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Scientific Memoir: Variations on a Theme

MEMOIR OF A THINKING RADISH An Autobiography. Peter Medawar. Oxford University Press, New York, 1986. 221 pp., illus. $17.95; £12.50. THE SMALL WORLD OF FRED HOYLE An Autobiography. Fred Hoyle. Michael Joseph, London, 1986. 191 pp. £10.95. A LIFE IN SCIENCE Nevill Mott. Taylor & Francis, Philadelphia, 1986. 206 pp., illus. $27; £15. "The lives of scientists," writes Sir Peter Medawar, "almost always make dull reading." He is not just being coy. Science, for all its focus on the n

By | November 17, 1986

MEMOIR OF A THINKING RADISH
An Autobiography. Peter Medawar.
Oxford University Press, New York,
1986. 221 pp., illus. $17.95; £12.50.

THE SMALL WORLD OF FRED HOYLE
An Autobiography. Fred Hoyle. Michael
Joseph, London, 1986. 191 pp. £10.95.

A LIFE IN SCIENCE
Nevill Mott. Taylor & Francis, Philadelphia, 1986. 206 pp., illus. $27; £15.

"The lives of scientists," writes Sir Peter Medawar, "almost always make dull reading." He is not just being coy. Science, for all its focus on the natural world, flourishes in the hothouses of academia, and the lives of many creative scientists, among them Medawar, Hoyle and Mott, read like chronicles of middle
class respectability.

It's not surprising, after all, for science is intellectual, not physical, adventure. And scientists themselves, cherishing an arguably unattainable ideal of objectivity, tend to downplay the personal aspects of their own discoveries.

This is the ideal of course; the real world is different. Deliberate or not, a strong personal element enters into the doing of science. Each scientist comes to work with distinctive ways of looking at reality, with preferences about methods and projects, with unique sources of satisfaction and motivation.

And science is also intensely social. Whether a member of a research group or a lone theorist, a scientist accumulates memories of inspiring teachers, bits of wisdom and folly, impressions of colleagues, and a stock of amusing and instructive anecdotes.

Such glimpses of humanity, rather than bizarre exploits or cosmic insights, are what make a scientific autobiography rewarding. In skilled hands the autobiography becomes a medium by which creative researchers, often elder members of the field, can impart a bit of their wisdom, not just their knowledge, to the younger generation.

That is certainly the case here. All three authors are prominent members of the generation of British scientists that matured between the world wars. Two are Nobel laureates: Mott won the 1977 prize in physics for his work in
solid-state physics, Medawar, the 1960 prize in medicine for his re search in immunology. Hoyle is known both for his work on the ori-gins of the universe and for his many popular science and science fiction books. All three received similar educations and spent much of their lives in the rarefied atmospheres of Oxford and Cambridge. One would expect all three to tell pretty much the same story.

To some extent that is true, yet the contrasting personalities revealed in these accounts are more notable than any similarities in their circumstances.

Mott is the oldest of the three, born in 1905, and his memoirs are the most straightforward and discursive. The son of two science teachers, he studied at Cambridge, Copenhagen and Gottingen during a time when the revolutionary ideas of quantum mechanics were just beginning to take hold. It was, he remarks, "the most fortunate time to start research in theoretical physics because there were so many easy problems to solve." And so many important ones. Mott went on to write a number of fundamental monographs on the physics of metals and semiconductors and to head physics departments at Bristol and Cambridge. His success, by his account, seems almost inevitable, given his ability and the fertile climate of the times.

Hoyle, later a colleague of Mott at Cambridge, is a decade younger, not a long time in the affairs of men, one would think. Yet his career, he remarks, was directed quite differently. "A generation of theoretical physicists is much shorter than a social generation-ten or fifteen years at most. I do not think physicists today would deny that my generation was the unluckiest of the past half century. We were too late to receive anything but crumbs from the rich table of the years around 1926. . . . Additionally from 1939 to 1945 we lost six war-time years, half the life of our generation." Hoyle portrays himself throughout his book as a young outsider struggling to come up with original ideas, paying scant attention to , academic conventions and pretensions. It is a persona he continues to adopt today.

Medawar is a contemporary of Hoyle, though his primary venue was Oxford and his field of interest biology. He, too, portrays himself as a bemused observer with a distaste for pretense. Unlike the others, he adopts an anecdotal form rather than a straight narrative. There are short pieces here on his school years and reflections on a host of topics from medicine to music. Medawar paints a picture of himself as a man driven by a native, omnivorous curiosity. Unlike Hoyle, he flowered during the war, beginning his research on tissue rejection by working with airmen burned in crashes. Unlike Mott, he did his Nobel work early, though both of them occupied many of their later years in administrative tasks.

None of these books will stand as definitive history. In each we see both the world of science and the persona of the author as the authors themselves would have us see them. That is their charm, how-ever. Look not for the flash, as Medawar implies in his opening epigram, but for the tale well told, the witty turn of phrase, the sharing of a different, yet familiar, life story.

Marschall, a contributing editor of The Sciences, is currently a visiting scientist at the Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, MA 02138.
 

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