How to Win the Nobel Prize: An Unexpected Life in Science

How to Win the Nobel Prize: An Unexpected Life in Science

by J. Michael Bishop


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In 1989 Michael Bishop and Harold Varmus were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery that normal genes under certain conditions can cause cancer. In this book, Bishop tells us how he and Varmus made their momentous discovery. More than a lively account of the making of a brilliant scientist, How to Win the Nobel Prize is also a broader narrative combining two major and intertwined strands of medical history: the long and ongoing struggles to control infectious diseases and to find and attack the causes of cancer.

Alongside his own story, that of a youthful humanist evolving into an ambivalent medical student, an accidental microbiologist, and finally a world-class researcher, Bishop gives us a fast-paced and engrossing tale of the microbe hunters. It is a narrative enlivened by vivid anecdotes about our deadliest microbial enemies--the Black Death, cholera, syphilis, tuberculosis, malaria, smallpox, HIV--and by biographical sketches of the scientists who led the fight against these scourges.

Bishop then provides an introduction for nonscientists to the molecular underpinnings of cancer and concludes with an analysis of many of today's most important science-related controversies--ranging from stem cell research to the attack on evolution to scientific misconduct. How to Win the Nobel Prize affords us the pleasure of hearing about science from a brilliant practitioner who is a humanist at heart. Bishop's perspective will be valued by anyone interested in biomedical research and in the past, present, and future of the battle against cancer.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674016255
Publisher: Harvard
Publication date: 10/25/2004
Series: The Jerusalem-Harvard Lectures , #7
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.56(w) x 10.88(h) x 0.71(d)

About the Author

J. Michael Bishop, M.D., is Chancellor, University of California, San Francisco.

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An Unexpected Life in Science


Harvard University Press

Copyright © 2003

President and Fellows of Harvard College
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-674-00880-4

Chapter One

At 3:00 A.M. on the morning of October 9, 1989, my older son, Dylan,
took a phone call in his bedroom. My wife, Kathryn, and I had not
heard the phone ring. As parents of two teenage boys, and as hostages
to an irrational parsimony that permitted us only one phone line, we
had long since inactivated the phone bell in our bedroom. Alert to our
anxiety at being awakened so early in the morning, Dylan entered our
room and announced quietly: "Don't worry Dad: it's NBC with good
news." And good news it was, after a fashion. An announcement had
just come from Stockholm that my colleague Harold Varmus and I
would receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

I spent the next hour answering calls from the press, doggedly cautioning
all callers that I had received no notice from the Nobel Foundation
and struggling through the mental haze of early morning to
find similes that would make the prize-winning research accessible to
the press and their readers. Then Kathryn and I took to the neighborhood
streets and walked off the shock as dawn broke. Thus it was that
the Nobel Foundation never reached me directly with the news. Instead,
someone read the citation to Dylan over the phone in my absence.
Having no experience with Scandinavian accents, Dylan understood
not a word. A confirming telegram arrived a day later. Until
then, an inner voice kept insisting that I was being made the butt of a
gargantuan practical joke.

There was little joy for me in those dawn moments. Instead, I was
disquieted by two opposing thoughts. On the one hand, I felt less than
fully deserving, because the discovery for which Harold and I were being
honored was only in modest part of my own making. On the other
hand, I knew that this might not have been the first time for me, and
the opportunity that I had squandered a few years before had been entirely
of my own making (more of this in Chapter 2). I was also troubled
that I seemed to care-surely none of this would matter in the
long view.

My family and I were not exactly ready for that call from Stockholm.
I myself had a cosmic conflict. I was expected at an 11:00 A.M.
press conference, but I also had tickets for a crucial playoff game between
the Chicago Cubs and the San Francisco Giants baseball teams.
Let the record show that I am an ardent Giants fan. I was unflinching:
the press conference was moved to 8:30 A.M. so that I could arrive at
the ballpark in time for batting practice, an essential ritual for the
cognoscenti. The Giants won the game and, thus, the National League
Championship when Will Clark drove a two-out single "up the middle"
off a no-balls and two-strike pitch from Mitch Williams. I will remember
that piece of trivia long after I have forgotten Avogadro's
number (a physical constant of use to some scientists, but that does
not come easily to my mind even now). And why not? Hitting a baseball
from "behind in the count" is a supremely difficult endeavor, a
metaphor for life.

