scientists are not mad or bad, they are personality-free, their measured tones and formal reports implying ways of thinking and working far removed from the intellectual and emotional messiness of other human activities.

We embarked on these conversations as an attempt to redress the balance, to give a rare glimpse of the human reality of scientific life. So vividly does the force of each personality spill out that these interviews give the lie to the notion that science is an "inhuman" activity. Scientists think and feel about their work using the same psychological apparatus as the rest of us.

These conversations show that it is possible for non-scientists to gain a meaningful sense of how scientists tick; or at least as meaningful as the glimpse most of us get from listening to a poet or painter reflect upon their work. The human qualities of science come over most strongly: its energy and imaginative richness; the frustration, love and despair which hold its practitioners in its thrall. ALISON RICHARDS AND LEWIS WOLPERT


Born 1923 CHEMIST Professor of Chemistry at Stanford University, California and art collector, poet and novelist

Djerassi practically invented the birth control pill and built up such an art collection that he could afford to donate dozens of works by Klee to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. His first novel, Cantor's Dilemma, which is set in the high-pressure world of cancer research, attempts to show science as it really is.

On failure: "Scientific research most of the time is just a series of failures. But something every once in a while works. So if you work on several topics at once, the likelihood is that even though you have some disasters and feel depressed, there is also something you feel good about."

On truth: "Fiction is almost the antithesis of science. Scientists never have the luxury of being able to say 'Ah, but I made it up.' That's verboten. So fiction is a wonderful luxury. You can even brag about it. When you say 'I made it up' people congratulate you! Scientists would kick you out."

On the ultimate compliment: "The pleasure of a real scientific insight is like an orgasm. But it's short. And after a while, the more important it is, the more obvious it becomes in the end. People ask why did you not think of it before? And then - and this is the ultimate com- pliment in science - they just accept it and forget whose insight it was. It becomes common knowledge."

On dirty washing: "Some people felt that my novel was washing dirty lab coats in public. I felt that a lab coat is only a lab coat when it gets dirty."

On the Nobel prize: "We overemphasize the importance of honours. Many people who have not gotten them deserve them just as much, but are not treated as well as they should be. Someone, I forget who, said quite correctly: 'The Nobel prize is good for science, but terrible for scientists.'"


Born 1919 INDEPENDENT SCIENTIST living and working in Cornwall, elected to Royal Society in 1974 Developed the Gaia hypothesis

Trained as a chemist, Lovelock worked at the Medical Research Council in London until 1961; thereafter he financed him- self through inventions and consultancies. The research or which he is best known is the quest for Gaia. It is a remarkable achievement to have developed a major theory about the world, outside conventional science. His measurements of chlorofluorocarbons led to the recognition of their effect on the ozone layer.

On tenure: "I worked for 20 years for the Medical Research Council. I was astonishingly well paid, given complete freedom.The one problem was tenure. It made me feel there were tramlines of inevitability all the way to retirement and the grave. I knew that nothing I did - short of something criminal, or seducing the director's daughter on the lawn - would get me dismissed. This was an awful feeling. I think any artist or novelist would understand it - it's not good for creativity."

On creativity: "A scientist is much more like a creative artist ... It's the only way of life they want, and nothing else. They don't think about where next week's money's coming from - at least, they shouldn't."

On starting out: "I remember the headmaster telling me 'Oh, you're a fool, Lovelock.The only people that can do science are those with private means or genius, and since you have neither, drop the idea at once.'"

On city life: "One of the problems nowadays is that 95 per cent of us live in cities and suffer sensory deprivation. How many people do you know who have seen the Milky Way recently at night?"

On the UK scientific establishment: "I've had virtually zero support."


Born 1927 MAMMALIAN DEVELOPMENTAL BIOLOGIST was Director of the MRC Mammalian Development Unit, now Principal Research Associate at Wellcome/CRC Institute, Cambridge

There are remarkably few notable women scientists. Anne McLaren is one of the exceptions. She read zoology at Oxford; in the Fifties she was associated with research leading to in vitro fertilisation. More recently, in a series of elegant experiments carried out with Elizabeth Simpson, she showed that the favoured view that maleness resided on a particular part of the Y chromosome was wrong. Her work has played a major role in making Britain pre-eminent in the area of mammalian developmental biology.

