From the Southwest Retort
Double Your Pleasure! Two Fascinating Books on Science Nobel
Reviewed by E. Thomas Strom
Vol. 55, No. 6, February 2003, pp. 15-18.
Published by sections of the American Chemical Society in the Southwest
(Editor, E. Thomas Strom, 1134 Medalist Dr., Dallas, Texas 75232).
The Road to Stockholm: Nobel Prizes, Science, and Scientists, by
Hargittai, Oxford University Press, 2002, 342 pages (ISBN 0-19-850912 X)
The Politics of Excellence: Behind the Nobel Prize in Science,
Marc Friedman, W. H. Freeman, 2001, 379 pages (ISBN 0-7167-3103-7)
If we were honest, I think most of us would admit to "Nobel dreams" when
we first got out of school. The Nobel prize is equivalent to an Academy
award for scientists. Certainly I dreamed of winning a Nobel prize when I
got out of graduate school. I am bright, although, as my wife is fond of
saying, not that bright. However, I could cite certain Nobel laureates who
are no brighter than I (I'm not going to name them), but they happened to
do the right thing at the right place at the right time. I can give one
good piece of advice to any budding Nobel laureates out there. If you want
a prize, don't go to work for an oil company! For more good advice in
these matters, read the two books I am reviewing.
These two books present fascinating looks behind the Nobel prizes in
science. They are complimentary in many ways, and I think reading them
back-to-back gives the reader insight into the strengths and weaknesses of
the procedures for awarding Nobel Prizes in science. The Hargittai book
covers all the science Nobel prizes, while the Friedman book focuses on
the awards in chemistry and physics. The Hargittai book mostly covers more
recent history, while the Friedman book necessarily deals with the first
50 years of the award. I say "necessarily" since Nobel archives are kept
closed for 50 years. Since the Friedman book received a thorough review by
Ruth Lewin Sime in the Nov. 12, 2001 issue of C&EN (pp. 64-65), I will
cover it in less detail.
István Hargittai and his wife Magdolna have previously written a well-
regarded book titled Symmetry through the Eyes of a Chemist. The book has
gone through two editions, and the first edition was reviewed by our Paul
Jones in The Southwest Retort a number of years ago. Hargittai was also
the Editor of the late, lamented magazine The Chemical Intelligencer,
which dealt with chemical people and interesting byways of chemical
science. One highlight of that magazine was Hargittai's interviews with
prominent chemists, among them many Nobel laureates. Though that magazine
is gone, his interviews are now appearing in Chemical Heritage magazine.
Therefore, Hargittai has first hand knowledge and contacts among the
movers and seekers of chemistry. Hargittai is Hungarian, but he has
written the book in English; and I detect no problems with his use of that
While I recommend reading the first chapter first, the book is
and anecdotal, so one can start reading at any chapter and find something
interesting. The various chapters deal with the effect of national
politics, talk about who wins Nobel prizes, and the discoveries. Other
chapter titles are: "Overcoming adversity"; "What turned you to science";
"Venue"; "Mentor"; "Changing and combining fields"; "Making an impact";
"Is there life after the Nobel prize?"; and a most fascinating chapter on
"Who did not win." The chapters on "Venue" and "Mentor" make the point
that, if you want to win a Nobel prize, it is helpful to be associated
with an institution that has a history of Nobel prize winners and a mentor
who has won a Nobel prize or whose mentor has done so. However, there are
quite a few exceptions to this trend.
The chapter on "Who did not win" points out the oversights in the
of deciding who gets a Nobel prize, oversights that become more
understandable if not excusable when you read the Friedman book. Hargittai
describes two groups in this chapter - people who did work that was
clearly "Nobel class" but never received the award, and people who could
reasonably have shared an award that was given. The first group includes
individuals such as Oswald Avery, who showed that nucleic acid was the
substance of heredity; Ivan Bernal, first x-ray experiments on a protein;
Leo Szilard, lots of things; Michael Tswett, chromatography; Arnold
Sommerfeld, quantum mechanics; Uhlenbeck and Goudsmit, electron spin; G.
N. Lewis, lots of things; Neil Bartlett, noble gas compounds; David
Keilin, discovery of cytochromes; and Martin Kamen, discovery of
carbon-14. I imagine all of us could add some other names to the list.
Some of these can be explained away. For example, Tswett died before
chromatography became the workhorse tool it is today. Other omissions are
just plain puzzling, although, after one reads the Friedman book,
ignorance, stupidity (they are not the same!), and politics on the part of
the Nobel committees seem most likely.
The most galling category is that of omission from a Nobel prize given,
the so-called "fourth person" omission, although sometimes it is a third
person omission. The most egregious example is Lise Meitner, who should
have shared either the chemistry or physics prize for her co-discovery of
nuclear fission. Meitner had fled to Sweden before World War II.
Friedman's book points out that Swedish scientist Manne Siegbahn
her nomination for fear she would be a strong competitor for funding.
Another example of the fourth person is Freeman Dyson, who showed that the
quantum electrodynamic theories of Feynman, Schwinger, and Tomonaga were
all equivalent. Other people falling into this category are Kenneth
Pitzer, conformational analysis; Jocelyn Bell, pulsars; Friedrich Hund,
molecular orbital theory; Salvador Moncada, nitric oxide as a signaling
molecule; and Donald Huffman and Wolfgang Krätschmer, fullerenes. The
latter example is understandable on the grounds that the maximum number of
people to share a prize is three, but Huffman and Kräschmer's synthesis of
significant amounts of the fullerene was what clinched a Nobel prize for
that discovery. They just didn't share it.
This book is written for the general reader, but scientists are the
likely group to appreciate this book. Because of all the interviews
Hargittai has carried out, he has many insights and stories to share. I
will just cite one anecdote from p. 215. Nobel Laureate Sir George Porter
had started being active in science popularization after he had done his
Nobel-cited work. During a Christmas lecture at the Royal Institution, he
displayed a beautifully laid out table. He then said three times "I
believe in Issac Newton" and pulled out the table cloth. Everything
remained intact on the table, an illustration of the concept of inertia.
In the new year the queen invited Porter and others to lunch at the
Buckingham Palace. Princess Anne, 17 years old, said, "I liked your
demonstrations, especially the one where you cleared the table." They
walked into a drawing room with a large table set for twelve people and
loaded with silver and gold plates. Princess Anne said, "Go on, try it
The Hargittai book is a very interesting read, and I recommend it to
Retort readers, even if you can't read the Friedman book right afterwards.
My naiveté about the Nobel prize was shattered when I first read Swedish
science historian Elisabeth Crawford's ground-breaking book, The Beginning
of the Nobel Institution: The Science Prizes, 1901-1915. This book was
published by Cambridge University Press back in 1984. Friedman, formerly
at UC-San Diego but now at the University of Oslo, worked with Crawford
early in his career.
Friedman's book shows that, far too often in the awarding of the
politics trumped science. The early Nobel committees suffered from the
triple limitations that very little "world class" science was done in
Sweden, German science had too great an influence on Swedish science, and
the committees weighted with experimentalists had little or no
appreciation of theory. Hence, Einstein's Nobel prize was long delayed and
was given for his explanation of the photoelectric effect rather than for
his work on relativity.
Numbers of nominations had no impact on the awarding of prizes. If the
committees were inclined toward a candidate, only one nomination would
suffice. If they were against a candidate, tens of nominations could be
ignored. Nominations for a particular individual were usually reviewed and
reported upon by one committee member. These special reports were often
geared to enhance a favorite's nomination or to sink a nomination of
someone not favored.
