Last month, the winners of this year’s Nobel prizes were announced. Ignoring the Bob Dylan debacle, there are plenty of things we can learn from the lives of these candidates – geniuses, all, at the top of their field.
Here are some great stories from four laureates that will inspire you in your career and beyond.
John Michael Kosterlitz might be a joint Nobel Physics Prize winner these days, but things weren’t looking that way to start. Now a professor of physics at Brown, with degrees from Oxford and Cambridge to his name, he’s credited on Wikipedia as a ‘British-American’. But John was actually born to a family of Jewish German refugees in the run-up to World War II.
Why? Michael’s father was a German national: Hans Kosterlitz. Hans fled Berlin in 1934 to escape anti-semitic laws under the new Nazi government, settling in Scotland. Acquiring work in Aberdeen, his family followed soon after. Hans went on to become a pioneering biochemist with his work of endorphins and drugs, more than justifying the British government’s safe-haven. His son did pretty well too.
The lesson to learn? Genius can come from anyone, anywhere. Hans Kosterlitz probably didn’t want to end up in Aberdeen, but he made the best of a bad deal and it’s to the betterment of British-American science that he did.
Fascinatingly, the idea for Hans’ most famous experiment came to him in a dream. We wonder if his son was similarly inspired when he produced his Nobel-nabbing research.
Bob Dylan: a name synonymous with American folk, Greenwich Village and 60s/70s counterculture. Which would be fine… Except Dylan isn’t his name; it’s Zimmerman.
That’s right. Bob was originally Robert Allen Zimmerman – or Shabtai Zisl ben Avraham – a Jewish American of Lithuanian, Ukrainian and Turkish descent. He changed his name at university to Dillon, possibly after a TV show character, and began spelling it Dylan in imitation of the poet, Dylan Thomas.
Dylan didn’t change his name because he admired the writer. As he himself said back in 1978: “I haven’t read that much of Dylan Thomas… Sometimes you are held back by your name. Sometimes there are advantages to having a certain name.”
Precisely, Bob – there are advantages. In this case, the name ‘Dylan’ was going to look better in lights than ‘Zimmerman’, and he knew it. A folk singer with an Irish name was bound to do better than a German one. Young Bobby wasn’t posturing. He was re-branding.
“Names are labels so we can refer to one another,” Dylan continued in the same interview. “But deep inside us we don’t have a name. We have no name.” No wonder he nailed that Nobel for Literature.
Sir Fraser Stoddart
Another Brit who, along with Ben Faringa and Jean-Pierre Sauvage, took the Chemistry award this year. Stoddart has humble enough origins; he grew up in 40s Scotland, in a house without electricity or modern technology, as the son of a tenant farmer.
Despite this, the ‘knight of the nano realm’ credits his dad’s philosophy for his success. “My father used to say, ‘Son, stick in until you stick out,’” Stoddart shared in one interview. “Whether it’s passing examinations when you are a student, obtaining an academic position, getting grant applications funded, or publishing articles in the best journals, you just have to hang in there until it works out for the best.”
Stoddart made an early decision in his career to avoid the traditional side of his science. “I was never in any way drawn to chemistry by bangs and smells,” he has claimed. The decision to be different worked out for him; his atypical research into molecular machines has put him at the forefront of his field.
What’s more, since the 1980s, Stoddart used his deep interest in art to pioneer a whole new style of scientific presentation. His ‘cartoon-style’ depictions of molecules are published along with his research, and use different colours to better communicate the make-up of a unit. Using an ‘instantly recognisable’, standardised colour scheme, Stoddart ensures that all his work carries his artistic hallmark. Neat bit of branding, that.
Duncan Haldane, a theoretical physicist, worked along with J. Michael Kosterlitz and David Thouless to obtain the physics medal. However it was chemistry that originally captured him at university. In a Princeton interview, he explained why things fell though. “After a few experiences in the chemical or biology lab, I decided I should not let myself near any kind of nasty chemicals or radioactive materials, so after having a few spills on myself I decided I was going to be a theorist.”
In his Nobel interview, the Brit talked about how his research was originally dismissed as ‘useless’. “We should never say things like “What’s it used for?” Because all the big discoveries of really useful things don’t really come about because someone sits down and thinks ‘I want to discover something useful’… It’s very difficult to know whether something is useful or not, but one can know that it’s exciting.”
Because Haldane went ahead with the work that fascinated him, he furthered our understanding of exotic matter in a way that made deeper research possible. It just goes to show; sometimes, you just have to follow your gut.
Need more inspiration? Unless you possess a Milhouse-level of prescience, you may have to wait until next year’s announcements. Until then, be safe in the knowledge that, come December, all of the laureates will attend Stockholm to accept their awards – yes, even Freewheelin’ Bob.