The Chemical Educator, Vol. 7, No. 3, S1430-4171(02)03570-7, 10.1007/s00897020570a, © 2002 Springer-Verlag New York, Inc.
Candid Science: Conversations with Famous Chemists. By István Hargittai; edited by Magdolna Hargittai. Imperial College Press: London, England, 2000; distributed by World Scientific Publishing Co.: Singapore; River Edge, NJ; London, England. Illustrations. xii + 516 pp.; 16.5 ´24.5 cm.; $78; £48; hardbound. ISBN 1-86094-151-6; $34.00; £21; paperback. ISBN 1-86094-228-8.
George B. Kauffman and Laurie M. Kauffman, California State University, Fresno, firstname.lastname@example.org
We have been Contributing Editor (GBK) of the History feature of The Chemical Intelligencer, Springer-Verlag’s popular but unfortunately short-lived quarterly magazine for the culture of chemistry and related sciences, as well as authors (GBK and LMK) of interviews, reviews, and articles involving 14 of the 36 interviewed chemists whose portraits appear on the cover of Candid Science: Conversations with Famous Chemists. Thus, we have a personal as well as professional interest in István Hargittai’s delightful collection of interviews, vignettes, and quotations.
During his six-year tenure (24 issues, 1995–2000) as Editor-in-Chief of The Chemical Intelligencer, Hargittai, sometimes with his wife Magdi, interviewed more than 120 eminent scientists, more than half of whom were Nobel laureates. A number of these interviews did not reach the pages of the magazine, and we hoped that these, along with the many that were published, could appear in print in a handier and more permanent form. Fortunately, the first of the four volumes of Candid Scientists (edited by Magdolna Hargittai) is now available and should be followed shortly by volumes subtitled Conversations with Famous Biomedical Scientists, Conversations with Famous Physicists, and More Conversations with Famous Chemists.
Hargittai seeks to uncover the stories behind the most important achievements in twentieth-century chemistry directly from some of their most eminent participants. They tell us about their lives, both personal and professional, childhoods (Yes, some had chemistry sets or home laboratories.), influences and career choices, aspirations, hardships and triumphs, philosophies, and, of course, their seminal discoveries. In most cases their human feelings shine through their words. Nobel laureates describe how the prize affected their lives, research, and careers. Most are modest and admit the role of luck in their good fortune. For example, 1999 Nobel laureate Ahmed H. Zewail states, “you have to be in the right place in the right time” (p 507).
A number of the conversations are laced with humor. For example, Elena G. Gal’pern, coauthor of the 1973 Russian article predicting the stable truncated icosahedral structure of C60, told Hargittai, “I have two kittens and a dog and when I try to talk to them about fullerenes, they stare at me with great bewilderment” (p 331). Also, on p 263 we see a cartoon from the Journal and Courier, Lafayette, Indiana on October 20, 1979 after the announcement of the 1979 Nobel Prize. Herbert C. Brown is depicted sitting and reading the newspaper, while his wife asks, “Excuse me, Herbert, but would I be out of line in asking a Nobel Prize winner to take the garbage out?” In a letter to the editor of October 25, 1979 Brown responded, “I read your cartoon with a sinking feeling. Sarah has always brought the garbage out and cartoons such as you published can only create difficulties in an idyllic arrangement. You should understand that in our long, very happy marriage I have assumed total responsibility for the chemistry, and Sarah has assumed responsibility for everything else. Please, don’t sow doubts in a wonderful cooperative arrangement.” On the following page we see a cartoon by Brown’s postdoc Hsiupu Daniel Lee titled “Sic transit gloria,” in which the positions of the couple are reversed; Brown is taking out the garbage, while his wife is sitting reading the newspaper.
The subject matter discussed includes structural chemistry, medicinal chemistry, natural products, stereochemistry, theoretical and computational chemistry, inorganic chemistry, physical organic chemistry, NMR spectroscopy, kinetics and reaction mechanisms, early molecular mechanics, grants and research support, the increasing importance of instruments, the brain drain, and the politics of resonance theory and atmospheric chemistry. Almost a fifth of the book (95 pp) is devoted to one of the most fascinating discoveries of the second half of the twentieth century, the fullerenes.
