SCIENTIFIC TEMPERAMENTS: Three Lives in Contemporary Science by Philip J. Hilts
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SCIENTIFIC TEMPERAMENTS: Three Lives in Contemporary Science

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Lest anyone think science marches in steadfast pursuit of the truth, Washington Post science writer Hilts has chosen, as exemplars of scientific brilliance and idiosyncrasy, three contemporary figures: Robert Wilson, builder of Fermilab, in Illinois, one of the world's most powerful accelerators; Mark Ptashne, a post-Watson-generation molecular biologist at Harvard; and John McCarthy, doyen of artificial intelligence at Stanford. For each, Hilts interweaves biographical data with state-of-the-art reportage, creating a delicate balance of drama and intellectual pondering. He wishes to establish, crucially, how each man's temperament propelled him down certain roads, toward certain styles of thinking and acting. Wilson grew up a lonely child of divorced parents. Years of cowhanding on an uncle's ranch, and tinkering in an attic, culminated in a self-reliant personality, always ready to craft ingenious gadgets and ultimately prone to design aesthetically beautiful machines. Ptashne was the son of leftist parents, the precocious schoolboy and violinist who excelled at Reed; he was never at a loss for words, and was quick to be noticed and taken up by his elders and betters. McCarthy was the mathematician and Marxist, still long-haired and sandaled when he left MIT; later, he disavowed both old and new left as he moved deeper and deeper into the philosophy and technology of computers. To be sure, Hilts' selections work well for him. His subjects are singularly ambitious, hard-driven, capable of enormous absorption in the problem at hand--traits which made for social awkwardness and rather late maturing into relationships with women. There are brilliant innovators of milder mien, of course. But Hilts' colorful crew is great fun to read about, whether or not you understand the search for quarks, the behavior of repressers on genes, or ""Lisp"" computer language.

Pub Date: Nov. 23rd, 1982
Publisher: Simon & Schuster