3 October 2006

Winning a Nobel: easy as wrestling a pig

Cosmos Online
Anyone can win a Nobel Prize, even pig wrestlers from a country barely noticed by the rest of the world. All you need is fire in the belly.
Winning a Nobel: easy as wrestling a pig

Self-confessed 'pig wrestler' Peter Doherty accepts his Nobel Prize in 1996.

This week, the Swedish Academy announces the Nobel Prizes – the science world’s Academy Awards, elevating the winners into an Olympian pantheon whose members include many of the greatest scientists of the past century. The prizes are given for work that is considered fundamentally important; theories and discoveries that change our lives (and, not infrequently, save lives) – even if most of us would have trouble understaning the citation.

When Alfred Nobel set up the prizes, his will said that they should be awarded for work done in the previous year. That rule has long since been dropped, and these days Nobels are typically given decades after the original research.

What does it take to get to this pinnacle of scientific achievement? Are Nobelists born or bred? And what might we do to enhance our chances of generating more of these remarkable beings?

Peter Doherty, who won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1996 along with Rolf Zinkernagel, has been outspoken on the subject. Together the pair were awarded “for their discoveries concerning the specificity of the cell mediated immune defence”.

Their work broke fundamental ground in immunology and opened up new paths for developing viral vaccines. One of Doherty’s many projects these days is as scientific advisor to a $30-million-a-year project to develop a HIV vaccine. Much of the rest of his time is spent researching the alarming new swath of flu viruses.

Doherty, who is an Australian by birth and by his laconic spirit, divides his time between the University of Melbourne and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, USA. He recently published a book, The Beginner’s Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize, in which he offers forthright commentary on the Nobels in general, along with a charmingly homely account of his own unlikely path toward this pinnacle.

He insisted that there was nothing about his background that might have suggested he was destined for scientific greatness. “Winning a Nobel Prize wasn’t what I set out to do,” he said.

Doherty began his career as a veterinary scientist researching animal diseases. “I was wrestling pigs,” he said. Before pig wrestling, things looked even less promising. Doherty grew up in Brisbane, a place he describes in his book as “an isolated and parochial town in a country barely noticed by the rest of the world.” (Brisbane has since morphed into a beautiful, cosmopolitan city.)

His parents both left school at 15. His father worked as a telephone technician, and his mother taught piano. Their lives had given them “no experience with higher education and no understanding of it.” Yet, rather than seeing that as an obstacle, Doherty insists that, in many respects, his parents’ lack of academic acumen assisted his intellectual development.

“If you look at the lives of Nobel winners,” he told me, “what you find is that many of them came from these unlikely backgrounds — one-room schoolhouses and concentration camps.” They do not necessarily hail from privileged backgrounds. What matters, he said, “is that you have fire in the belly.”

Doherty believes that less fortunate kids may indeed be more fortunate: “You don’t have parents who are so prescriptive in what they expect you to do and be. The individual is in a sense freer.”

Critical to his own intellectual development were good teachers. Doherty attended a newly opened public school, Indooroopilly State High. It had no library, no books, no sporting equipment — “parents were expected to provide those things.” What it did have were “teachers really committed to public education”.

At Indooroopilly, and later in the veterinary department at the University of Queensland, Doherty was exposed to scientific ideas put forth by people who were passionate about conveying them.

If we want to create more truly innovative scientists, he said, above all what we need is a great public school system. Doherty noted that the New York City public school system has produced 25 Nobelists, five from the Bronx High School of Science. He believes such specialised programs are important to allow kids who are drawn to science to maximise their potential.

That does not mean hothousing. Doherty deplores the current trend of parents to try to create genius children: “It’s no use hothousing kids so they just reproduce a lot of acceptable stuff. Kids need time to think and to learn for themselves.”

Doherty’s comments mesh with a number of studies that have been done on genius. No accepted measure of intelligence, such as IQ, has been shown to predict reliably who will achieve extraordinary things. What does correlate is persistent work on the part of the student and excellent teaching and support from the surrounding community.

Benjamin Bloom of the University of Chicago studied the lives of elite athletes, performers, artists and scientists. Every person in his study had taken at least a decade, if not longer, of intense hard work to achieve international recognition. Equally, they had good teachers and mentors and plenty of support in their formative years. “We were looking for exceptional kids,” Bloom has said, “and what we found were exceptional conditions.”

Like other categories of genius, Nobelists are not so much born to greatness as they are made. To get to Stockholm, it does indeed take a village.

Margaret Wertheim is a contributing editor to COSMOS and director of the Institute for Figuring.

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