June 7, 2020

Review: Drive & Curiosity by Istvan Hargittai.

Out from Prometheus Books!

Ever wonder what separates research scientists from us “ordinary mortals?” Is it insight and a world view outlook that’s different than the average person, or are they simply willing to “fail longer” before becoming ultimately successful? Insight into the scientific mindset is the core concept of this week’s review, Drive and Curiosity by Istvan Hargittai out earlier this month from Prometheus Books. Dr. Hargittai looks at the examples of 15 Nobel Prize winners in the 20th century and utilizes the illustration of their lives and how they persevered with their ambitions. These tales cover a wide range of cross disciplines from molecular biology to nuclear physics and cosmology. The author is in a unique position to write such a work, as he knew almost all of the subjects personally.

Highlights from these true tales of science include;

James Watson, who along with Francis Crick and the aid of Rosalyn Franklin (who died of cancer in 1958 and did not receive Nobel recognition) first discovered the double helix nature of DNA. It was especially insightful to hear of Watson’s own idiosyncratic methods for success, including his mantra of “avoiding boring people…”

Gertrude Elion, who devoted her life as a chemist to finding cures for diseases after several close family losses. She overcame poverty and discrimination to go on and win the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1988 for ground breaking anti-viral drugs. You may have heard of some of these acronyms that came out of her lab, such as ACV, and AZT, the first drug to combat AIDS.

Kary Mullis, the most controversial pick on the list, loathed by many scientists for his far-out ideas but essential in the field of DNA replication for his discovery of the polymerase chain reaction. Mullis is a good case study of a scientist that definitely went against the grain.

George Gamow, a cosmologist who paid attention to data in the cosmic microwave background that “wouldn’t go away” and laid the groundwork for the first predictive evidence for the Big Bang cosmological theory of universal expansion.

Each of these 15 scientists brings with them a unique story, a tale of the 20th century and how their special contribution to science came to be. If there is any thread that links all 15 together, it may well be that science and scientific research often occurs sureptiously, and that while these intrepid 15 laid the foundation by years of hard work, it’s often hard to tell just where the next big pay off may come from. Often, it may be in recognition of that tiny piece of data that won’t go away that a new paradigm springs forth. Most scientists work their whole lives for that one revelation such as Leo Szilard had during his famous “spot-light” moment when the idea of how  a nuclear chain reaction could be sustained came to him; such a moment is like having the curtain swept back to reveal the inner cogs of reality, if only for a brief moment.

Give Drive and Curiosity a read to see how science often gets done in the modern era. Far from occurring in a vacuum, modern science is a collaborative effort, one that this book captures nicely. Where will the next archetype-shattering idea emerge from? As you read this, the next driven soul may be hard at work in the laboratory, probing the boundaries of modern thinking…


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