Under the microscope: A wacky bunch, us scientists

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The Independent Culture
Dear Diary, sorry to bother you again. But I have been behaving badly. I have just received the proofs of our book. It contains the interviews that Allison Richards and I did on Radio 3 with scientists, and I think they are wonderful. Such self satisfaction and self praise is socially totally unacceptable, but I cannot help it. Worse still, I am going to use my column to promote our book. Shameless behaviour. But let me justify myself.

When we set out rather a long time ago to try and show the inner world of scientists and to explode the myth that they are mad or nerds or boring or incomprehensible or uncultured or all of these, what we had not expected is just how interesting the scientists that we interviewed would be and what wonderful stories they had to tell. They all have such remarkable and distinctive personalities. And very strong ones.

The evolutionary geneticist Richard Lewontin from Harvard is still a Marxist, resigned from the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, and says that he feels alienated from the scientific community. "I have little or nothing in common with my colleagues. We take the opposite point of view on almost everything ... on every issue we struggle." The Spanish scientist Antonio Garcia-Bellido virtually did his PhD by correspondence. James Lovelock, of Gaia fame, resigned from the Medical Research Council when he heard that he had got tenure because he could not bear the tramlines of inevitability. The prospect of a fixed career was just too depressing, so he worked independently from his home in Cornwall. Not far away was another great scientist working from his home, Peter Mitchell, who won the Nobel Prize for his work on how cells produce energy. How different is their style from the present large-group syndrome?

Another individualist is Sir James Black, our Nobel Laureate in Medicine for his discovery of beta-blockers. He hates big organisations but has a love of molecules. His description of how he made his discoveries makes it all look deceptively simple. And what about Sir James Lighthill, Britain's greatest applied mathematician this century, who uses his knowledge of fluid motion to swim safely around islands, calculating as he goes?

Early experience had a very important influence on many scientists and often they did not choose a career in science until quite late. Murray Gell-Mann, who invented quarks, was forced by his father to study engineering to begin with. Many refer to the key role of teachers or parents, but the embryologist Anne McLaren chose to study zoology for her Oxford entrance as it required so much less swotting than English.

Discoveries, like careers, are full of surprises. I am amazed by Gell- Mann's story of how he made a major advance due to a slip of the tongue in a lecture. Another particle physicist Sheldon Glashow describes just how crazy were the ideas and events that led to his discoveries. "It was like madness ... everybody's weirdest fancy was right." Gerald Holton sees genius as having the ability not to see barriers. His story of the early career of Einstein is thrilling; Einstein believed that his success was based on asking questions that children were taught not to ask, like the nature of space and time, and he commented that Michael Far-aday would have amounted to nothing if he had gone to college.

The pleasures of science are very varied. The geneticist John Cairns likes to work with bacteria because he enjoys the smell of the plates on which they grow. Michael Berridge likens science to golf, while Leroy Hood sees it as similar to mountain climbing. All love its beauty. Yet the chemist, Carl Djerassi, the inventor of the birth control pill, now writes novels and loves the freedom of being able to make things up. And another chemist, Roald Hoff-mann, has become a poet which he finds as hard as science.

I must confess that I stole the little joke at the beginning from a New Yorker cartoon about low self-esteem. It does not seem to apply to me at present.

! Lewis Wolpert's 'Passionate Minds - The Inner World of Scientists' will be published by OUP in September