Passionate Minds: The Inner World of Scientists

Passionate Minds: The Inner World of Scientists

Passionate Minds: The Inner World of Scientists

Passionate Minds: The Inner World of Scientists


The popular stereotype of the scientist as mad boffin or weedy nerd has been peddled widely in film and fiction, with the implication that the world of science is far removed from the intellectual and emotional messiness of other human activities. In Passionate Minds, distinguished scientist Lewis Wolpert investigates the style and motivation of some of the most eminent scientists in the world. In this stimulating collection of conversations, scientists in fields as diverse as particle physics and evolutionary biology explore how their backgrounds have shaped their careers and discoveries - how being an outsider or an "innocent" can play an invaluable role in overcoming conventional barriers to new understanding. Being a little crazy does seem to help. As Nobel laureate for physics Sheldon Glashow says, "If you would simply take all the kookiest ideas of the early 1970s and put them together you would have made for yourself the theory which is, in fact, the correct theory of nature, so it was like madness..." These personal explorations with individual scientists are not only accessible and truly fascinating in their insights into the minds of some of the greatest men and women of science, but they also provide a strong case that the life and works of our leading scientists are at least as illuminating and interesting as the personalities of the latest literary prizewinners. A sequel to A Passion for Science, this book will delight and intrigue scientists and non-scientists alike.


Outside their own habitat, scientists, as a species, are little understood. If they feature in popular awareness at all, it is through a limited set of media stereotypes. With a few exceptions, if scientists are not mad or bad, they are personality-free, their measured tones and formal reports implying ways of thinking and working far removed from the intellectual and emotional messiness of other human activities.

We embarked on these conversations, which were originally broadcast on bbc Radio 3, as an attempt to redress the balance. We wanted to give a rare glimpse of the intellectual, emotional and imaginative vigour that is the human reality of scientific life. Even a sample of this size demonstrates with extraordinary force the vitality and diversity of mind and temperament jostling within the retaining walls of 'science'. So vividly does the force of each personality spill out from the transcripts -- and these can only hint at the voice and emotional colour of the original exchange -- that they give the lie once and for all to the notion that science is in any way an 'inhuman' activity. Scientists think and feel about their work using the same psychological apparatus as the rest of us. It also becomes clear within a few pages that there is no one way of 'doing' science, even within recognized disciplines or groups. Among the experimentalists and the theorists, the biologists and the physicists, there are as many differences in style and motivation as there are in haircuts and accents.

These conversations show that it is possible for non-scientists to gain a meaningful sense of how scientists 'tick'; or at least as meaningful as the glimpse most of us get from listening to a poet or painter reflect upon their work. the dialogue is accessible, inspiring and full of surprises. We believe that these conversations make a case that society should -- and can -- be as interested in finding out about the life and times of Nobel scientists as in delving into the psyche of the latest literary prizewinners.

Such activities afford twin delights. Science -- as we have just noted -- seethes with diversity. Part of the fun is to explore and savour the uniqueness of each individual talent. On the other hand, it is also illuminating to seek patterns and underlying unities. We don't believe for a minute that there is a grand theory of scientific discovery any more than there is a grand theory of painting, but this collection of conversations also offers pleasurable scope for trend spotting amidst the infinite variety of genius.

For example, a casual glance through the following pages suggests that . . .

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