The Beginner's Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize: A Life in Science
By Peter Doherty
Soon after my appointment as an assistant professor, I was interviewed in Palm Springs for a beginner's grant given by a popular American charity. The interviewer, a bejewelled and scarily tanned doctor, looked me straight in the eyes and barked, “So, for what will you win the Nobel prize?” On hesitating to answer, my interview was doomed. I shortly crawled away, to hear nothing more of the matter. Back then, what I could have used was The Beginner's Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize. The book's author, Peter Doherty, knows about these things, because in 1996 he and Rolf Zinkernagel were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their joint work on the recognition of virus-infected tissue by T lymphocytes of the immune system.
For the aspiring young scientist, or a student considering a scientific career, Doherty opens the vault to the world of science, explaining how it works and how to get on. His title is only lightly in jest, for the last chapter gives a common-sense set of 18 guiding principles to scientific success that almost any old hand would agree with. As well as continuing his kind, however, Doherty aims to reach a broader readership: those who learn from the movies that “scientists are always mad, bad or quaint nerds who rattle on about controlling the world”.
He is not motivated by simple enthusiasm alone, however: like others in the know, Doherty has become deeply concerned with the way governments manipulate science to suit their political goals, and with the way publics at large, paradoxically, combine a pervasive suspicion of science with an equally pervasive confidence that technology — the application of science — can alone solve all the world's problems.
Doherty is an Australian, a veterinary surgeon and a faculty member at both St Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, and the University of Melbourne. Once described by the eminent immunologist Philippa Marrack in The New York Times as “a bit Eeyore-like” (Eeyore being the indomitable, if lugubrious, donkey from A. A. Milne's The House at Pooh Corner), Doherty says that the Nobel prize changed his life, propelling him “into a new and different world of public advocacy for science”. During the past ten years Doherty has enjoyed travelling the world, hobnobbing with politicians, governors, business leaders and authority figures from all walks of life to explain the nature of the scientific enterprise to them. In return, these interactions have provided a political education and awakening for Doherty, who now speaks out on the pressing issues of population control, global warming and environmental degradation. In his book, these themes of explaining science to the non-expert and exploring the place of science in modern society are intertwined. Each chapter is an essay that could stand alone but cleverly connects with the others through the device of the Nobel prize.
This book, which was first published in Australia in 2005, follows How to Win the Nobel Prize: An Unexpected Life in Science (Harvard University Press, 2003) by J. Michael Bishop, who with Harold Varmus received the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Despite their similar titles, size and desire to show science's human face to the public, they are very different books, making both for two good reads and an interesting comparison. Bishop's is more of a personal memoir, in which one learns all about his life and interests outside the laboratory. Contrasting with Doherty, Bishop reflects that the Nobel prize “has not enriched my life by any large measure”.
Over the past month, would-be winners of a Nobel prize have been distracted, twitchy and unable to look their fellow scientists in the eyes. That is now all over — at least until the same time next year, when another selected group will be looking forward to a wintry week in Stockholm and the celebrity status the Nobel prize brings. Meanwhile, a headline in The New York Times recently announced: “For Quality TV, Mad Scientist Returns”. This referred to the planned re-running of a 14-year-old television programme, Beakman's World, which aims to introduce the next generation to the joys of science through the persona of an electric-haired, bulging-eyed mad scientist.