Nobel Prize and Unsolved Problem

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 12, 2003 | Go to article overview

Nobel Prize and Unsolved Problem


Byline: Jeffrey Marsh, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

J. MIchael Bishop's How to Win the Nobel Prize: An Unexpected Life In Science (Harvard University Press, $27.95, 320 pages) is a misleading title. We must still wait a while - don't hold your breath - before the publisher of the popular series of "how-to" books brings out a volume called "Winning the Nobel Prize for Dummies." Few people believe that dummies win Nobel prizes, and Dr. Bishop is certainly not one. More a series of extended essays than a unified work, the book begins with a history of the Nobel Prizes, enlivened by an entertaining account of Dr. Bishop's experiences as a Nobelist, and continues with an autobiographical sketch, an account of his Nobel-winning work, an outline of molecular biology, a historical summary of infectious disease and how to control it, and a discussion of some of the current controversial issues involving the role of science in society.

Dr. Bishop calls his career "an unexpected life in science" because, unlike many scientists, he did not discover his vocation as a child. Born in 1936 in rural Pennsylvania, the son of a Lutheran pastor, he spent his elementary school years in a two-room schoolhouse, moved on to a small high school and then to Gettysburg College. When he graduated, he was still so naive that he wrote to Harvard Medical School and asked if he might visit the campus so he could see how it compared with his other option, the University of Pennsylvania.

This letter so amused the admissions office that they posted it on the bulletin board for all to see, but Dr. Bishop must have mightily impressed the Harvard medical faculty in other ways as well, because he was not only admitted, but allowed to follow his own path, spending his second year doing independent research and skipping most of the required fourth-year courses to study viruses.

After two years as a house physician at Mass. General Hospital, he left the practice of clinical medicine to pursue research at the National Institutes of Health, spent a year in Germany, and in 1968 returned to America to join the University of California at San Francisco, where he has been ever since. Shortly thereafter, Harold Varmus, another late developer who took up medicine after receiving a master's degree in English literature, arrived as a postdoctoral fellow, and the two began an exceptional scientific partnership that over the next 15 years turned UCSF into a powerhouse in molecular biology.

The two men shared the 1989 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for their discovery that normal genes can cause cancer, Dr. Bishop's book is gracefully written and embellished with enlightening illustrations and literary and poetic quotations, demonstrating the persistence of his youthful ambition to become a renaissance man. His artful self-portrait presents him as a modest, good-natured fellow, although in his humble way he manages to even a few scores. He mentions that one of his colleagues was foolish enough to write a note wagering three-to-one odds that Dr. Bishop would never win the Nobel Prize, and tells us that the colleague was mortified when Dr. Bishop projected a copy of the bet during a lecture. He reproduces the note in the book.

The prominence of the Nobel Prize derives in no small part from the large sum of money associated with it, and perhaps the same phenomenon accounts for the appearance within a few months of at least three books dealing with the Riemann Hypothesis, a mathematical statement originally proposed in 1859, the proof of which is regarded, at least by the books' authors, as "the greatest unsolved problem in mathematics. It is one of seven problems appearing on the list of so-called "Millennium Problems" compiled in the year 2000 by a group of leading mathematicians in conjunction with the Clay Mathematics Institute, which promises a reward of a million dollars for a solution to each one.

***

Karl Sabbagh and Marcus du Sautoy both successfully explain the Riemann Hypothesis for readers with little or no knowledge of mathematics, explain some of its significance in the wider world of those who use mathematics, knowingly or unknowingly, in their everyday lives, explore the historical background of attempts to prove the hypothesis and provide often fascinating descriptions of the men (and, very occasionally, women) who have pursued the elusive proof. …

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