Chats round the periodic table

Candid Science III
April 30, 2004

Istvan Hargittai (who somehow floats in his contribution somewhere between author and editor, but isn't quite either), has provided a feast for voyeurs. In fact, this is the third such meal, and there must be a number of famous scientists who are beginning to suspect that their turn for self-revelation is just around the corner. I recall lying in a hospital bed, connected to a cocktail of drips, with a figure more menacing than any surgeon interviewing and photographing me in my pyjamas (I hope); but happily I have escaped his pen - on this occasion, at least. One flotilla of chemists has been done before; a raft of biomedical scientists was examined in the second volume; this volume is a second bite at some straggling but in many cases very eminent chemists; a volume is in preparation that puts a laser spot on a number of physicists.

Prospective purchasers should be aware that many of the interviews reproduced here have been published before: 24 of the 36 entries have appeared in the Chemical Intelligencer and another two in Chemical Heritage magazine, so there is a weighty sense of deja vu, and avid readers of those not very common publications can save their money, except for having the convenience of a compact, collected single volume.

There are two varieties of interview. In one, the interviewer is invisible, and the chapter is largely a verbatim transcript of a monologue. In such cases, there is often an awkwardness about the transcription where the transcriber has not quite eliminated the leaps in logic that are so often a feature of casual reminiscence. In the second type of interview, the interviewer is present, interjecting questions to guide and mould the conversation. On the whole, the latter category is more successful because questions are pressed that the subject might have preferred to avoid.

The range of interviewees is wide: some are already dead; most are gentlemen of a certain age and considerable achievement; a tiny scattering are young with major achievement still, presumably and depending on the caprices of fate, to come; only three of the 36 subjects are women. A quick calculation gives the sum of their birth years as 69,439, corresponding to an approximate mean age of a mighty 75. I found myself concentrating on the people I know personally (for, to a voyeur, that must be more rewarding) but I did read all the chapters, and found it rewarding to learn about the achievements of some of those of whom I had only faintly heard and, in several cases, not at all.

A number of the interviews bring out a variety of personal conflicts, especially where there are controversies relating to the award of Nobel prizes. Readers - and I found this aspect of the collection particularly engaging - will see that some winners were disappointed by the unwelcome inclusion of their co-winners, and some were disappointed that they shared the prize with one co-worker but not another. Here is where the visible interviewer is a far more effective tool than the unguided ramble, and one or other of the Hargittais gets quite effectively but always sensitively under the skin of a variety of their subjects.

There is also another kind of personal sensitivity that becomes exposed. I have particularly in mind Glenn Seaborg's largely hurt reactions to the controversies surrounding the name of unnilhexium, element 106, that finally, to his unconcealed satisfaction, settled down, most properly, into being called seaborgium.

I was also struck by the foreword to this volume supplied by Herbert Hauptman, himself a subject later in the volume - for, although a mathematician, he made decisive contributions to the resolution of the phase problem in X-ray diffraction and hence to that enormously important spin-off of chemistry, molecular biology. In the foreword, Hauptman remarks, in Confucian mode, that "there is no better way to stimulate the creative impulse than to learn at first hand the words of the masters, those whose work has survived the test of time". That perception has to be seen in the light of his earlier remark that it is important "to appreciate the challenges they met, the struggles they faced, and the obstacles they overcame". If there is a single theme to distil from this collection, then it is the triumph of soul-strengthening determination and the victory of a self-motivated quest for understanding over the tribulations of early adversity.

It is not appropriate for me to review each of the biographies, and I shall confine my comments to a few that caught my eye. The magisterial and statesmanlike Seaborg (d.1999) kicks off the volume and is probably the best known of all those represented in it. Justly honoured for his extension of the periodic table for a stretch along the transuranic elements, he honestly and openly wears his disappointment over the delayed naming of seaborgium, and is deeply concerned with and actively contributing to the public understanding of science. The interview, originally recorded in 1995, was updated by an account of the "seaborgium controversy" and of its resolution in 1998, shortly before his death.

Whereas Seaborg extended the periodic table along its bottom, radioactive edge, Neil Bartlett showed that the elements on its right-hand edge, for decades thought inert, were merely noble and, although reluctant to react, could be induced into chemical combination after all. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this interview is the sense of the power of competition that it reveals in relation to the urge to force the noble gases into combination, with rival groups scenting blood, and the role of luck in winning the crown.

