Public Release:  How and why did 2011 Nobel winner Dan Shechtman persist despite rejection?

New book investigates what fuels the passion for science

Prometheus Books

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IMAGE: Istvan Hargittai PhD, DSc (Budapest, Hungary), is the author of Drive and Curiosity: What Drives the Passion for Science (Prometheus Books, $26); the critically acclaimed Judging Edward Teller (Prometheus Books,... view more

Credit: Image courtesy of Gyorgy Wessely

On April 8, 1982, alone in a laboratory, chemist Dan Shechtman looked through an electron microscope and saw an impossible pattern. He had discovered quasicrystals. But his groundbreaking findings were rejected, even mocked, by the scientific establishment for years.

On October 5, 2011, Shechtman received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

What compelled Shechtman to stand by his research? What drove the men and women behind the most paradigm-shifting findings of the twentieth century? What motivates those few scientists who rise above their peers to achieve breakthrough discoveries?

In order to answer such questions, physical chemist and author Istvan Hargittai examines the careers of fifteen eminent scientists who achieved some of the most notable discoveries of the past century, assessing their motivation. In Drive and Curiosity, Dr. Hargittai provides an insider's perspective on the history of twentieth-century science. The author, who was personally acquainted with all but two of the scientists he profiles, includes:

  • Dan Shechtman, the aforementioned 2011 Nobel laureate and discoverer of quasicrystals
  • James D. Watson, the Nobel laureate and codiscoverer of the double helix structure of DNA
  • Linus Pauling, the Nobel laureate remembered most for his work on the structure of proteins
  • Edward Teller, a giant of the twentieth century who accomplished breakthroughs in our understanding of nuclear fusion
  • George Gamow, a pioneering scientist who devised the initially ridiculed and now accepted Big Bang

"Is there a recipe for research successes reaching the highest pinnacles? What are the common characteristics of discoveries that profoundly alter the world we live in?" asks Richard N. Zare, Stanford University, Wolf Prize laureate. "This fascinating book presents fifteen case studies that explore these questions in a manner both inviting and at once accessible."

In each case, Hargittai has uncovered a singular personality characteristic, motivational factor, or circumstance that, in addition to their extraordinary drive and curiosity, led these scientists to make outstanding contributions. For example, Gertrude B. Elion, who discovered drugs that saved millions of lives, was motivated to find new medications after the deaths of her grandfather and later her fiancé. F. Sherwood Rowland, who stumbled upon the environmental harm caused by chlorofluorocarbons, eventually felt a moral imperative to become an environmental activist. Rosalyn Yalow, the codiscoverer of the radioimmunoassay, always felt she had to prove herself in the face of prejudice against her as a woman.

When it comes to "science, discovery and scientists," adds Nobel laureate Jean-Marie Lehn, it matters to be "the right person, at the right time, in the right place. This book provides a thoughtful and vivid analysis of how scientific progress happens through some selected case studies. It should be of value to [anyone] who wishes to get insight into the various processes underlying the quest for knowledge."

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About the Author: Istvan Hargittai PhD, DSc (Budapest, Hungary), is the author of the critically acclaimed "Judging Edward Teller" (Prometheus Books, 2010); the six-volume Candid Science series of interviews with famous scientists; "The Road to Stockholm: Nobel Prizes"," Science, and Scientists"; "The Martians of Science: Five Physicists Who Changed the Twentieth Century"; and "The DNA Doctor: Candid Conversations with James D. Watson." Dr. Hargittai is research professor at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics. He is a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, a foreign member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, and a member of the Academia Europaea in London.

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