The popular viewpoint seems to characterize scientists as dull. The popular media often give the impression that scientists, a.k.a. “nerds,” or “geeks,” insulated from the real world of apps, ride-hailing, and rap by their glasses and pocket-protectors, aren’t much fun.
I’m working on editing a memoir that my friend, Bernie Witholt, left unfinished, and wildly unstructured, when he died two-plus years ago from pancreatic cancer. Bernie was a full-fledged scientist. He spent much of his life in the lab, studying the biochemistry of bacteria. PubMed lists 179 separate publications for him; he held many patents, and his colleagues remembered him as a remarkable salesman for his ideas. “With visionary lectures, he convinced policymakers and companies to invest. He was a fantastic advisor for, and initiator of, numerous successful biotech start-ups, and was the founding father of the Zernike Science Park in Groningen. In 1992, he established [a laboratory] in the Institute of Biotechnology of Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (IBT, ETH Zurich) and worked on alkane-degrading bacteria, biocatalysis and bioplastics until 2005 when he retired.”
In addition to his science, Bernie was an avid oarsman. We rowed together at Amherst, and for the summer of 1963 we rowed a double scull for Vesper Boat Club in Philadelphia. He continued rowing in Zurich with gusto and considerable competitive success.
He and his second wife, journalist Renske Heddema, were an elegant couple with an active social life.
My task in editing his memoir is to communicate the joy of living the scientific life and of asking questions and finding one answer that leads to a dozen new questions. But beyond that, the real scientist also finds joy and excitement in seeing how the world fits together, in knowing about history and the arts as well as science.
Christine Rosen, writing in The New Atlantis in 2006, said, “It is not, alas, the stuff of great memoir, so severed has the actual practice of science become from the broader concerns that animated many early scientists — the wonder at life in its fullness, the observable mysteries of the natural world.”
She nailed the issue! Today’s science involves questions that require detailed technical knowledge that the general public does not have. Yet many of the scientists I know do, indeed, “wonder at life in its fullness.”
I would be delighted to hear from readers who have ideas or suggestions about successfully writing about scientists.