Field of Science

Nobel Conversations

I vividly remember the first time I met a Nobel Prize winner. I was a graduate student in my 3rd year, and Roald Hoffman had recently won the Prize in chemistry (1981). A group of us went up with our research advisor (who had worked with Hoffman as an undergraduate) to hear him speak at a symposium at USC. On the drive up we were briefed as to behavior - do not speak unless spoken to. Frankly, we were happy enough to be out of the lab as well as treated to lunch (and to a terrific speaker). Lunch was at picnic tables in an outdoor courtyard - the grad students all clustered at a table on the edge. Imagine our surprise (and delight) when Hoffman joined us at the table, and spent lunch asking us what we were doing for research, and what excited us most about chemistry. I, at least, left with the sense that I was an interesting part of the chemical community -- even if a very junior one.

The Noble organization and Honeywell are offering the opportunity to anyone to ask a question of Nobel winners. The next live broadcast is Tuesday, March 2 at 11:15am (-6hrs GMT), when you can hear Robert Grubbs, who won the chemistry prize in 2005 for his discovery of olefin metathesis (a method to rearrange carbon-carbon double bonds using metal catalysts). I wrote my oral exam proposal on olefin metathesis in 1982 - I was fascinated then, and am still, with these atomic level architectural changes.

The best part? You can ask questions - email them to or go through Twitter or Facebook.

Are scientists palatable?

In the early part of the 19th century, the word scientist had yet to be coined. As the scope of materials and phenomena that natural philosophers and historians dealt with increased, there was a growing sense that these terms were inadequate to describing the task of this new breed of inquirers. In the 1830s, the British Association for the Advancement of Science explored potential candidates, but ultimately rejected various proposed terms, including scientist:
"Philosophers was felt to be too wide and too lofty a term,..; savans was rather assuming,..; some ingenious gentleman proposed that, by analogy with artist, they might form scientist, and added that there could be no scruple in making free with this termination when we have such words as sciolist, economist, and atheist — but this was not generally palatable."
The need remained, however, and a decade later, William Whewell, a philosopher and biologist pushed the issue again: “We need very much a name to describe a cultivator of science in general. I should incline to call him a Scientist.” This time it stuck.

Once the name stuck, an image quickly became attached -- wild hair, lab coats and odd apparatus all became part and parcel of what it means to be a scientist. My most recent Thesis columnin Nature Chemistry -- Men of Mystery -- takes up popular images of scientists, and considers the impact the images might have on public discourse about science.

UPDATED: See Snail's Tails post about philosophy and philosophical instruments. The ad for the "philosophical instrument makers" is fascinating!