Two examples will show how politics, money, and pettiness influence the
prizes. I remember reading one of Isaac Asimov's wonderful essays on
science that dealt with the concept of atomic number, proven by the late
Henry Moseley. No Nobel prize was given in either chemistry or physics in
1916. Asimov speculated that this was a tribute to Moseley, who should
have won one of those prizes, but who had been killed during the World War
I Gallipoli campaign. Well, Moseley had been nominated all right, but the
reason for not giving the prizes was so that the money saved would go to
the special fund, which eventually would wind up in the pocket of Swedish
When I was in graduate school at Berkeley, one favorite topic in the
College of Chemistry was the injustice of G. N. Lewis never winning a
Nobel prize. There are at least four areas in which Lewis did "Nobel
class" work. These include his studies in thermodynamics, the electron
pair bond, work on heavy water, and Lewis acids and bases. In fact Lewis
received dozens of nominations for the prize. Early on the problem was
Arrhenius. Lewis had had the gall to modify Arrhenius' theory of
electrolytic solutions, using activity and activity coefficients to make
the theory work in more concentrated solutions. Arrhenius's death in 1927
didn't clear the way either. The committee moved toward biological
chemistry awards because of the influence of Theodor Svedberg. Awards
given to Irving Langmuir and Peter Debye that could logically have been
shared by Lewis were not.
One of the more bizarre Nobel awards was that given to Finnish chemist
I. Virtanen in 1945. He developed a method for producing nutritious
silage! Committee member Hans von Euler- Chelpin championed him, and
undoubtedly an important factor was recognition of how Finland had
suffered from its 1940 invasion by Russia. This award was clearly one of
several unjustified awards.
The last fifty years probably have interesting Nobel stories as well.
Manne Siegbahn's son, Kai, shared the Nobel prize for physics in 1981.
What log rolling went on in the awarding of that prize? Robert Woodward
felt that he should have shared the 1973 prize for chemistry with Ernst
Fischer and Geoffrey Wilkinson given for proving the structure of
ferrocene, since he worked on the original papers with Wilkinson. Indeed,
a chemist in Woodward's group coined the name ferrocene. There was
certainly room for one more. Possibly Woodward's earlier Nobel prize in
1965 was the reason for the omission, but there have been others who
received more than one Nobel prize. We'll have to wait until 2023 to learn
more about that one.
Reading the book was extremely interesting but also mildly depressing,
because one realizes how personalities and politics result in much more
subjective judgements about Nobel prizes than we would like. Nevertheless,
I recommend either or both of these books to our readers. The Hargittai
book is enjoyable, and the Friedman book demonstrates that "reality
From The Times Higher Education Supplement (London)
Life After Death Gives Birth to a Significant Prize
by Andrew Briggs, 17 January, 2003
In 1867 Alfred Nobel patented dynamite. Within three years he was head
of the largest explosives cartel in the world, with patents in every
industrialised country. At the height of his success his brother Ludvig
died. A French newspaper confused the names and published an obituary of
Alfred. Rob Parsons imagined a scenario such as this: "Alfred... sat down
with a cup of coffee, read his own obituary and saw what people had made
of his life. But he read phrases like 'merchant of death' and 'his fortune
was amassed finding new ways to mutilate and kill'. As Nobel held the
newspaper in his hands, he vowed that this was not how he should be
remembered, and he decided that... his life would be not just successful
During his lifetime, Nobel used his wealth to encourage and promote the
arts, science and peace, but it is for the prizes endowed in his will that
Nobel is remembered. The will states: "The whole of my remaining
realisable estate shall be dealt with in the following way: the capital,
invested in safe securities by my executors, shall constitute a fund, the
interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to
those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest
benefit on mankind." The interest was to be divided into five parts,
apportioned to physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and
Istvan Hargittai's book arose out of a lecture given in Cambridge -
to win a Nobel prize". He says he has talked with 70 Nobel laureates and
can share his impression of their careers. He writes: "I am not a
historian, neither am I a sociologist; I am a scientist. My book
illuminates some decisive moments, both of the scientists' careers en
route to the Nobel prize and the science itself that is behind some of the
contemporary Nobel prizes. It also covers some discoverers for whom the
ultimate recognition from Stockholm never materialised."
The writing style is somewhat wooden, and much of the book reads more
catalogue of facts than as a story, but those facts are fascinating.
