Science, society and speculation: Life after the Nobel Prize

Most of us know about the prize-winning work of this year’s Lindau Nobel Laureates, but how many of us keep track of what they did after winning the coveted honor? Scientists’ lives after the Nobel Prize change dramatically. As former Lindau attendee Richard Ernst put it, they are now expected to be oracles on everything from international politics to religion, even when their knowledge of most other things is as limited as that of other people. There is no common thread; after winning the Prize, scientists’ lives become as varied as those of all of us and in some cases a little more interesting. Here’s a short portrait of life after the Nobel Prize illustrated with a select few examples.

1. Carrying on: Some scientists manage to be almost completely oblivious to the fame and attention that comes with the prize and keep on doing exactly what they were doing before. They continue to work in more or less the same field, write and see their papers and grants accepted and rejected and essentially are at their desks or benches for the rest of their lives. They may indulge in some other activities like writing or speaking, but actual research remains their primary goal. Examples are Max Perutz and Oliver Smithies. Perutz sent his last paper (on the structure of the amyloid protein found in Alzheimer’s disease) to a journal one day before he died. Oliver Smithies still works until 7 PM in the building next to mine at the University of North Carolina. Another scientist who made significant contributions to at least two key areas was Richard Feynman; after winning the prize for his work in quantum electrodynamics, Feynman did very important work in superfluidity and beta decay.

What is interesting is that a minuscule number of scientists have done Nobel-caliber work after winning the prize. Two-time Nobelists John Bardeen and Fred Sanger are exceptions. It’s probably too much to expect someone to win two Nobel Prizes, but these examples make it clear that doing very high-quality work even after winning your prize is certainly not impossible. Also, and this is just an analogy, Nobel Prize winners could borrow a page from the lives of Academy Award winners. Several Hollywood performers like Jodie Foster, Tom Hanks and Katherine Hepburn continued to do very good work after winning one and even two Oscars. While doing Nobel Prize winning research is probably a little more difficult than putting on another Academy Award winning performance, the take-home message is that winning any prize does not preclude the continued use of your talents.

2. A change of gears: Some scientists continue to do science but now they feel secure enough to work in speculative areas of science which they may not have been able to indulge in before. The Nobel Prize does grant some amount of immunity to pursuing far-off ideas, with the caveat that even Nobelists have to fight for grants and papers. A great example is people who pursued origins-of-life research, an inherently speculative but endlessly fascinating field. An old case is that of Manfred Eigen, who after winning a Nobel for contributing to the study of fast chemical reactions turned his attention to self-replicating molecules and their role in life’s origins.

A very recent example is Jack Szostak who won the prize in 2009. It must have been amusing and gratifying for Szostak to share a prize for work on telomerase that he did in the 1980s. For most of the last decade or so his attention has been focused on the evolution of biological membranes during life’s origins. Membrane formation was a key event in the origin of cells, and Szostak continues to do high-quality and pioneering work that has demonstrated among other things how vesicles can capture self-replicating RNA and how phospholipids could have become dominant in the composition of the cell membrane. Winning a Nobel Prize can confer an unprecedented degree of scientific independence and many scientists put it to good use.

3. Reaching out to society: Many scientists are granted a public platform after winning the prize, and they use this platform to further the cause of science in society. One of the best examples is Harry Kroto who has become a fixture at Lindau. Kroto has been deeply involved in promoting science education and rationality around the world. He has harnessed the forces of the Internet to create a website featuring scores of science videos and interviews with famous scientists. And of course, just like he does at Lindau, he travels around the world breathlessly advocating the benefits of science and rational inquiry. Another Nobelist who turned his attention to science education was Georges Charpak who died last year. Charpak became alarmed by the low levels of science education in France and started a science program in which students could learn science by actually doing experiments on their own. The program has since spread to 12 other countries.

While those like Kroto and Charpak promote science, others promote peace. And they do this so well that they win yet another Nobel Prize for it. The most famous example is Linus Pauling who worked tirelessly against nuclear testing and won a prize for his peace efforts in 1962. Other Nobel Laureates like Hans Bethe also became involved in arms disarmament and provided valuable advice to governments.

4. Kicking back and relaxing: Then there’s a relative minority of Nobel Prize winners who, after winning the Prize, retire to their country homes and tend their rose gardens, essentially giving up scientific research. Lest you think that these scientists are not as distinguished as those who continue to do science, think again; the greatest example is Fred Sanger who won two Nobel Prizes for two discoveries that are at the very foundation of biomedical research (protein and DNA sequencing). Sanger was more of a scientist’s scientist than many other prizewinners, and yet he thought it pertinent to spend his time after two prizes doing exactly what we described- retiring to his country home outside Cambridge and tending to his roses. If you have won two Nobels, I think you fully deserve any retirement that you want.

5. Retiring to the fringes: Finally there is the curious group of scientists who, instead of retiring to their country homes, have retired to the borderlands of science. The financial and professional independence engendered by the prize has allowed them to boldly go where most respectable scientists fear to go. Their work has been castigated and they have even been denounced as old coots riding off into the sunset with their best work behind them.

While Einstein definitely does not fit into the category of fringe scientist, it’s worth noting that much of his time after winning the Nobel Prize was spent in criticizing quantum mechanics as incomplete, and in trying to craft a unified theory of nature. By the time of his death he was considered very far from the mainstream of physics. Yet to his credit, he remained steadfastly honest about his displeasure with the inherent uncertainty and bizarre character of the quantum world, at a time when most American physicists belonged to the “shut up and calculate” school which papered over the philosophical difficulties.

However, there are examples which decidedly tread the boundary between science and pseudoscience. Brian Josephson, who after winning a prize for his discovery of the Josephson effect in superconductors, dabbled in parapsychology and telepathy. Kary Mullis, the colorful character who got the Nobel for his key discovery of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), immersed himself into a variety of controversial opinions, from denying the link between HIV and AIDS to declaring his belief in astrology. The most recent Nobelist to spark controversy is Luc Montagnier who incidentally attended last year’s Lindau meeting and is also at this year’s. The importance of Montagnier’s discovery of HIV is unquestioned, but since then Montagnier has resigned his prestigious post in France and has accepted a top position at a Chinese university. Why? Because he was met with a flurry of criticism for his research in homeopathy. Montagnier claims to have detected electromagnetic signals from DNA in highly diluted solutions of the kind used by homeopaths. He further believes that such “signals” can be used for detecting viral infections. Linus Pauling’s advocacy of Vitamin C as a panacea sounds downright tame compared to some of these claims.

How should students at Lindau treat the claims made by otherwise distinguished scientists like Josephson, Montagnier and Mullis? They should react to these claims in the same way that they would react to any other scientific claims. The young researchers should remember that the hallmark of science is to suspend belief until dictated by evidence to the contrary. Science also calls for a suspension of ad hominem emotions and asks that we subject every claim to the kind of rational, dispassionate skepticism that has made possible several centuries of scientific progress. The young researchers at Lindau should press Montagnier and others gently but firmly on their claims. They should be relentless and objective in their questioning without being impolite or arrogant. These are scientists who have made enormous contributions to our knowledge of the world. But that does not make them infallible; their claims need to be taken as seriously and critically as those of others. The claims should not be accorded special status, but neither should they be approached with predetermined beliefs.

This fine balance between skepticism and open-mindedness constitutes the very soul of science. Talking to Montagnier and others at Lindau should be a valuable exercise in the scientific method for the young researchers. They should welcome it with open arms.

 

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