On starting out: "It was suggested that I should read English. I looked up some entrance papers and discovered that for English Literature you had to have read an awful lot of books ... zoology seemed to be something where one could probably answer the questions with minimum swotting."

On obsession: "I think I am obsessional. I'm prepared to go on banging my head against a brick wall for longer than it would be sensible to do so."

On competition: "I don't think I'm very competitive. It doesn't worry me very much if somebody gets a result which I might have got given another few months' work, providing I've got other things in the pipeline."

On the pleasure of research: "If one is presented with a pile of raw data and can turn it into a satisfying story, that's very enjoyable."

On fertilisation: "I remember asking people which they would feel was more their own, a baby they were carrying, even though the egg had been provided by another woman, or a baby born from their own egg which had been gestated by another woman. Most said they'd feel it was more their own if they'd given birth to it, whether or not it had been their egg."


Born 1928 IMMUNOLOGIST was Professor of Zoology at UCL, now Director of the Deutsches Rheuma Forschungs Zentrum in Berlin

A descendant of the physiologist J S Haldane, Avrion Mitchison is the youngest son of the writer Naomi Mitchison, whose brother J B S Haldane was a founder of biochemical and population genetics. Mitchison went up to Oxford to study zoology just as the science of immunology was beginning to develop, and was taught by Peter Medawar. He's known both for his directness and his kindness. But he also has a reputation for intellectual ruthlessness.

On aggression: "I don't buy the notion that by studying aggression in sticklebacks you can learn all there is to know about aggression in humans. But I do think that if you understand something about modern ethology, you will necessarily know more about human relationships ... once you start thinking about conduct in a rational way, you don't stop at animals, you start thinking about your own species too."

On altruism: "A lot of people are quite comfortable thinking through how to make a motor car, or why the bank rate goes up and down, but they're not at all comfortable about thinking through altruism, and that's the message of biology, that one should do both."

On ideas: "I think one's doing extremely well if one has a good idea once every, let's say, six months ... Good ideas come from logical relationships which one hadn't perceived before. Once there, they're crashingly obvious."

On the pleasure of research: "The conduct of an experiment from beginning to end, an experiment which starts with, I quote Peter Medawar, 'the act of creation'. Not all experiments you think of are good experiments, but thinking of one is just wonderful, eureka! It's fantastic."


1920 to 1992 BIOCHEMIST was director of the Glynn Research Foundation, Cornwall Nobel prize winner

The late Peter Mitchell was awarded the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1978. He built a personal laboratory and set up the Glynn Research Foundation, a registered charity, to promote fundamental biological research for the benefit of humanity. His approach to all scientific problems, and to life in general, was original, humane and positive.

On a gentle art: "It's my feeling that the public doesn't understand very much about the real process of scientific investigation, so probably it's good that some of us, to get our bread and butter, have got to convey to the public ... that science is a wonderful cultural activity. It is a gentle art, and there's no reason why it can't be practised in a house in the countryside."

On the mind: "I've often thought that the human mind is a bit like a garden. You prepare it, you plant things there, and it's a garden partly of facts, and partly of ideas. You keep re-arranging it, and that's really quite hard work."

On being wrong: "Being wrong in science is often much more fun than being right, because the next day you wake up with a new horizon, with a new set of priorities for the next attack you're going to make."

On the Nobel prize: "Becoming a Nobel prize winner tends to put a certain distance between you and your colleagues, this is something I've regretted. 'Winning' is not a good word really, because the fact that such a prize comes to you is hardly of your doing. I was especially grateful because the colleagues who presumably worked quite hard to vote that prize in my direction, had initially totally disagreed with my hypothesis. I was enormously heartened by that, and my feeling about human nature was tremendously boosted. You love your fellow human beings even more."


Born 1929 EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGIST Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology and Biology at Harvard

Most scientists are committed reductionists, and modern biology attempts to reduce its mysteries to explanations at the molecular level. Richard Lewontin, however, is a vigorous opponent of reductionism, particularly hostile to the extension of the reductionist approach to justify biological determinism - the idea that behaviour is controlled by genes. As a Marxist and critic of much that the scientific establishment holds dear, one might expect him to be uncomfortable in a professorship at one of the United States' most august universities.

On natural entities: "When scientists break up the world into bits and pieces, they think they're breaking things up into natural entities, but they're not. They're breaking them up into the bits and pieces that they see by their own training; by their ideology; by the way they've been taught to see the world. That doesn't mean those bits and pieces are the real bits and pieces."

On IQ: "If it is a social construct, then we have an interesting problem, the heritability of a social construct."

On Darwin: "Scientists see nature reflected in the mirror of social relations ... Darwin got his ideas about selection from his social milieu. His income came from investments in shares. He understood notions of selection, survival of the fittest, differential reproduction of capital, and so on."

On prizes: "I believe the work some of us are trying to do is distorted and warped by prizes ... very able people are not crazy enough to devote their lives to really hard problems because fame resides in solving problems."

On Harvard: "People have to say, 'He can't be entirely a crackpot, he's a professor at Harvard, so maybe we ought to pay attention to what he says.'"


Born 1924 PHARMACOLOGIST Emeritus Professor of Analytical Pharmacology at King's College Nobel prize winner

Beta-blockers have revolutionised the treatment of coronary heart disease and high blood pressure. Cimetidine has saved thousands of patients with stomach ulcers from surgery. Sir James Black invented both drugs and was awarded the Nobel prize in medicine in 1988. After qualifying in medicine, he switched to research and physiology; since then he has moved back and forth between universities and the pharmaceutical industry.

On fight, fright and flight: "The sympathetic nervous system adjusts our behaviour to emergency situations, to severe exercise, to fight, fright and flight. The prevailing thinking was that every reaction involving this peripheral nervous system had survival value ... The project which I set out on took the opposite view; namely that it had survival value only if you were fit. But if you had damaged coronary arteries, for example, the reactions which in health helped you to escape from your prey or your problem would now embarrass you."

On working in industry: "I was constantly rebelling, challenging the assumptions they made. I challenged their practices, I was awful. But on the other hand, I wasn't grumbling. I was always suggesting alternatives."

On questions: "I ask questions of chemists and physiologists which are quite preposterous. I don't seem to mind being thought stupid ... I think in so far as what I've done has led to things, they've involved turning something around. My brain is always challenging the accepted view."

On social life: "My approach to life generally is quite timid. I can get boisterous, and argumentative, but it can be a nightmare anticipating that I have to have an ordinary conversation. Cocktail parties I find very trying."


Born 1929 IMMUNOLOGIST AND NEUROBIOLOGIST Chairman, Neurobiology Dept, Scripps Research Institute, California Nobel prize winner

Edelman's first project, to unravel the structure of antibody molecules which enable the body to recognise and deal with foreign substances such as viruses and bacteria, won him a shared Nobel prize in 1972. He then moved into embryonic development ... he made a major contribution by identifying special adhesive molecules which play a key role in morphogenesis, the moulding of embryonic forms. Now he is devoting enormous time and effort to the brain, in particular to understanding consciousness itself, and has set up a new institute near San Diego.

On qualifications: "I have a licence to practise medicine in two states, although I'd warn anyone, even an emergency victim, to stay away."

On solutions: "Any scientist who says he solved anything on his own has a problem. I'm reminded of the man who got a prize and said, 'If I might quote Newton, "If I've seen so far, it's because I stood on the shoulders of giants" - if I've seen so far, it's because I looked over the heads of pygmies.'"

On pleasure: "If you've been filling in the tedium of existence by blundering around a lab ... and wondering how you're going to get the answer, and something really glorious happens that you couldn't possibly have thought of, that has to be a remarkable pleasure ... in the same sense that you can make a baby laugh when you bring an object out of nowhere."

On discovery: "There is a group of scientists who are kind of voyeurs, they have almost a lustful feeling of excitement when a secret of nature is revealed ... what I'd like to know above all, before I go into eclipse and oblivion, is how we can be aware of things, conscious, and how the world fits together. As a scientist you realise this is hopelessly ambitious."