Kathryn found it necessary to buy a new gown. She finally did, well
after we had arrived in Stockholm, the day before the ceremonies-chutzpah
of the first order. It must be said, however, that she was given
spectacular attention in the store. In contrast to the United States,
where celebratory summons to the White House are more frequent for
championship sports teams than for scientists, Sweden honors Nobel
laureates above all others. I provide a case in point. The schoolteachers
of Stockholm were on strike during the days that Harold and I were in
Stockholm to receive our laurels. They carried two sorts of placards on
the picket lines: one protesting their salaries, the other apologizing to
the Nobel laureates for distracting attention from the ceremonies.

Son Dylan was astonished when the prize was announced at his
high school assembly, to cheers usually reserved for victorious sports
heroes. "Why didn't you prepare us for this, Dad?" he asked. My only
answer could be that I was not prepared myself, indeed, had not expected
the occasion despite years of rumor and omen. The Nobel Prize
had seemed remote through much of my prior life. I have no recollection
that I knew of its existence until I arrived at Harvard Medical
School. There the prize was never far from the communal consciousness,
so I at least learned its name. But my own entry into science was
so unlikely and so difficult (see Chapter 2) that achievement worthy of
the Nobel remained beyond my wildest dreams as I climbed the academic

My younger son, Eliot, insisted on going to his middle school at 6:30
A.M. in order to sort basketball jerseys. Pleas that he might one day regret
having missed this special morning at home went unheeded. On
arrival at school, however, he was greeted by an excited member of the
staff who happened to be Swedish and who forthwith sent him home
to celebrate what he by now understood was something beyond the
ordinary. So it was that our entire family was able to watch the Giants
subdue the Cubs. (Dylan had excused himself from school of his own
accord, demonstrating the will of late adolescence.)

It was Eliot who, in his innocence, kept matters in perspective that
morning. Once out of the house and away from me, he asked my wife:
"OK Mom, what is this Nobel stuff about, anyway?" Neither my wife
nor I had a ready answer. But I have taken moments during the intervening
years to reflect on what is admittedly a very good question.

Alfred Nobel

The answer to Eliot's question would have to begin with the man who
provided the "stuff," Alfred Nobel. This man and the unusual philanthropy
that he left behind at his death created a benchmark for
achievement that reigns supreme over both scientists and the general
public alike. If my story is to be fully appreciated, his must first be told.

Born in Stockholm in 1833, Nobel lived for sixty-three years,
achieving renown as a fabulously wealthy, lonely, and itinerant individual-newspapers
of his time styled him as the "world's wealthiest
tramp" (the French novelist Victor Hugo apparently originated the description).
Alfred's father, Immanuel, was a minor industrialist whose
financial status fluctuated alarmingly between affluence and bankruptcy.
Immanuel was an inventor of sorts. He never achieved the experimental
prowess of his son, Alfred, but late in life, he did invent plywood.
Alfred's mother, Andriette, came from a family of some means,
but endured the economic misfortunes of her husband without complaint
and became "Alfred's universe." Alfred remained deeply attached
to his mother throughout her long life and, after her death
at the age of eighty-nine, donated his portion of her estate to the
Karolinska Institute in Stockholm to establish the "Caroline Andriette
Nobel Fund for Medical Research"-a harbinger of greater largess to

On December 4, 1837, papa Immanuel fled Stockholm for Russia, to
seek his fortune and avoid debtor's prison in Sweden. Andriette and
the Nobel children would follow only five years later, after suffering
great deprivation and surviving only because Andriette's father came
to the rescue. The reunited family took up residence in St. Petersburg.
There young Alfred lived a secluded youth, plagued by chronic ill
health and educated by tutors at home, while his father dabbled with
varying success in the munitions business. Alfred grew into an introverted
and lonely adolescent with deep interests in chemistry, literature,
and language that were to resonate throughout his life. He seems
to have been permanently marked by the social disgrace that his family
suffered during their period of poverty.

