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Drive And Curiosity by Istvan Hargittai

01/07/2012. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy Drive And Curiosity in the USA - or Buy Drive And Curiosity in the UK

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pub: Prometheus Books. 338 page illustrated indexed hardback. Price: $26.00 (US), 22.95 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-61614-468-5.

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'Drive And Curiosity' has a sub-title of 'What Fuels The Passion For Science' but the book is actually fifteen biographies of people who made significant changes to our sciences in the last century as well as giving you a grasp of their discoveries. Unlike other books of this nature, author Istvan Hargittai knew, knows and met and wrote to most of them so can offer greater insight and doesn't stop from giving a warts and all, including the skulduggery done by James D. Watson, Linus Pauling amongst others and how knowing the right people kept them ahead of the rest with their discoveries.

Although many of the people here have specialities in chemistry and bio-chemistry, there are the odd ones like Leo Szilard, who was one of the first to recognise that a nuclear chain reaction when bombardment with neutrons yielding more than was fired would lead to a nuclear bomb all the more fascinating. Although thought of in 1934, he was grateful that it wasn't realised until World War Two otherwise it was possible that his home country, Germany, would have had it first. Szilard after settling in the USA prior to WW2, became an advocate for making the atomic bomb so deadly that no one would want to use it and also got the hot line between America and the USSR to ensure the world leaders would talk. It's interesting to note how many of the significant scientists in this book are German refugees, plus one Russian, who sought refuge abroad than the regimes of their own country.

Something that is pretty common with all the people in this book, many of whom won Nobel Prizes, is the hard work they had to do to have their work recognised by their fellow scientists. Even worse when the likes of physicist Rosalyn Yalow had to fight for her own recognition against the chauvinistic Nobel Prize committee who would rather have her seated with the scientists wives than with peer group, the scientists.

Hargittai points out how many of them have a 'Eureka!' moment in discovering something away from their normal research and pursuing it, as with Alan MacDiarmid who led the discovery of conductive polymers which is of so much use in electrical circuits today.

Sherwood Rowland discovered chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were causing harm to the environment while investigating the high levels of mercury in tuna. Although not an environmentalist, which actually stood him in good stead for being unbias, it is his work that ensured we've done more to stop the damage to the ozone layer.

Two subjects cross-connect with the discovery of DNA by Peter Mansfield and James D. Watson and the latter eccentric Kary Mullis who discovered the way to copy DNA fragments which is used so much in forensic science these days.

Just in case you thought this book only covered Nobel Prize winners, Hargittai points out Neil Bartlett whose work with creating compounds out of the inert gases that led to fluorine chemistry amongst others.

Likewise, George Gamow who fought for the Big Bang creation of the universe than the static version as stated by Einstein at the time. Interestingly, it wasn't Gamow but Ernest Rutherford who actually coined the name 'Big Bang' as seeing the former's theory as being ludicrous. Ultimately, Gamow won out when his calculation for the ambient temperature of the universe was nearly spot on.

If you are seeking to have a career in biochemistry and other sciences, then you will find this book inspiring. Hargittai interestingly points out that the best scientists are those that cross the boundaries between different science subjects which roughly translates into being not so specialised that you can't see the need of knowing other subjects.

I found this book a fascinating read, not only because you get potted histories of people you might not otherwise have come across but the significance of their work in the technology we have today and straightforward explanations of their discoveries. Required reading.

GF Willmetts

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