Love, intuition and women. Science would wither without them

Investigate the history of scientific discovery and you plunge into a wild labyrinth of ecstasies, hunches, chances, blunders and unsought ‘Eureka!’ moments

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As it sometimes does, last October the Nobel Committee for the prize in physiology or medicine split its award. Half the pot (of eight million Swedish kronor in all) went to the British-American neuroscientist John O’Keefe, the other to the Norwegian couple who have charted the grid cells in the brain that enable our pathfinding and positioning skills via a sort of “internal GPS”.

May-Britt Moser and Edvard I Moser first met at high school and have worked together over 30 years. Professor Moser (May-Britt) said after the Nobel nod: “It’s easy for us because we can have breakfast meetings almost every day.” Professor Moser (Edvard) stated: “We have a common project and a common goal … And we depend on each other for succeeding.”

“There were a lot of things that made me decide to marry Edvard,” the other Professor Moser has recalled. Not all had to do with neurological breakthroughs. Once, Edvard gave her a huge umbrella. Open it, he said. “So I opened it above my head, and it rained down small beautiful pieces of paper with little poems on about me.”

This week, another Nobel laureate in the same discipline – Sir Tim Hunt, 2001 – found himself in need of a titanium umbrella in order to fend off the media flak. The 72-year-old biochemist told a conference in South Korea that “girls” caused mayhem in the lab. “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.” Cue the avalanche of outrage that has now driven Sir Tim – married, by the way, to the distinguished immunologist Professor Mary Collins – out of his honorary post at University College, London. In Britain, where only 13 per cent of scientific and engineering professionals are female, his off-the-cuff “banter” has gone down like a tungsten (denser than lead) balloon.

So it should. Yet the champions of equality in science who have justly hooted at Sir Tim’s antique ditty might spare a thought for the Mosers’ partnership. The Norwegian pair are not alone in fusing personal commitment with top-grade scientific collaboration. Last year, in a fascinating study for Nature, Kerri Smith reported that, according to the US National Science Foundation, “just over one-quarter of married people with doctorates had a spouse working in science or engineering”. A 2008 survey found that the proportion of research posts that went to couples had risen from 3 per cent in the 1970s to 13 per cent.

Smith consulted a range of high-flying scientific double acts. They included the Taiwanese cell biologists Lily and Yuh-Nung Jan, who have collaborated since 1967. Lily Jan praised the joint progress made possible by a “very consistent long-term camaraderie”. After years of long-distance romance and research, physicists Claudia Felser and Stuart Parkin now live together in Germany with plum posts at the Max Planck Institutes in (respectively) Dresden and Halle. “Lufthansa and United Airlines will be very unhappy,” said Parkin.

These partnerships in life and lab follow a different, far more equal, pattern to the liaison of master and muse, once common in the arts. Scientists tend not to bother much with history. But the rising number of collaborating duos will know that they can hail as their forerunners the most intellectually fertile pairing of all: between Marie Sklodowska-Curie and Pierre Curie.

Marie had plentiful Hunts of her own to vanquish. In 1903, only a late objection by a Swedish mathematician with feminist sympathies prevented her first Nobel Prize, in physics, from going to Pierre and Henri Becquerel alone. Not that the Nobel selectors learned their lesson. Lise Meitner, who first explained the significance of nuclear fission, never got the call. When Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins shared the Nobel for their work on DNA in 1962, no mention was made of Rosalind Franklin (who had died in 1958). Her research into the double‑helix structure had made their triumph possible.

As any woman scientist will tell you, such neglect and condescension die hard and slow. Yet the atavistic Hunt and his denouncers share a common position. Both would banish Eros from the bench. Cases such as the Mosers suggest that, in some conditions, intimate bonds may even seed creativity. Expel love from the lab, and who knows what angels of deliverance might flee as well?

Besides, in science or any other pursuit, the same seeker can benefit at different stages both from solitary striving and intimate collaboration. You will find moving proof of this in the “autobiographical notes” that Marie Curie appended to her 1923 memoir of her husband. As a lonely Polish student in 1890s Paris, she relished her independence, even at the cost of cold, hunger and isolation in a freezing garret. She wrote: “I shall always consider one of the best memories of my life that period of solitary years exclusively devoted to the studies, finally within my reach, for which I had waited so long.”

Later, as she and Pierre experimented to isolate radium and investigate its properties in a tumbledown hut on the Paris School of Physics site, another kind of bliss took hold: “It was in this miserable old shed that we passed the best and happiest years of our life, devoting our entire days to our work.” Marie and Pierre’s shared quest embraced rapture as well as reason: “One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night; we then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles or capsules containing our products. It was really a lovely sight and one always new to us. The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights.”

Note the poetry. Sir Tim, in contrast, reveals himself as a strict dualist. Love and tears will ruin your results. On the one hand lies intellect, on the other emotion. As always, the female serves as proxy for the latter. Yet the binary mind in which Hunt believes no more exists in physics than in painting. Investigate the history of scientific discovery and you plunge into a wild labyrinth of Curie-style ecstasies, hunches, chances, blunders, windfalls, visions, guesses, serendipities and unsought “Eureka!” moments.

However, at the entrance to this theme park of happy accidents one statement should stand. Louis Pasteur said: “Chance favours only the prepared mind.” The intuitive breakthrough that rewrites all the rules happens to people who have toiled and failed, toiled again and failed better. Vision blesses the hardest workers. “I’m enough of an artist to draw freely on my imagination,” Einstein said in 1929. “Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” But he could get away with such New Agey bromides only because he was Albert Einstein.

Still, the scientific evidence in favour of intuitions, dreams and visions is strikingly widespread. In 1865, August Kekulé slumps in front of the fire and, in a reverie, sees the atoms of the benzene molecule “twisting and moving around in a snake-like manner”. Then, “one of the snakes got hold of its own tail, and tauntingly the whole structure whirled before my eyes”.

In 1869, Dmitri Mendeleev grasps the structure of the periodic table in another dream. In a Budapest park in 1882, Nikola Tesla recites Goethe’s Faust and then imagines the electrical induction motor. “The idea came like a flash of lightning and in an instant the truth was revealed… The images I saw were wonderfully sharp and clear.”

More recently, the Nobel-winning biochemist Kary Mullis has written a Thomas Pynchon-like account of the day in 1983 when during a nocturnal drive in California he “saw” the pattern of the DNA polymerase chain reaction that kick-started genetic medicine. With his girlfriend (a chemist in the same lab), he had left for a weekend in the woods. “My little silver Honda’s front tyres pulled us through the mountains… My mind drifted back into the laboratory. DNA chains coiled and floated. Lurid blue and pink images of electric molecules injected themselves somewhere between the mountain road and my eyes…”

A self-mythologising tinge colours many such memoirs of inspiration. They uncannily tend to resemble one another. All the same, these “Eureka!” narratives have a consistent theme, of a break or rest after thwarted labour. The pioneer of quantum mechanics Paul Dirac wrote that “I found the best ideas usually came, not when one was actively striving for them, but when one was in a more relaxed state”; in his case, via “long solitary walks on Sundays”. In science, the unconscious can work hardest when the intellect has downed tools.

In which case, the flight from emotion – from Tim Hunt’s dreaded tears and love – may sterilise more than fertilise. Shun “girls”, by which he seems to mean all subjectivity, and the seeker risks falling into an antiseptic void.

But enough: it feels unscientific, to say the least, to pillory a bloke for a gaffe that shows up a culture and an epoch more than an individual man. Perhaps Sir Tim, and the Royal Society that clumsily rushed to distance itself from him despite its own distinctly patriarchal history, could lay the matter to rest with a suitable donation. It ought to go to the Marie Curie charity for terminal care, which since 1948 has enlisted science and research to strengthen love – and to dry tears.