Alarmed by Alfred's reclusive personality, and hoping to divert him
from his ambition to be a writer, his no-longer-impoverished parents
sent him on an extended study tour of Europe and America when he
was seventeen. One of Alfred's stops was Paris. There he struck up an
enigmatic romance with a young Swedish woman who soon died of
tuberculosis. The loss turned him into a "forsaken eremite in the
world of the living" and moved him to morbid poetry.

A second encounter in Paris, with a chemist named Ascanio
Sobrero, proved more propitious. Three years before, Sobrero had
learned how to combine glycerine, nitric acid, and sulfurous acid to
make a substance he called nitroglycerine. Sobrero recognized his concoction
as a powerful explosive, but had done nothing practical with
it. Indeed, he had abandoned its study after realizing how easy it was to
detonate the explosive accidentally-Sobrero himself suffered a severe
facial injury in one laboratory accident with nitroglycerine.

Young Alfred proved more determined. So in due course, the Nobel
family set about to commercialize nitroglycerine, a highly unstable explosive
that comes in the form of an oil and that was handled with astonishing
lack of care in the Nobel establishment. Pictures from the
time show the explosive liquid being carried by hand in open buckets.
Eventually, an accidental explosion occurred at the Nobel factory in
downtown Stockholm, killing one of Alfred's brothers. The plant was
moved first to a suburb, and after further explosions, far from the city,
where it remains today, now a model of industrial safety.

The tragedies brought out the inventor in Alfred. First, he devised a
reliable detonator for nitroglycerine. (It was in fact the first detonator
of any kind for explosives and gained Alfred considerable fame.) Then,
in a tour de force, he invented a safer form of the explosive itself: the
treacherous oil was impregnated into a solid base and dubbed "dynamite."
These inventions brought Alfred to preeminence in the family
business. He set out to consolidate and extend the manufacture of
dynamite, establishing plants throughout Europe, and in the United
States and South America.

As Alfred's fortune grew, so did his guilt. The explosives he first developed
for civil engineering also transformed the conduct of war, and
Alfred himself found munitions an endlessly fascinating subject. Seeking
justification, Nobel conceived a prophetic rationalization: "The
day when two contending armies can destroy each other within seconds,
all civilized nations will retreat from war and demobilize their
armies." Nobel had anticipated the modern strategy of mutual deterrence.
Ironically, nitroglycerine also found a medical use as the now familiar
treatment for angina pectoris. Nobel himself suffered from this
ailment and recognized the irony: "Isn't it the irony of fate that I have
been prescribed [nitroglycerine], to be taken internally! They call it
Trinitrin, so as not to scare the chemist and the public."

Whatever its justification, Nobel's fascination with munitions eventually
brought him grief. At the age of forty-three, he had established
himself in Paris, a city that he loved passionately. While there, he invented
a form of smokeless gunpowder that attracted the attention of
military authorities throughout Europe. The Italians were the first to
contract with Nobel for the development of his invention. The French
took umbrage, eventually accusing Nobel of espionage and forcing the
closure of his laboratory. Deeply disillusioned, Nobel left France and
never returned.

While still in Paris, Alfred had wearied of his lonely life and had begun
to search for a companion. He was known to enjoy the company
of cultured and intelligent women, but none of these seemed to fully
satisfy him: "I personally find the conversation of Parisians the dreariest
thing I know, whereas it is delightful to meet cultured and not
excessively emancipated Russian ladies. Unfortunately, they have an
aversion to soap-but one must not expect too much." Determined
to find company, Alfred placed the nineteenth-century equivalent of a
"personal ad" in Vienna newspapers, soliciting a live-in secretary. This
was answered by one Bertha Kinsky (then age thirty-three to Alfred's
forty-three). Bertha was rebounding from a romance with an Austrian
count whose family had disapproved of her lesser lineage.

