Vol. 24, No. 5
with eminent scientists often provide for excellent oral history, a
more engaging way to learn about science. As science has become increasingly
impersonal, interviews allow readers to become personally acquainted
with great scientists. Also, they provide a forum for these scientists
to profess their opinions on various issues. Current chemical literature
is often so terse and journal space is at such a premium that it is
often impossible for authors to describe their unsuccessful attempts
on the way to their discoveries. However, in an unhurried conversation,
scientists are willing to reminisce about their failures as well as
their successes. With this article, I want to share some of the experiences
that I have gathered while conducting interviews.
Hargittai (left) with Nobel Prize Laureates Arthur Kornberg a
(59 Physiology and Medicine) and James Watson (62
Physiology and Medicine)
is a plethora of questions that one may ask of great scientists. In
addition to asking them about their family background, education, and
their most important achievements in science, many other questions,
such as the following come up: What turned them to science? What was
the determining factor in their success? Did they recognize the importance
of their discovery right away? Was it easy to publish their groundbreaking
findings? And so on. I have found most scientists communicative with
a few exceptions. In most cases, once we immerse ourselves into the
conversation, I have to ask few questions to get a lot of information.
In some other cases, a little prodding is needed. These are in-depth
interviews, sometimes going on for hours.
scientist is willing to reveal more about his inner self to an
understanding colleague than to an aggressive investigating reporter.
of interviewing is the following. I contact the scientist informing
him (or her) that I will be in his neighborhood because of a conference
or some other reason and would like to record a conversation with him.
If we can arrange a meeting, we record a conversation. I live in Budapest,
so this is almost always connected with a trip. Before the interview,
I try to do as much homework as possible in my preparation for the interview.
Usually, the more I know in advance, the more new information I can
get during the encounter. However, for the sake of my future readers,
I must try not to boast about my knowledge. To me the best interviewer
is almost invisible. I would like to stress that no two interviews and
no two sets of questions are ever the same. There are exceptional cases,
when there is no possibility for any preparation.
Seaborg (51 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry)
while I was attending an American Chemical Society meeting in Anaheim,
California, I came across Glenn Seaborg, who was taking a leisurely
walk alone. I introduced myself and asked him for an interview. The
only available time was right then. Fortunately, my camera and miniature
Dictaphone were with me, so we found a relatively quiet corner and recorded
a conversation. The interview was brief but good, thanks to his gracious,
cooperative nature. I later followed up with some additional questions
in writing. I was lucky to have interviewed Seaborg when I did, because
there was no other opportunity for me to meet with him before he passed
away a few years later.
return home I prepare the transcript of the conversation, edit it slightly,
and send the material to the interviewee for checking and changing.
We repeat this process until the interviewee feels comfortable with
the text. I consider the original recording merely a framework for the
interview, which takes its final shape at a more leisurely pace. It
may be argued that by doing so, some of the original spontaneity is
lost. Also, when I feel during the conversation that a topic seems uncomfortable
for the interviewee, I rather drop it than try to force getting more
information. My experience is that it would not work anyway. A scientist
is willing to reveal more about his inner self to an understanding colleague
than to an aggressive investigating reporter. A famous American chemist
wrote me after I had sent him the edited transcript of our conversation
that, having read several of my previous interviews, he had decided
to be on his guard and be reserved. When he received the transcripts,
he was astonished that he had told me about things that he had not thought
about for a long time and never disclosed, even to his wife. After that
remark I would have expected him to delete substantial parts of the
interview before publication, but he hardly touched the text.
turned todays great chemists to chemistry? The most frequent
answer is either Paul de Kruifs book Microbe Hunters or
a chemistry set.
like to sample here some of the answers to the example questions I mentioned
above. What turned todays great chemists to chemistry? The most
frequent answer is either Paul de Kruifs book Microbe Hunters
or a chemistry set. It is interesting that de Kruifs book is about
pioneers of science, but not so much about chemists. On the other hand,
a chemistry set has been the original source of interest not only for
many future chemists but for many future physicists and biologists as
well. De Kruifs book first appeared in 1926 and has remained in
print ever since. Its popularity has faded though. I suspect that nowadays
the computer, let alone television, is a great competitor for books
among youngsters (we are talking about early teenagers) and, besides,
Microbe Hunters may be somewhat too romantic for the modern young adult.
Chemistry sets may have also lost some of their luster. Today they are
less popular than they used to be and part of the reason may be safety
precautions that have excluded some of the most spectacular experiments
from their repertoire.
question about the determining factor in their success, most great scientists
name one or two mentors. The determining period of their lives as scientists
is their graduate studies in most cases. The venue where they happen
to do their graduate work or where they start their independent research
career is also a determining factor. The mentor effect may come as a
result of a tight interaction with ones thesis supervisor, but
it may also be just a casual remark by someone whose impact may then
last for a whole research career. My favorite example is Frank Westheimers
story. Westheimer went to pursue his graduate studies at Harvard University
because he wanted to work with James B. Conant, who, in the meantime,
had become the president of Harvard. Thus, Westheimer had another supervisor,
a rather indifferent one. When he finished and was about to leave, Conant
called him into his office and asked him about his plans. Westheimer
told Conant what he was planning to do as his research project. Conants
reaction was devastating for Westheimer: "If you are successful
with that project, it will be a footnote to a footnote in the history
of chemistry." At that point Westheimer realized that he was supposed
to do important things. For his long and successful career, Westheimer
measured everything against Conants words. Conant, in his turn,
had a great career as a public servant. They met one more time when
Conant had retired and Westheimer was a professor at Harvard. He was
working in his office when someone knocked on his door. It was Conant.