Each interview is prefaced with a biographical sketch and includes one or more portraits, many photographed by Hargittai himself. The volume contains 167 illustrations of apparatus, pages of articles and books, medals, formal and informal group portraits, graphs, cartoons, models, commemorative postage stamps, and even an NMR image of 1991 Nobel laureate Richard R. Ernst’s head and a drawing and painting by 1996 Nobel laureate Harold W. Kroto. Hargittai’s questions are printed in italics and the much longer responses in Roman type. Structural formulas, equations, and reaction schemes are included when necessary. Eight of the interviewees are now deceased, underscoring the importance of such oral histories. The earliest born chemist is 1956 Nobel laureate Nikolai Nikolayevich Semenov (1896–1986), Hargittai’s first conversation with a famous chemist (September 1965 for Radio Budapest), and the youngest interviewee is Robert L. Whetten (b. 1959).
Besides the actual interviews, Hargittai includes additional entries: 1969 Nobel laureate Odd Hassel, “to whom I never posed questions in the way I did to the others, but my interactions with him made me think of him as one of my interviewees;” quotations (useful for lecture use by chemical educators) by Erwin Chargaff and 1995 Nobel laureate John W. Cornforth; a brief review of the minutes of a June 11–14, 1951 meeting in Moscow devoted to the denunciation of Pauling’s resonance theory; a brief segment on Buckminster Fuller because of his conspicuous, if indirect, role in the fullerene story; early Russian work on metal–metal bonds; and a brief entry on Paul de Kruif “because his book Microbe Hunters was at least as important as the chemistry set in turning interested children’s attention to chemistry for the generations that are so prominently represented among my interviewees.”
Since Hargittai is a friendly fellow scientist rather than an investigative reporter, he never tries to deal with a problem with which the interviewees seem uncomfortable, and he tactfully asks them to ignore any of his questions that they do not wish to discuss. In return, they are often candid and frank in their responses to questions that he does ask. Hence the title of his book is most appropriate, as is its subtitle; actually, its contents are more candid informal conversations rather than formal interviews.
Thus several scientists discuss their differences with Sir Robert Robinson and Richard Bernstein. Al Cotton presents his side of the controversy during his candidacy for the 1985 American Chemical Society presidency. The campaign became a cause célèbre when he sent a letter to ACS members branding his opponent “a mediocre industrial chemist.” He still maintains that this was “a precise description of him” but admits that he “shouldn’t have coupled those two adjectives” (pp 241–242). Similarly, Eiji Osawa wishes that he had not published his 1970 article on C60 in the Japanese journal Kagaku, where it elicited no response from the international chemical community (p 313). Also, several of the main participants in the fullerene story reveal the presence of animosity and jealousy. Wolfgang Krätschmer tells that “it wouldn’t have been a big problem to support [his former graduate student Konstantinos Fostiropoulos’] becoming a co-inventor [of C60] if he had not blamed us for scientific robbery….He is somewhere in Germany, and his lawyers are pursuing the suit against the Max Planck Society, which is one of the patent holders” (p 402). In response to Hargittai’s question as how to avoid controversies about priorities in discoveries, Rick Smalley suggests, “Keep a tape recorder running at all times [in the U.S. this ought to be called ‘Nixon’s Rule’]” (p 372).
From the conversations we also learn many little known facts: Al Cotton was christened Frank Abbott (not Albert) Cotton (p 232). Richard R. Ernst suffered a nervous breakdown because of overwork in his native Switzerland, and he prefers the United States (p 303). Rick Smalley realized that something fundamentally new was being discovered “at about 1 a.m., Tuesday morning, September 10, 1985” (p 368). The wife of Wolfgang Krätschmer, who was the first to produce C60 in macroscopic quantities, came from Hatvan, which in Hungarian means sixty, and Buckminster Fuller was research professor at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (p 403). Aerosol Age published an interview with a person who speculated that 1995 Nobel laureates F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario J. Molina, who discovered the role of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in depleting the ozone layer, were KGB agents intent of disorganizing American industry (p 462).