Alfred's expectations of companionship proved to be more intense
than those of Bertha, so the arrangement lasted only a short while.
Bertha soon eloped with her Austrian count, to become Frau von
Suttner. But she and Nobel remained friends for life. She achieved international
renown as a proponent of disarmament, encouraged Alfred
to include peace among his plans for prizes to recognize great
contributions to humanity, and eventually received the Nobel Peace
Prize herself, four years after its establishment (and nine after Alfred's
death). Rumors of a sympathy vote persist to this day. Truth be told,
however, Alfred was skeptical of Bertha's methods and influence:
"Good intentions alone will not assure peace, nor, one might say, will
great banquets and long speeches. You must have an acceptable plan to
lay before governments. To demand disarmament is ridiculous and
will gain nothing." Alfred remained wedded to his faith in mutual deterrence
by force of arms.

Rejected by Bertha, Alfred in the same year found Sophie Hess, a
clerk in a flower shop on the outskirts of Vienna (age twenty to Alfred's
forty-three). Theirs was not a conventional relationship for the
times, which may explain why photographs of the two together or
even Sophie alone are difficult to locate. They pursued a troubled relationship
over fifteen years, with Alfred refusing marriage but Sophie
nevertheless using his name in her personal affairs. Even Bertha von
Suttner was misled, referring to Sophie as "Madame Nobel" in some of
her correspondence with Alfred. Alfred paid his greatest compliment
to Sophie when he took her to meet his elderly mother in Sweden. The
encounter went surprisingly well.

Alfred could be harsh, particularly about Sophie's rough edges. He
wrote to her in exasperation: "Ever since the first day, I asked you to
get an essential education because it is not possible to really love
someone who shames you daffy through her lack of education and
tact. Apparently, you are unaware of these flaws, otherwise you would
at least have tried to smooth out the rough edges long ago. Even if one
were head over heels in love, a letter such as you write would be a cold
shower." As the years passed, Nobel grew ever more resentful of his attachment
to Sophie: "For many years I have sacrificed my time, my
reputation, all my associations with the educated world and finally my
business-all for a self-indulgent child who is not even capable of discerning
the selflessness of those acts."

Having failed with Sophie and not inclined to temper his disposition,
Alfred lived out his life alone, settling eventually at San Remo on
the Italian Riviera. There he built a laboratory and a rocket range to
pursue his burgeoning interest in ballistic missiles. Nobel put the laboratory
to good use. By the time he died, he held more than 350 patents.
The rocket range was another matter.

Copyright © 2003 by President and Fellows of Harvard College.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

  • List of Illustrations
  • Preface
  • 1. The Phone Call
  • 2. Accidental Scientist
  • 3. People and Pestilence
  • 4. Opening the Black Box of Cancer
  • 5. Paradoxical Strife
  • Notes
  • Credits
  • Index

What People are Saying About This

Bruce Alberts

J. Michael Bishop has written his book 'to show that scientists are supremely human.' The book is also a lucid explanation of how science has been harnessed to fight the human afflictions of cancer and infectious disease. And the story ends with a wide-ranging overview of today's challenges to the scientific enterprise. Overall, a must-read for all those interested in science and scientists--even those with absolutely no interest in winning a Nobel Prize!
Bruce Alberts, President, National Academy of Sciences

David Baltimore

J. Michael Bishop is that rare scientist who is widely read in literature and poetry. Most importantly, he remembers what he reads and thinks deeply about it, as well as about all else in his rich life. The Nobel Prize he won and richly deserved, his political activism, his understanding of cancer and microbiology, his devotion to the practice of science--all these provide fodder for his writerly craft. Quite a wonderful book!
David Baltimore, Nobel Laureate and President, California Institute of Technology

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