Chapters include: "Who wins Nobel prizes?", "What turned you to science?",
"Is there life after Nobel prizes?" and "Who did not win?". Some of the
answers show a pattern, such as the role of schoolteachers and research
mentors, but mainly the chapters are an anthology of nuggets, including
splendid insights. Lawrence Bragg inspired his students "to concentrate on
problems of central importance, to approach them directly, to waste no
time on trivialities".
There is a fascinating discussion of changes in research areas. "We can
compare it to a master detective getting a fresh case: he sweeps clean his
desk in a matter of hours and switches to his new task. Future Nobel
laureates and other great scientists change the subjects and techniques of
their research in a great variety of ways. What is common is the
willingness and ability to change."
Hargittai emphasises the watershed nature of Nobel prizes. Because the
prizes are so large, and the number who receive them is so small, the
difference in outcome between those who are selected and those who are not
is out of proportion to differences in contribution. This is exacerbated
by the rule that no more than three people can share each prize. This can
lead to an almost arbitrary exclusion of individuals who participated in a
discovery (often students, such as those involved in the discoveries of
pulsars and of the fullerenes). Being close to a Nobel prize but not being
awarded one can be a cause of great misery. Jacques Monod commented: "The
prize is very good for science and very bad for the scientists."
A biographer of Isambard Kingdom Brunel observed that he had made very
little mention of 19th-century politicians. This was because, he
explained, no politicians had nearly as much impact on life as the great
engineers. Hargittai similarly bemoans how "British and French children
have to learn about the respective kings, queens and presidents, but much
less about the great scientists. Our students, our children, the general
public, all of us would benefit from knowing a little more about science
and how it comes about."
Growing up in Cambridge, I had two classmates at school who were each
of Nobel laureates. I later shared digs with the grandson of a laureate.
Perhaps this makes it easier for me to benefit from the inspiration of our
great scientists without being overawed by the glittering prizes. I have
seen how the best of them benefit not only from Nobel's generosity, but
also from his example of wanting his life to be significant.
Andrew Briggs is professor of materials, University of Oxford.
From Chemistry International
by Joel F. Liebman, Jan-Feb, 2003
Athough István Hargittai is an internationally recognized chemist, The
Road to Stockholm is not about chemistry or science per se, but rather
about scientists. It deals with the psychological and sociological issues
that have led to professional greatness and the greatest institutional
recognition a scientist can achieve (i.e., the Nobel Prize). Among such
issues are the following: upbringing and the effects of deprivation and
family strength; education and the role of mentoring and academic
pedigree; culture, both national and religious; and competing demands,
intellectual, emotional, political, economic, and societal. The word
"Road" in the title is well taken. The book commences with a foreword by
Nobelist James D. Watson (co-awardee, Physiology or Medicine, 1962) that
outlines some of his path— Hargittai amplifies this at considerable length
throughout the book. It is these paths that fill much of this volume.
There are many roads, even if not so labeled as I so choose to label them
here. Quoting the poet, there’s "the road less traveled," the special,
unique, ignored observation, characterization, experiment, or insight.
There’s "the road to Damascus," the sudden epiphany or "Aha!" and
spontaneous, instantaneous change of belief, action, or understanding.
Recalling the comedian in "the Road to Mandalay," the gentle, joyous
excursion and adventure that includes many serendipitous trips and seeming
diversions. There is "the road to Rome," one of many but gets the traveler
there fastest and first. Paraphrasing the cliché, "the road from
perdition," the survival from dysfunctional families or from genocide.
Asking the reader to pardon the reviewer’s wordplay, there is "the
Colossus of Rhodes," the sheer weight and power of achievement and
We often tell our students that science, both idealized and practiced, is
value free and crosses all cultures, languages, and backgrounds. Not so,
Hargittai reminds us. National, religious, status, and gender issues have
all contributed to winning the Nobel Prize—and not winning the prize. The
final chapter is a poignant reminder that only three people can win the
Nobel Prize in a given area in a given year, and so Hargittai discusses
who did not win but could/should have (in other words, who was "robbed,"
to quote a non-recipient). The chapter also contains some prophecy on
possible future recipients.