Because previous subscribers to The Chemical Intelligencer may be potential buyers of the first volume of Candid Science, here is an annotated list of its contents (CI, previously appeared in the same or modified form in The Chemical Intelligencer; *, Nobel laureate; †, deceased; F, female):
1. “Linus Pauling” (5 pp) CI * †(This was the very first article to appear in The Chemical Intelligencer)
2. “The Great Soviet Resonance Controversy” (6 pp)
3. “Erwin Chargaff” (15 pp) CI
4. “Quotable Chargaff” (9 pp)
5. “Frank H. Westheimer” (16 pp) CI
6. “Gertrude B. Elion” (18 pp) CI * † F
7. “Carl Djerassi” (20 pp) CI
8. “Paul J. Scheurer” (22 pp) CI
9. “Ayhan Ulubelen” (8 pp) CI F
10. “John W. Cornforth” (13 pp) CI *
11. “Quotable Cornforth” (3 pp) *
12. “Vladimir Prelog” (10 pp) CI * †
13. “Derek H. R. Barton” (10 pp) CI * †
14. “Odd Hassel” (6 pp) * †
15. “Michael J. S. Dewar” (14 pp) CI †
16. “John A. Pople” (12 pp) CI *
17. “Roald Hoffmann” (18 pp) CI *
18. “Kenichi Fukui” (12 pp) CI * †
19. “Milton Orchin” (8 pp)
20. “F. Albert Cotton” (16 pp) CI
21. “The Beginnings of Multiple Metal-Metal Bonds” (4 pp)
22. “Herbert C. Brown” (20 pp) CI *
23. “George A. Olah” (14 pp) *
24. “John D. Roberts” (10 pp) CI
25. “Richard R. Ernst” (14 pp) CI
26. “Eiji Osawa” (14 pp) CI
27. “Elena G. Gal’pern F and Ivan V. Stankevich” (10 pp) CI
28. “Harold W. Kroto” (26 pp, the longest piece) CI *
29. “The Fuller Connection” (4 pp) CI
30. “Richard E. Smalley” (12 pp) CI *
31. “Robert F. Curl” (14 pp) *
32. “Wolfgang Krätschmer” (16 pp) CI
33. “Robert L. Whetten” (12 pp)
34. “Philip E. Eaton” (6 pp)
35. “R. Stephen Berry” (14 pp)
36. “What Turned You to Chemistry?” (2 pp, the shortest piece)
37. Kenneth S. Pitzer” (10 pp) †
38. “F. Sherwood Rowland” (18 pp) * CI
39. “Nikolai N. Semenov” (10 pp) * †
40. “George Porter” (12 pp) *
41. “Ahmed H. Zewail” (20 pp) *
Only three of the scientists are women so, despite the increasing acceptance of women in academic, industrial, and governmental laboratories, further advances in the struggle against sexism are needed. An unusually high proportion of the interviewees (at least a dozen) are Jewish, so the issues of Judaism, the Holocaust, and anti-Semitism are discussed by several of them. However, it is a Moslem, Ahmed H. Zewail, who cogently makes the case for tolerance: “In academia, I have been aware of the Jewish tradition of scholarship. I know that Jewish families educate their children to these values and to reason. I think the majority of people could appreciate me for what I was. Many of my friends are Jewish scientists, and they can value me as a scientist and as a human being” (pp 506–507).
Hargittai dedicated his volume, which is admirably suited for either complete reading or browsing, “to the coming generations of students, for whom much of the material presented here will be science history.” According to 1967 Nobel laureate Baron George Porter of Luddenham, one of the interviewees, who also wrote the foreword, “This book will be enjoyed by all who have some interest in science and it will be of special value to the young people whom it may encourage to follow those, whose stories are told here.” We heartily agree with his evaluation.