On July 4, 2012, the German physicist Rolf-Dieter Heuer, CEO of CERN (Switzerland), asked an audience full of excited scientists: “I think we have it, do you agree?”
At that press conference it was announced that the new particle found with the Large Hadron Collider corresponded to the Higgs boson, which earned Peter Higgs and François Englert the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2013, parents of the theory. That same year, the two physicists and the CEO of CERN received the Prince of Asturias Award for Scientific and Technical Research.
Concluded a historical stage in command of the institution, today Heuer chairs the High Level Group of Scientific Advisors of the European Commission and directs the German Physical Society, the largest organization of physicists in the world.
On the occasion of World Book Day, the German physicist has taken a break and told us what his favorite title is: Nathan the Wise (1779), a play written by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.
“I really like the way Lessing treats tolerance, specifically religious tolerance. His main themes, in addition to tolerance, are friendship, God’s relativism, the rejection of miracles, and a need for communication. It is very current even today ”, he explains.
Along with this work, Heuer chooses a second book, a novel about the Second World War: The seventh cross (1942), by Anna Seghers. The play was made into a movie in 1944 starring Spencer Tracy.
“It describes an attempted escape from a concentration camp in Germany in the late 1930s. The narrative follows the path of the main character through the meadows, taking refuge with the few neighbors who are willing to risk a visit from the Gestapo, while the rest of the fugitives are little by little overtaken by their hunters ”, he summarizes.
As we will see below, the common denominator of the books chosen by renowned scientists for this report are social relationships, understood in the broadest sense of the term.
Aristocrats and robots
For Rafael Yuste, a world reference in the field of neuroscience and leader of the BRAIN project –initiative backed by former President Barack Obama whose objective is to map each neuron in the brain–, his favorite book is Ana Karenina (1877), by Leon Tolstoy.
Considered a masterpiece, the novel is a harsh criticism of the Russian aristocracy of the time. The neurobiologist based in New York (USA) likes it “because it beautifully captures the essence of life and human relationships,” he says.
Another Spanish scientist who has been working abroad for several decades and is an authority in his field is Juan Ignacio Cirac. In your case, your favorite book is related to your area of research, quantum computing. It’s about the Foundation Series, a set of science fiction books written by Isaac Asimov and published between 1950 and 1993.
“I read it when I was twenty years old and I was hooked by the futuristic and science fiction environment of the books, with the novel plots it describes,” recalls Cirac, who directs the Theoretical Division of the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics (Germany).
The Three Laws of Robotics formulated by Asimov to protect humans against a possible rebellion of the machines are fundamental in all the issues of the saga. “I think these books have influenced the youth of many scientists around the world,” says the physicist, Prince of Asturias Award for Scientific and Technical Research in 2006.
Like Asimov, another Russian scientist who wrote works accessible to the general public was George Gamov. Your book One, two, three … Infinite (1947) is the favorite for the astrophysicist and science popularizer Neil deGrasse Tyson.
The successor of the unforgettable Carl Sagan in the new version of the series Cosmos chooses this work because “it is an exploration free of curious and interesting elements of mathematics and physics,” he says. DeGrasse, who read this book as a child, says how much it helped him transform academic concepts studied in school into “learning games.” It is clear that it served him well because today the astrophysicist is the director of the Hayden Planetarium, within the American Museum of Natural History (USA).
The first European against post-truth
For María A. Blasco, director of the National Cancer Research Center (CNIO), it is almost impossible to choose a favorite book. “There have been many throughout my life and, normally, my ‘favorites’ are the books that I am reading at the time,” says the scientist.
Making a selection effort, choose I need black (1968), by Marguerite Yourcenar. “It left a mark that still lingers on me many decades after reading it,” says Blasco, Santiago Ramón y Cajal National Research Prize winner in 2010.
The book recounts the adventures and life of Zenón, a traveling physician and alchemist from the 16th century who crossed Europe to meet philosophers and alchemists from other countries. “Zeno goes in search of knowledge, of science, and that is the way to know and find himself. It is also the path of humanistic consciousness in the face of the barbarism of armies and wars ”, narrates biochemistry.
In his opinion, the protagonist of the novel could be considered, from the perspective of the 21st century, as one of the first Europeans, one of the first Erasmus. “His struggle for knowledge also evokes the post-truth that he shows so much destructive power today and that, in fact, results in the death of Zeno in the novel,” he compares.
The book had the ability to activate the scientist’s most contemplative and dreamy self, and to transport her to “places, environments, landscapes and already extinct characters that, somehow, are still attractive to me.”
A medieval future
The novel had a similar influence on the physicist-chemist and science popularizer Philip Ball. Wandering Doubt (1980), by Riddley Walker. The play takes place beyond the year 4,000, two millennia after the nuclear holocaust, among the ruins of a society that has a language very different from today.
“It’s a book written in a warped form of English, set in a future that is more like the Middle Ages,” Ball says.
Set in a place that resembles the English county of Kent, an area well known to the science popularizer, the work tells the story of the young Wandering Doubt, who celebrates his birthday by killing the last wild boar on the face of the earth.
“It is a cult classic. There’s nothing like it in English literature, ”says Ball, who memorized parts of the book for a play he wrote in 1998. He recently started reading it to his daughter. “I was shocked by the feel of the words and the bleak worldly innocence in Riddley’s voice,” he confesses.
The Spanish edition won the Translation Prize from the Spanish Association of Anglo-North American Studies to those responsible. “What a translation job that must have been!” Praises Ball. “I wish I knew enough Spanish to be able to assess the results,” he adds.
As we have pointed out at the beginning, except in One, two, three … Infinite, social relationships abound on the pages of the books chosen by scientists. Relations between different religious confessions; engulfed by the Nazi threat; among aristocrats; between humans and robots; in search of knowledge and after a glorious past. Probably this literary coincidence has some scientific explanation, but that would have to be analyzed in another article.