The book ends with four pages of acknowledgements (nearly a page and a
half therein to Nobelists), 45 pages of notes (footnotes and references),
two pages of citations to general reading, and 30 pages for the complete
list of Nobelists and the associated citations in physics, chemistry, and
physiology or medicine through 2001. Perhaps to underscore that the
subject matter is the Nobel Prize and the scientists who won it—and some
who didn’t—and not the science itself, there is a 10-page name index, but
there is no subject matter index. There are also some 80 photographs: two
of the Nobel medal and the rest of the major persons who populate the
It is the reviewer’s feeling that Hargittai has written an interesting and
important book. The Road to Stockholm offers much insight and information
to the reader—at the least, we are given a personalized view of
scientists, their science, and the world we share.
Joel F. Liebman is professor of chemistry at the University of Maryland in
From the Alchemist, the ChemWeb Magazine
by Paul Board, 1 October 2002
The Road to Stockholm is written by a Professor of Chemistry and
the sciences. Namely, the Nobel Prizes for Physics, Chemistry, and
Physiology or Medicine.
Any reference to the Nobel Prizes for Literature, Peace or Economics tend to
be footnotes in this book. And it is here that I learnt one Elias Canetti, a
doctor of chemistry, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981.
One hundred years after the initial prizes were given out in 1901, 'The Road
to Stockholm', István Hargittai tells us, can be a rocky one, fraught with
adversity, sometimes blessed with serendipity, but, alas, not always noble,
for, after all, scientists are human too. (It is also somewhat astounding
that of 478 science prizes, only 11 have been awarded to women.) Even the
august band of judges sometimes make mistakes, for instance, awarding the
Nobel Prize for Medicine to Antonio Egas Moniz in 1949. (Moniz introduced
the barbaric practice of lobotomy in the 1930s.)
The intricate machinations of the Nobel Prize committees, the names of the
nominees, the reasons behind their acceptance or rejection, and the
inevitable compromises that have to be made are locked up from prying eyes
until a full 50 years after the event. Yet this does not prevent Hargittai
providing the reader with some fascinating tales, not only of the laureates
where records are old enough to be uncovered under the 50-years rule, but
more recent prize recipients as well. For as the bibliographic notes
testify, the author draws on a lifetime of chemical connections, personal
contacts and interviews to produce an aspirational and inspirational tale of
the lives of the scientific greats (and the fair to middling), including
those who should have got the prize but were prevented from doing so. For
example, the 'three person' rule sometimes meant that a valuable fourth (or
fifth) person was left out (as may have happened with the 1996 chemistry
prize for fullerenes), or some just did not live long enough to be selected
(prime examples being Oswald Avery for his discovery in 1944 that DNA was
the substance of heredity, and Rosalind Franklin for her role in the
discovery of DNA's structure).
In addition to telling us the who, what, why and when of getting to
Stockholm, Hargittai's penultimate chapter explores the aftermath of such a
cataclysmic event in the lives of the laureates.
Apart from being catapulted into the glare of the public spotlight, if
nothing else, the associated financial rewards could be disincentive enough
to dragging oneself back to the lab on a miserable Monday morning (although,
if your name happened to be Einstein, the then yet to be awarded prize money
was already tied up in a divorce settlement).
For some, like Max Perutz, who passed away earlier this year, they
to beaver away in their beloved laboratories. Indeed, after winning the
Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1958 for his work on the structure of proteins,
namely insulin, Frederick Sanger went on to win the prize for chemistry
again in 1980 for the determination of base sequences in nucleic acids. (Yet
at age 65, Sanger downed tools, promptly left the lab and has been into
gardening ever since).
Others were drawn into more public activities. Hargittai quotes one
laureate: "Winning the Nobel Prize is hazardous to your health." Not winning
it could be as well, although some scientists (such as Lisa Meitner and
Rosalind Franklin) are perhaps remembered more because they were cheated.
