pierre laszlo

AMBIX, Vol. 54, No. 2, July 2007, 213–216

Essay review

The Road to Scientific Success: Inspiring Life Stories of Prominent Researchers. Volume 1. Edited by DEBORAH D.L. CHUNG. Pp. xi + 230, illus., index. World Scientific: Singapore and London. 2006. £33.00 (hbk); £17.00 (pbk).
ISBN: 981-256-600-7 (hbk); 981-256-466-7 (pbk).

Nature not Mocked: Places, People and Science. By PETER DAY. Pp. x + 262, illus., index. Imperial College Press: London. 2005. $48.00. ISBN: 1-86094-576-7.

Candid Science: Conversations with Famous Chemists. By István Hargittai, and edited by Magdolna Hargittai. Pp. xii + 516, illus., index. Imperial College Press: London. 2000. £48.00 (hbk); £21.00 (pbk). ISBN: 1-86094-151-6 (hbk); 1-86094-228-8 (pbk).

Candid Science V: Conversations with Famous Scientists. By Balazs Hargittai and István Hargittai. Pp. xiii + 695, illus., index. Imperial College Press: London. 2005. £34.00. ISBN: 1-86094-506-6 (pbk).

These four books elicit biographical information from the subjects themselves. They exemplify pitfalls of biography well-familiar to historians.1 They signal paths for biographers in general, oral biographers in particular. Their marginal value is to point to new directions which chemical science has entered.
One should not underestimate, as is currently fashionable, the merits of a biographical approach. To put it into a nutshell: “Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory.”2
What are the main uses of biography? To mention them is equivalent to listing the ingredients of a successful biography. One is to delineate a formative experience. In Klaus Biemann’s case, for instance, his lonely walk across Central Europe, at the end of World
War II: going against the grain, being a loner, doing one’s own thing (Chung, 148). A similar experience turned Romain Gary (the author of Education Européenne) into a writer. Another, related use, is to ascertain influences, such as from teachers or books.
Of much historical importance is indeed to elucidate how a scientist found a direction. In particular, a focus on the Ph.D. as an initiation rite: for instance, Agnes Oberlin acquiring mastery over an unwieldy contraption, which she terms “a vicious gadget” (Chung, 217).
The object of the Ph.D. “comes as a surprise,” in its opacity and apparent complexity (ibid, 216–7). This includes defining important vs. unimportant topics (Westheimer, Hargittai-I, 52–3). A related issue is the downplaying of their family background by many among those scientists. The Ph.D. mentor became a surrogate parent (Oberlin, Chung, 215–23). This is related to the interest by chemists in their professional genealogy. A minor surprise was the recurring hesitation about a field of science and the seemingly chance drift into chemistry (Hargittai-I).
Did an individual make a difference? What does leadership in a field take? How is authority gained, established and maintained? Examples mentioned are those of Sir Derek Barton and of Michael J. S. Dewar who were appointed to full professorships in Britain at a
young age. Proficiency in writing clearly is an asset. Another is longevity, because of the slow ripening of chemists. Conversely, Hargittai was unable to interview chemists of the first rank such as Rowland Pettit or Earl Muetterties, whom the cigarette killed at an early
age. The mix of fascination by/fear of biochemistry is well-exemplified in Al Cotton’s interview (Hargittai-I, 241).
A big task is to establish the full and precise context of a discovery. Is a big ego a precondition for leadership in chemistry? A textbook example of such one-upmanship is the Kroto-Smalley priority dispute on the truncated icosahedron as the structure of C60 (Hargittai-I, 345, 371–2.). Another goal is to map out the histories of ideas (including intellectual fashions, polemics, etc.), of techniques, and of institutions. A feature which comes out loud from these books is the conservatism of chemists (Djerassi, Hargittai-I, 81),
their resistance to new ideas (Dewar, ibid., 169).
In short, the mission of the biographer is to analyse the ingredients of an interesting and successful life; to provide motivation to young people from role models; and to pinpoint what made an individual unique.
An incidental remark, at this point, is to mine the data as grain to the mill of quantitative history. The interviews collected by István Hargittai in these two volumes involve nearly 50 chemists, academic chemists all active during the second half of the twentieth century. Recurring features include having been a precocious child, a Jewish background, having been a scholarship student, having served a stint in industry, having had experience of teaching, having owned a chemistry set as a child, and having read, as a child, Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters.
The slimmest among these books, Chung’s, is also the most informative on new areas of chemistry. She illustrates high-temperature superconductivity by Paul Chu’s career. This is a branch of materials science which, after the breakthrough by Bednorz and Müller, now undergoes incremental change. Its applications range from health to transportation. Conducting polymers, also valuable for their diverse applications, are illustrated in Hargittai’s books, by Heeger’s and McDiarmid’s interviews. Molecular magnetism features prominently in Day’s book: Kanamori and Goodenough had formulated symmetry rules, extending Hund’s Rule from the 1930s, regarding unpaired electrons on metallic centers M and M'. If orbitals carrying the unpaired electrons on M and M' are orthogonal, the interaction is ferromagnetic. Olivier Kahn (1943–1999) thus devised a ferromagnetic molecular complex containing an element of the beginning (vanadium) and of the end (copper) of the first transition series.
Chemistry, as is well known, underwent a biological turn during the last two decades. An unlikely consequence has been to push the horizon of a rational chemotherapy even further away, since any drug molecule acts on quite a few different genes, with outcomes
differing from person to person. A more gratifying perspective is our improved understanding of the origins of life, now linked to the RNA world, unfortunately little featured in the books under review.