He looked at Westheimer and asked, "Do you remember me?" At
this point in the interview, Westheimer became so moved that we could
not continue for some time, but it was also a good finishing point for
the conversation. Whenever I re-read this interview or tell others about
it I cant help being deeply moved as well.
(86 Nobel Laureate in Physiology and Medicine)
are many examples of the importance of the venue for the start of research
careers. I found Sidney Altmans description of his postdoctoral
stint in the late 1960s at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB)
in Cambridge, United Kingdom, especially interesting. Altman was a co-recipient
with Thomas Cech of the chemistry Nobel Prize in 1989 "for their
discovery of catalytic properties of RNA." He felt in Cambridge
as he thinks young physicists must have felt in Copenhagen in the 1920s
at the dawn of modern physics. Altman narrates how everyone went to
tea at the LMB, according to the English custom, twice a day, and the
"gods" of molecular biology were there. They were accessible
in fact, eager to discuss things with everyone else in the lab. The
scientists included Francis Crick, Sydney Brenner, Frederick Sanger,
César Milstein, Max Perutz, Hugh Huxley, and Aaron Klug. It was
a very formative atmosphere indeed.
about whether a discoverer recognizes the importance of his discovery
right away is less trivial than it sounds. It does happen sometimes that
the recognition comes much later after some other people had done additional
work in the field. The story of buckminsterfullerene provides a conspicuous
example. Eiji Osawa in Japan proposed the C6 0 molecule of the truncated
icosahedral shape 15 years before its discovery. However, he did not recognize
its importance and restricted himself to publish about it in the Japanese
language only, although he published his other works almost exclusively
in English. A few years later two Russian authors, Galpern and the
late Bochvar reported this structure from their quantum chemical computations.
Although their Russian-language article had been translated into English,
nobody had noticed it until after the actual discovery in 1985 by Kroto,
Curl, Smalley, and their students. The original idea of the truncated
icosahedral shape came from a colleague of Bochvar and Galpern,
Ivan Stankevich, but they failed to include him among the authors because
they, and Stankevich too, thought that this piece of work was of no particular
interest. Stankevich used to play soccer and the shape of the soccer ball
gave him the idea. The interviews with Osawa and with Galpern and
Stankevich, along with those with the Nobel laureates Curl, Kroto, and
Smalley, reflect a lot of human drama.
gradually warmed up to asking famous scientists whether it was easy
to publish their groundbreaking findings. Originally, I thought that
the best journals would be eager to publish Nobel Prizelevel discoveries.
However, the experience is different, although seldom can one read about
it. For some, even for Nobel laureates, it is an uncomfortable topic
to narrate about rejections by stern editors of studies that later would
merit the highest recognition. Yet it is instructive to observe that
perhaps mediocre papers have the easiest way onto the printed page.
Very poor papers get filtered out, of course. However, real groundbreaking
papers often have their hurdles because of their pioneering character.
sounds commonplace, but the most succinct way to characterize
great careers is for the right person to be there in the right
place at the right time..
are but a small sample of questions and the answers. There is great
diversity among the fates and personalities of great scientists just
as among the rest of us. It sounds commonplace, but the most succinct
way to characterize great careers is for the right person to be there
in the right place at the right time. In addition to being gifted though,
many of the greatest scientists worked very hard to be there just when
it was the right time and to move around until they "happened to
be" in the right place. Recently, Alan MacDiarmid of the University
of Pennsylvania and co-recipient of the chemistry Nobel Prize in 2000
summed up his philosophy in the guise of a Chinese proverb: "I
am a very lucky person and the harder I work the luckier I seem to be."
So far, two volumes of my Candid Science series have appeared, Candid
Science: Conversations with Famous Chemists (2000) and Candid Science
II: Conversations with Famous Biomedical Scientists (2002). The third
volume is now coming out, Candid Science III: More Conversations with
Famous Chemists. Each volume contains 36 interviews, and more than half
are Nobel Laureates. The Candid Science series published by Imperial
College Press London is open ended, and one more volume has been contracted
(Candid Science IV: Conversations with Famous Physicists). Beyond that,
I already have material for yet another volume. I have been doing this
interviewing mostly during the past half a dozen years.
the interaction with Linus Pauling that initiated this project in 1993.
However, my very first interview with a famous scientist was 1965 with
Nikolai Semenov (1896-1986), the Russian Nobel laureate of 1956. I was
asked to do this interview by the science section of Radio Budapest.
Semenov came to Budapest to receive an honorary doctorate from the University
of Technology. The interview was not only broadcast on radio, later
it was also printed in the Radio and Television Yearbook, a volume of
the best programs. Recently, I purchased a copy of the original tape
from the Archives of Radio Budapest and, after more than 35 years, I
still found it interesting. I was lucky that Semenov was as experienced
in such matters as he was gracious. I was as inexperienced as one could
be, but had the self-assurance of an ignorant beginner. The Radio supplied
me with a tape recorder of the size of a trunk and a technician who
operated it. One of the interesting features of the interview was that
I asked Semenov to prognosticate about science from the perspective
of the mid1960s, and he did. From todays perspective, he
did not say anything extraordinary, but this is what makes his prognostication
so valid. I was happy to include Semenov in my first interviews volume.
years (1995-2000) I published most of my interviews in The Chemical
Intelligencer, a now defunct magazine. I have now an interview in each
issue of the magazine Chemical Heritage published by the Chemical Heritage
Foundation. These interviews have been my second university education
and I am happy to share all that I have learned from them with everyone
Hargittai is professor of chemistry and head of the Ph.D. School of
Chemistry at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics. He
is a member of the Hungarian and Norwegian Academies of Sciences and
the Academia Europaea. His latest book is The
Road to Stockholm: Nobel Prizes, Science, and Scientists (Oxford,