Thankfully, Meitner has subsequently been eponymised in Element 109, albeit
Having an element named after you is, after all, an even more exclusive
honour than a Nobel Prize. This fact was recognised by Glenn Seaborg who
declared that he was willing to exchange his 1951 Nobel Prize for Chemistry,
if Element 106 were named after him. As it was, he achieved both accolades,
and rightly so. Seaborg was co-discoverer of no fewer than nine elements.
Thoroughly researched and well-written, Hargittai's book is a joy to read
and a mine of interesting information. As may be witnessed by my odd book
review on this website (and thanks, Alchemist for the continuing privilege),
I have had a fair exposure to chemical and scientific miscellanea.
Paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, even before I read this book, I had a mind
bric-a-brac shop: full of interesting things but of no use to anybody. For
instance, like many of you out there in cyberspace, I already knew of the
dissolution of Max von Laue's and James von Laue's Nobel Prize gold medals
in aqua regia to escape the clutches of the Nazis. But I did not know that
the polymer chemist Hermann Mark fled Austria from the Nazis, carrying his
fortune in the form of platinum coat hangers, or that Howard Florey and
colleagues, concerned what might happen with their strain of penicillin if
the Germans were to invade Britain and reach Oxford, smeared the spores into
the linings of their clothes. Such anecdotes, literary bric-a-brac though
they may be, illustrate and illuminate the lives of the characters.
In one chapter 'What turned you to science?', apart from families,
mentors and chemistry sets, several seminal books figure prominently. 'The
Road to Stockholm' could well be another important lure to coax the next
generation onto the journey of scientific discovery (thank goodness they
don't award the Nobel for outstanding accountancy ... perish the thought). I
thoroughly recommend it to all Nobel Prize wannabes and to the many (like
me) that fell by the wayside many years ago.
Further reading, listings of scientific Nobel Laureates, and a name
complete the book.
From the Chemical and Engineering News, American Chemical
Society, September 16, 2002, Volume 80, Number 37)
LIVES OF NOBEL SCIENTISTS
REVIEWED BY MITCH JACOBY
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
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
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
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
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
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
82, September 2002, pp. 20-21, by Kate Crennell
"... the book is very good value for money, a well produced hardback
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
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
physical chemist and informed by his own outstanding career as a
as well as some 70 interviews with Nobel Laureates, is engaging, rich
anecdote, and full of detail.
István Hargittai provides an engaging account of the dynamics of
lobbying, nationalistic interests, and the attendant secrecy that
the nomination process. We also learn about the vicissitudes of the
at different times--for example, during World War II Hitler interdicted
Prizes for Germans on the basis that one had been awarded to a German
pacifist a few years before. The geographical distribution of scientists
have won prizes is perhaps not too surprising: there is a
number of scientists from the USA, the UK, Germany, and Hungary, with
few winners from Japan, Spain, or the former USSR. Such variation
undoubtedly reflects national investment in science, the primacy of
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.
according to Peter Medawar, humility is not a useful characteristic at
level of scientific pursuit. Generalisations are less easy to make,
about the process of scientific discovery itself. Hargittai suggests that
the diversity of research approaches precludes any simple
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,
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
they were premature and therefore not adequately recognised, or because
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
justifiable claim. Sometimes such omissions resulted from the fact that
prize is limited to three recipients, but in other instances, seem simply
be egregious errors--for example, the award for the discovery of insulin
went to Frederick Banting and John Macleod, whereas Charles Best was
Although The Road to Stockholm is factual and reliable, it has the flavour
of a lengthy conversation with an intelligent and engaging friend. In
sense, it is somewhat idiosyncratic, even though engaging. Hargittai
recognises this idiosyncrasy in his citation of a story about Leo
who, in putting together some materials on the Manhattan Project,
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
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;
Hargittai tells it with gossipy aplomb and more than 100 interviews with
"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
including Einstein for the law of photoelectric effect. Were German
scientists somehow superior? Hargittai points out that Swedish science
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
prizes after the German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, then being detained
the Nazis, was awarded the peace prize in 1936. Nevertheless, three
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)
This review appeared in Dutch, here's one note:
"Therefore, Hargittai is certainly a master."
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