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Discovering the human side of science

Pictures of famous scientists

By James Dacey

Scientists frequently feature on the radio these days, usually to provide the expert voice on the technicalities of an issue in the public interest – be it climate change, energy issues or the latest medical advance. But these researchers are rarely given the airspace to tell us anything about themselves, such as what first inspired them to pursue a career in science and what motivates them to keep going. A new series on BBC Radio 4 is offering just this.

The Life Scientific, which first aired today, will be a series of 30-minute programmes hosted by Jim Al-Khalili, the nuclear physicist, author and broadcaster based at the University of Surrey in the UK. Each week Al-Khalili will meet an eminent scientist from diverse fields and invite them to talk about their lives and careers in science. Regular Radio 4 listeners will be familiar with the format, which is similar to Desert Island Discs – the show in which celebrities discuss their favourite songs in the context of their life experiences.

In the first episode, which you can listen to here, Al-Khalili meets the Nobel-prize-winning geneticist Sir Paul Nurse, who is also the reigning president of the Royal Society. Despite his lofty status, Nurse comes across as a very open guest. He speaks in earnest about how he reached his current status in part thanks to his humble upbringing in northwest London – Nurse’s dad was a chauffeur and his mum a cleaner. “It wasn’t that I grew up in a bookish family and only got used to speaking to intellectuals – I like talking to people and I like talking to people from all backgrounds,” he says.

Like many scientists of his generation, Nurse says that his passion for science was fuelled by the space age. He recalls the excitement he felt at reading as a boy of eight or nine that Sputnik II would be passing over the UK that evening. When the Soviet spacecraft appeared as a bright star in the sky, Nurse tells of how he ran down the street in his pyjamas trying to keep up as the light vanished over the horizon.

A little later in the programme we hear about how in his 50s Nurse discovered a great revelation about his private life that was to change his view of the past forever. When applying for a Green Card to take up a position at the Rockefeller University in New York, Nurse was informed that his registered mother was the woman he had thought was his sister; and his father was unknown. It transpired that at just 18, Paul’s mum gave birth but the baby was immediately adopted unofficially by her mother (Paul’s actual grandmother). So Paul’s sister suddenly became his mother and his brothers became his uncles.

It all sounds a bit messy but Nurse tells the story in good spirits. “I now have to refer to everyone with a sort of joint relationship like ‘sister–mother’ or ‘brother–uncle’, just to keep things straight in my head,” he tells a surprised Al-Khalili. “Think of the irony of it: I’m a geneticist and here’s my own genetics I didn’t have a clue about.” Perhaps this resilience and wry sense of humour goes a long way to explaining Nurse’s rise to success.

Next week on the programme Al-Khalili will be chatting with the US-based cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker. Other confirmed guests for future episodes include the Northern-Irish astronomer Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, who co-discovered pulsars as a postgrauate student in the 1960s.

Meanwhile, on Thursday 20 October Al-Khalili will also be hosting a special online lecture on about some of the relatively unknown scientists of the medieval Islamic Empire. In his new book Pathfinders: the Golden Age of Arabic Science, Al-Khalili tells the stories of some of these characters and how their works paved the way for the likes of Newton and Copernicus to revolutionize science. You can register here to attend this lecture.

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