Nanoscience and technology, fullerenes, quantum dots are evoked in the Hargittai volumes: the first was written before the Nobel award to Curl, Kroto and Smalley. A Nobel Prize obviously would reward discovery of the fullerenes: Hargittai was on the lookout, cast
his net wide and devoted no fewer than seven of his interviews to potential winners.
With global warming finally having entered the public sphere, research on greenhouse gases is very active. As always, one reads with interest (and contained rage) anything which Sherwood Rowland (Hargittai-I, 462–5) has to say about his trials and tribulations.
I shall close with a few remarks on methodology. A useful distinction between historians and scientists stems from that between important and unimportant problems. The demarcation, vital to scientists, is judged unessential and relatively secondary by historians.
One should not dismiss hero-worship among chemists, though. It can serve as a tool, the naming of the lines of force within the discipline, rather than leaving them anonymous and in the vague.
It behooves the biographer, however, to avoid mixing-up the life and the career. In Chargaff’s words, “Their (successful scientists’) books mostly are accounts of a career, not a life.”3 What these four books give us are collections of well-rehearsed spiels, sequences of curricula vitae in the canonical and rather rigid format: birthdate and place; supervisor and Ph.D. topic; location of the postdoc experience; chosen field of study; distinctive awards. Moreover, historians dislike such accounts, deservedly, because such interviews are
self-serving, lack cross-checks, omit the context, and conflict with the narratives they are trained to construct.
Self-serving? Here is an example: Al Cotton’s move from MIT to Texas A&M. There is a lot more to the story than indicated in the interview (Hargittai-I, 234): very little digging is necessary to find crucial roles for the Welch Foundation (Texas oil money), for Norman
Hackerman (*1912) who led it, for Arthur E. Martell (1916–2003), the autocratic chairman at the time of the chemistry department; for other, contemporary moves such as Michael J. S. Dewar’s to the University of Texas in Austin, A. I. Scott’s to Texas A&M, etc. The whole question of institutions purchasing themselves worldclass scientists, in the southern USA at that time of the 1960s, at the Scripps Institution more recently, is not addressed. In other words, in such biographical work one ought to carefully delineate personal from collective mythology.
Last but not least, Hargittai’s all too obvious obsession with the Nobel Prize immunizes his books against showing value to historians. He is a devotee of a Nobel cult, a not infrequent attitude among chemists. This sprung a number of traps on him. His questions
regarded exclusively the work which led to the Nobel Prize. Thus, he missed out entirely on, say, Paul Lauterbur having been a lone pioneer in half-a-dozen other areas, such as carbon-13 NMR (Hargittai-V, 454). Such parochialism makes him miss cross-disciplinary
interactions. For example, the invention of atomic force microscopy is absent from the first volume of the series, published in 2000. He routinely equates a Nobel prizewinner with the mainstream, within a subdiscipline, whereas quite a few prizes have recognised work outside of the mainstream. In spite of his narrow focus on the Nobel Prize, he did not delve into the attendant redirecting of chemistry. The Prize redefines chemistry every year, to some extent. It would have been useful to elicit from his interviewees their definition of chemistry. He routinely credits a figurehead with work performed by a whole group; fails to distinguish between the roles of postdocs (lieutenants) and graduate students. He misses out on major figures who have opted out of chemistry and thus did not win a Nobel Prize in the field, such as Tjalling C. Koopmans or H. Christopher Longuet-Higgins. Whereas one may claim legitimately that a visit to the kitchen is necessary to truly appreciate a dish, Hargittai stands remote from such mundane concerns. He never asks a question about molecular models, glassware, etc. He avoids entirely everyday life in the laboratory. Likewise, he makes no mention of the Quantum Chemistry Program Exchange as a network for dissemination of quantum chemical tools. Even worse, not once does he raise the question of the relationship of a chemist to matter. Neither does he mention industrial consulting, even though it is a crucial part of the professional experience of most leading chemists. His whole attitude, in short, is 180° from that befitting the professional biographer: “[He] must be as ruthless as a board meeting smelling out embezzlement, as suspicious as a secret agent riding the Simplon-Orient Express, as cold-eyed as a pawnbroker viewing a leaky concertina.”4
A negative summing-up is unavoidable, of the Hargittai volumes in particular. “Vanity publishing” has a well-known meaning. I submit an additional meaning. The Hargittai books cater to the vanity of the interviewee, from belonging to such an exclusive club. They cater to the vanity of the interviewer, thrilled by the quality of his catch. Otherwise, as documentation, they are nearly worthless.

Sénergues, France

Notes on Contributor

Pierre Laszlo is emeritus professor of chemistry at Ecole polytechnique, Palaiseau, France and at University of Liège, Belgium. His most recent book, with Springer, is a manual on Communicating Science; biography is among its topics. He is writing a book on the reverse
mode of thinking, as practiced by scientists. Address: “Cloud’s Rest”, Prades, F-12320 Sénergues, France; Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

  1. A valuable discussion of the issues involved is available: M. J. Nye, “Scientific Biography:   History of Science by Another Means?” Isis 97 (2006): 322-29; J. L. Richards, “Introduction: Fragmented Lives,” Isis 97 (2006): 302-05; M. Terrall, “Biography as Cultural History of Science,” Isis 97(2006): 306-13.
  2. Benjamin Disraeli, Contarini Fleming: A Psychological Auto-Biography (London: John Murray, 1832), Ch. 23.
  3. Erwin Chargaff, Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature (New York: The Rockefeller University Press, 1978), 62.
  4. Paul Murray Kendall, Art of Biography (New York: W. W. Norton, 1965), 65.