I had a pretty cool day at work yesterday. It’s the kind of day that makes it worth going back, every now and then.
A professor at the university where I work won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.
I don’t know him well. I’ve only spoken with him a couple of times. But it was my job to help tell the world.
I work behind the scenes a little more than I used to, and I’m still not accustomed to steering people as much as driving the bus myself. But it was a very cool day nonetheless, starting with a 6 a.m. phone call from a colleague to tell me that the man, whose name has surfaced each of the past six years as a contender, had actually won. He had been the Susan Lucci of the Nobel.
What made the event really special is that the laureate is a genuinely nice guy. He’s into his 80s now, and he looks like a 80-year-old professor, gray hair in permanent tousle, rumpled clothes and that lab-light glow. At the press conference he said he’ll still continue to work every day, including the weekends, which drew some laughs from photographers. He said he loves what he does; if an experiment delivers the anticipated result it’s wonderful, if it doesn’t then, he said, “at least I got to run an experiment.” When asked by a reporter how he felt when he heard about the award — the suspected answer, of course, being shock or elation — he said, “I rather had a sense of peace about it.”
Several years ago he won another big award, the Lasker Prize in Medicine, called “American Nobel.” In an extensive interview with the prize committee he said that as a boy in England he read a comic strip that included an inventor. That was his inspiration. He also said a scientist needs three things in life: his science, his family and a hobby, and he (or she — his wife is also a very accomplished researcher) needs to be doing these things.
How wonderful it must be for someone to extract such great feelings from his work. And his family. And, his personal pursuits. This man flies planes and pilots gliders.
What a remarkable lesson.
As a dad, though, I couldn’t help wonder what this man would be like if he had had children. He doesn’t, not that I know of, although he could almost produce one in the lab, if he wanted to. Surely the hundred-hour weeks spent in his lab early in his career would have been different if there were a toddler or preschooler at home; he’d either be sleepier or at least had some concern for the kids on his mind. We he still have been able to invent two of the most profound contributions to biological science?
But how much would have been added to his life if he had kids, how much more inspiration? Maybe there would have been more comic strips from which to draw inspiration, maybe looking at a little person half made up of his DNA would have sparked even more motivation. Or, maybe his heart’s been broken because he couldn’t have a child, or a child died young, and the lab became his sanctuary. Of course, maybe he’s perfectly happy not having had children at all. He carries the awe and excitement of a child; it seems as though he doesn’t need help getting in touch with that part of himself.
I heard that the other American who won yesterday had been orphaned when he was a small boy. How had that factored into his development?
One of my colleagues said having a conversation with our professor, this giant among scientists, now acknowledged around the world for his contributions to society, is “like talking to an uncle.”
Surprisingly, a lot of the coverage, especially Richard Knox’s piece on NPR, shed light not only on the man’s accomplishments as a scientist, but on his success as a person.
That’s something to aspire to.