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Max Perutz: science communicator

by Guest Author on 12 May 2014

Max Perutz, the Austrian-born molecular biologist who founded the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in 1962, won the Nobel Prize for his work deciphering the structure of the blood protein haemoglobin. But he was also a passionate writer and speaker committed to revealing the intricacies of science to new audiences. As we launch the 2014 Max Perutz Science Writing Award, Katherine Nightingale looks back on his forays into the world of words.

Max Perutz being filmed for a BBC television programme circa 1960 (Image copyright: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology)

Max Perutz being filmed for a BBC television programme circa 1960 (Image copyright: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology)

Max Perutz knew that there were parallels to be drawn between scientists and writers. In one of his collections of essays, he wrote “Imagination comes first in both artistic and scientific creation ― which makes for one culture rather than two…”

He had a long-held interest in words, keeping a book in which he wrote down quotations that struck him as particularly good, and was a prolific writer of letters to family, friends and colleagues. He began writing popular science articles for magazines such as New Scientist and Scientific American in the 1940s, sometimes about his own research, and sometimes on more personal notes, such as a later New Scientist article on his founding of the LMB.

His popular science articles were full of the analogies and examples to make his research understandable to the general reader. Like many writers, he wasn’t a fan of being edited.

He didn’t just think that clear communication was to be reserved for popular writing. He wrote in a letter: “… the presentation of a scientific discovery is, or at least should be, a work of art. Scientific papers should be written so they grip the interested reader…”

Later in his career, he moved into book reviews on scientific topics, publishing articles in the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement. In 1997, Max won the “scientist as poet” Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science, an award given by Rockefeller University to scientists who have made literary achievements. The MRC established the Max Perutz Science Writing Award in 1998 in his honour.

Max had a reputation as a great communicator in person, creating an atmosphere at the LMB where researchers at all levels of the career hierarchy could talk openly, often during tea and coffee breaks. He did broadcast work too, as the accompanying picture demonstrates, and appeared at the Royal Institution Christmas lectures in 1980.

He also developed into something of a commentator on science, defending it against the growing anti-science movement in the 1970s. It’s fitting then that our Max Perutz Science Writing Award asks PhD students to tell us why their research matters. Max was passionate about science as a force for good ― we can only hope he would have loved the idea of early-career researchers using the tools of writing to explain the purpose of their research.

Katherine Nightingale

The 2014 Max Perutz Science Writing Award opens to MRC-funded PhD students on 12 May 2014 and closes at 23.59 on the 22 June 2014.

Read more about the life of Max Perutz in Georgina Ferry’s biography Max Perutz and the Secret of Life.   



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