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Questions and answers with Istvan Hargittai

28 August 2014
A research scientist turned prolific biographer explains his fascination with the great minds in science.

Even with his accomplishments as a research chemist, Istvan Hargittai may be more broadly known for the books he’s written about the lives of famous scientists. The list of his subjects includes James Watson, Lev Landau, Peter Kapitza, and, as he calls them, “The Five Martians of Science”— Hungarian physicists Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Theodore von Kármán, John von Neumann, and Eugene Wigner.

Himself a Hungarian, Hargittai earned his doctoral degree from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. In 2012 he became professor emeritus at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics, where he has taught for more than two decades. To keep current, he says he still lectures and edits the international journal Structural Chemistry.

Hargittai’s most recent book is Great Minds (Oxford University Press, 2014). Written with his son Balazs and his wife Magdolna, who are also chemists, it features the stories of 111 living scientists. His other biographies include three that were reviewed in Physics Today: The Martians of Science: Five Physicists Who Changed the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, 2006), Judging Edward Teller: A Closer Look at One of the Most Influential Scientists of the Twentieth Century (Prometheus Books, 2010), and Buried Glory: Portraits of Soviet Scientists (Oxford University Press, 2013).

Physics Today recently caught up with Hargittai to find out what drives his passion for writing about scientists and their work.

Istvan Hargittai. Photo by György Wessely.

Istvan Hargittai. Photo by György Wessely.

PT: At what point in your career—and why—did you make the switch from research chemist to biographer and historian of science?

Hargittai: There was no clear-cut switch. Even at the start of my scientific career in the mid 1960s, I was interested in writing, but I soon realized that I should focus on my niche of research—molecular structure and modeling, using primarily electron diffraction. In 1969, I was a visiting research associate at the physics department of the University of Texas at Austin, and a weeklong visit by Eugene Wigner had an important influence on me. I had been in correspondence with Wigner from my student years, and now he spent an hour with me every morning and expanded my knowledge of and thinking about symmetry.

Eugene Wigner (left) with Istvan Hargittai, 1969. Photo credit: Istvan Hargittai.

Eugene Wigner (left) with Istvan Hargittai, 1969. Photo credit: Istvan Hargittai.

That interest in symmetry made me write for The Mathematical Intelligencer, and eventually it triggered the founding of a magazine about the culture of chemistry, The Chemical Intelligencer. For the magazine, I interviewed famous scientists. This activity continued beyond the magazine and included chemists, physicists, biomedical scientists, some materials scientists, and mathematicians.

My wife, son, and I together published a six-volume book series, Candid Science (Imperial College Press, 2000-06). These volumes contain in-depth conversations about the scientists’ lives and their science. Great Minds is a collection of excerpts from 111 of our interviews, and it is for a broad readership without any prerequisite of science background. The transition you asked about, from research chemist, was gradual and completed only when I became emeritus in 2012.

PT: You discuss what drives great scientists in your book Drive and Curiosity: What Fuels the Passion for Science (Prometheus Books, 2011). What has driven you over the past two decades to meet, interview, or write about them?

Hargittai: Ever since I received my first science book—as the prize for winning a math competition when I was 11 years old—I was interested not only in science but also in the discoveries, the history of the discoveries, and the careers of scientists. I believe my interviews have been successful because my questions originated from my genuine interest, and I was equally interested in the human fates. These interviews made it possible for me to learn about areas of science in which I felt ignorant and “my teachers” were the best minds.

Many areas in the biomedical sciences were examples. My interviewees understood that the person who is asking them all those questions is a fellow scientist and not a journalist, and they often opened up to me to the extent that they were later surprised by the depths of their own responses. I consider the interviews, which were a family project, as my second university education. It was then quite natural that I did not want to keep what I learned to myself but wanted to share it.

PT: What is it about the scientists in Great Minds—and about the profession of science in general—that you’d like to impart to the next generation of scientists and to the general public?

Hargittai: For the next generation of scientists, Great Minds should induce them to learn more about these scientists and perhaps look up the Candid Science volumes for the in-depth interviews. For the general public, there were two motivations to create Great Minds. One was to bring these great scientists into human proximity, to share their interests, struggles, views on a diverse set of issues, and to show that they are quite ordinary people except for their great achievements in a narrow area of human activities.

The other motivation was to convey the impression that from the careers of successful scientists we can learn a great deal beyond science. The discoverers demonstrated that in order to accomplish the most, the best one can do is what one is best at doing. However trivial that sounds, are there many people who are engaged in doing what they like and can do best?

PT: What so far has been your favorite—and least favorite, or most difficult—book to write?

Hargittai: People who look at my output think that I write easily. This is not quite so. The first draft is always the most difficult, and I keep rewriting, often many times. Each time I embark on a new book I find it very challenging. Looking back, my semiautobiographical book Our Lives: Encounters of a Scientist (Akademiai Kiado, 2004) may have posed the greatest challenge. If a fire were to destroy all my books save one, I would probably want it to be Our Lives. It is one of my least known books.

PT: Are you currently working on another book?

Hargittai: I can tell you about a book at the start of production. It is coauthored with Magdolna: Budapest Scientific: A Guidebook, to be brought out by Oxford University Press. It is about visible memorabilia of science and scientists in Budapest. It will be quite a challenge to produce it with nearly 800 images. There is history, there are stories, even some politics in the book, but we believe it is much broader than just one city. The science in Budapest and especially the scientists from Budapest have affected world science and culture more than their home country.

PT: What books do you like to read and which ones are you currently reading?

Hargittai: I read a lot, mostly nonfiction and often about topics related to my writing, but not necessarily for my writing. Currently I am reading Ernst Neizvestny’s book Bella Dizhur (2013). Neizvestny is a great Russian sculptor, and this book in Russian is about his mother, Bella Dizhur. Neizvestny was a dissident avant-garde artist in Moscow who produced Lev Landau’s tombstone. He now lives in New York, and last fall my wife and I visited him in Manhattan. He gave me his precious book about his mother.

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