Mildred Cohn (b. 1913) is best remembered for her pioneering work in the use of isotopes (a concept born not long after her) and the elucidation of the chemical role of mitochondria in the powering of organic activity. Her comments illuminate the changing role of women in society and science. A child of atheist Jewish immigrant parents, she remarks that there are many Jewish Nobel laureates, most of them the children of immigrants (to the US), but she surmises that their children will not be laureates. She infers that this kind of success is not a question of Jewish tradition but a consequence of being the first liberated generation whose parents were keen that they should achieve. Not a Nobel laureate herself, she was a great achiever, and her advice for women who wished to follow her path of achievement was simple: marry the right man, a supporter, not a lip-servant of of male-female equality.

Perhaps the most disappointing interview is the one with that extraordinarily entertaining, urbane and engaging chemist Dudley Herschbach. A little of the mechanism of the format shows through, in the sense that the five pages of this interview are a narrative based on a rushed conversation recorded at the airport in Boston rather than a set piece, and the voice of the subject is shrouded. For someone who has done so much to overcome what, in his words, he finds almost heartbreaking - that the general public is either apathetic or antagonistic to chemistry, and that he fights with such grace, verve and enthusiasm - the faux interview is peculiarly flat and unrevealing. He deserves a second, discursive, relaxed version, away from the airport.

A generation on, I alight on that most dynamic of physical chemists, Dick Zare, whom I meet in the most bizarre parts of the world - including Oxford - to our mutual (I like to think) delight. Here, we have a free-flowing, pleasant excursion through a friend's hitherto little-known life, with all the illumination that brings. Antisocial as a youth, suppressed by his parents, brought up in a ghetto, beaten up for not singing Away in a Manger (or whatever the unidentified carol was) and dispatched from his school for suggesting that his science teacher did not know absolutely everything, he emerged as the genial, erudite and meticulous re-contributor to society he is today. This is perhaps the most lively, swashbuckling of all the contributions and is a perfect model for others from the great unwashed who unconsciously perceive education (and especially scientific education) as the passport to constructive interaction with society.

At the end of the day, though, I am not convinced that there will be an enormous readership for this book. This is not because it is not worth reading - far from it - but because the subjects are not everyday names outside chemical laboratories and, in some cases, not even within them, and the general reader would have to have a particular fascination with the inward workings of chemistry to turn to it. For instance, few members of the general reading public would find Rudolf Marcus' opening remark - "I have also studied unimolecular reactions" - a gentle ramp into the thoughts of this clever and approachable chemist. But, as the interview develops, we see that it is well worth while to stay the course and learn more about his motivations and background.

I have a few more, rather minor, criticisms. One is the somewhat trivial nature of the questions that have survived but that should have fallen victim to a more rigorous editorial massacre.

Interviewer: "Do you have children?"

Subject: "No."

And so on. In my view, the gap between original publication and the current republication of many of the articles should have been accompanied by notes regarding subjects who had died for, in many cases, they have not survived the fierce rigours of publication and are now either dust or ashes. I think it is the Russian chemist Aleksandr Butlerov's laboratory in Kazan, in the Tartar Autonomous Republic, that has a Medusa's head above the entrance, suggesting that it is in the test tubes and mortars of his laboratory that the organic is reduced to the inorganic. There is a whiff of Butlerov's entrance hanging over this volume, with subjects dropping dead and reverting to their inorganic sources at slightly more than the statistical rate. There are also a number of what to an English ear sound like naiveties, such as describing Alan Bullock as "an historian who wrote famous books", and the occasional slip: Sidgwick was not Norman but Nevil.

However, despite these occasional infelicities, chemists - I use the term widely to include anyone with an interest in their atomic roots - will find it rewarding to read about the inner lives of their friends and, if not friends, then significant contributors to their subject. Posterity, too, will be grateful for this lightly crafted snapshot of contributors to 20th-century scientific culture.

Peter Atkins is professor of chemistry, Oxford University.

Candid Science III: More Conversations with Famous Chemists

Author - Istvan Hargittai
Editor - Magdolna Hargittai
Publisher - Imperial College Press
Pages - 507
Price - £48.00 and £21.00
ISBN - 1 86094 336 5 and 337 3

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments