Candid science VI. More conversations with famous scientists

Candid science VI. More conversations with famous scientists 

Istvan and Magdolna Hargittai

London, UK: Imperial College Press | 2006 | 896pp | ?76 (HB); ?36 (SB) | 
ISBN 9781860946936 (HB); 9781860946943 (SB) 

Reviewed by Derry Jones

Interviews by Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys of the BBC they are not; more Desert Islands without the discs. But structural chemists Istvan and Magdolna Hargittai show that informal, sympathetic but perceptive questioning can uncover the origins of deep curiosity and passion that distinguish accomplished scientists. Each of the 42 conversations embraces antecedents, career and reflections in about 30 pages. 

Outstanding science needs intellect and persistence, but may be stimulated by spirited rivalry between groups. While most brilliant scientists are driven, the biochemist Tim Hunt describes himself as an amateur, easily led astray. The Hargittais, well-versed in symmetry, surprisingly include only four women, all chemists and biochemists; three had children, but worked with little interruption. 

Receiving his Nobel in physics for the bubble chamber as early as 1960 enabled former musician Donald Glaser to quit big science (one paper had 23 authors) for neurobiology and human vision. The oldest Nobel recipient included, 87 year old Vitaly Ginsburg, was born in the same year as Jerome Karle (crystal structure determination), and both were still working in 2004; Seymour Benzer (born five years later in 1921), who moved from semiconductor physics to gene behaviour, had eight post-docs in 2004. 

Autobiographical gems crystallised by the Hargittais include biochemists Alexander Varshavsky’s 1977 escape from Russia and Osamu Hayaishi in the Japanese navy, physicist Brian Josephson on telepathy and music, and chemist Aaron Ciechanover’s euphemism for ’no’ (’overlapping commitment’). 

Relaxed, doubtless, by the deadpan Hargittai sense of humour, these scientists are remarkably revealing about the freedoms and constraints of later 20th century science. Candid science VI weighs 1.7 kg, but is difficult to put down.