Science Book a Day Interviews Balazs Hargittai, Magdolna Hargittai and Istvan Hargittai

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Special thanks to Balazs HargittaiMagdolna Hargittai, and Istvan Hargittai for answering 7 questions about their recently featured book – Great Minds: Reflections of 111 Top Scientists

#1 – What was the impetus for Great Minds?

Mostly in the 1990s and the early 2000s, we recorded hundreds of conversations with famous scientist and published them in magazines, and especially in our six-volume Candid Science book series. These were in-depth interviews, often with detailed scientific background. The idea came to compile a selection of these conversations with excerpts from them aiming at a broader audience that may not be interested in scientific details but would like to learn about and from great scientists. Hence, this volume, Great Minds.

 #2 – How did you come to interview so many scientists? So many important scientists?

One of us (IH) recorded the first interview in 1965 with the Soviet Nobel laureate Nikolai Semenov at the invitation of Radio Budapest. Then, we did a large number of interviews for the magazine The Chemical Intelligencer and continued for a while even after the magazine had folded. We chose Nobel laureates or scientists at that level. In quite a few cases, our interviewees received the Prize a few years and in some cases only a few months after the interviews. Our basic approach to these interviews was asking questions that genuinely interested us; thus, our questions reflected true curiosity, and we learned a great deal from these conversations. We talked primarily with physicists, chemists, and biomedical scientists; also with some materials scientists and mathematicians.

#3 – Who did you write this book for?

Great Minds was produced for a broad readership without any prerequisite of scientific background; we supposed only a curiosity in matters related to science and in human careers. The broad readership of course includes scientists as well because even most scientists are nonprofessionals in fields other than their own.

#4 – Who were the most impressive scientists you interviewed?

There were many impressive scientists, most if not all. It is easier to single out some memorable moments in these interviews. The Harvard professor Frank H. Westheimer was 83 years old when we met. To the question, who had the strongest influence on his career, his response was James B. Conant. Westheimer talked only once, and then briefly, with Conant. Westheimer was just starting his research career and Conant was already a great leader in science. It was from their brief encounter that Westheimer understood, he was supposed to do something important. For his entire long career, Westheimer measured every one of his projects against whether Conant would approve. Westheimer was already an internationally renowned scientist when one day someone knocked on the door of his office, and there stood Conant and he asked Westheimer, “Do you remember me?“ At that point, we had to break our conversation, Westheimer became so moved, and so do I every time I tell this story. Mentors play a great role in many scientists’ careers, and “mentor” may be a teacher, a book, a colleague, or somebody even in a brief encounter as Westheimer’s example showed.

#5 – What was a common message from these scientists?

There are two common lessons from these numerous meetings. One is that great scientists are just ordinary people except in the narrow area in which they had done something extraordinary. The other is that they became great in what they were doing because they managed to find the activities that they truly enjoyed.

#6 – Did you get an idea about how new scientists see the future?

Only in an indirect way. We interviewed established scientists rather than new ones. We talk with new scientists when we tell them about our encounters. Some feel that almost everything important had already been discovered, but this feeling has always been there and has been disproved many times over. The other impression is that new scientists may have less patience than fledgling scientists used to generations before. Everything has accelerated, including scientific research …

#7 – Are you working on any new books/projects you can tell us about?

Two of us (IH and MH) have a new project Budapest Scientific: A Guidebook. It is about the visible memorabilia related to science and scientists in Budapest. It will be published by Oxford University Press (UK). It will have close to 800 images and stories, again, for a broad readership. Then, one of us (MH) has a big volume in the making about women scientists based mostly on conversations with about five dozen top researchers from 17 countries and 4 continents in several disciplines. It will be published by Oxford University Press (New York).