Science writer and biographer Georgina Ferry was recently interviewed for the international weekly journal of science Nature on writing biography (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v463/n7284/full/4631025a.html). Georgina is a member of the Advisory Committee for this project and she spoke at the project launch on 23 February 2010 at the British Library. She's written a biography of Max Perutz and it was her account of his work in addition to material gathered in life story interviews we've begun collecting in this project that illustrated how life stories can document connections across the sciences.
We often learn of scientists' important discoveries but hear less about the years of work leading up to these; least of all the sidelines encountered along the way. Max Perutz (1914-2002) won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his x-ray analysis of haemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen. But he was also connected with a key experiment in the history of glaciology to work out how ice flows. In 2001, Perutz was interviewed for the National Life Stories collection at the British Library about his life and work, and explained the background to his ice flow experiment on the Jungfraujoch glacier in Switzerland from the summer of 1948.
This Perutz considered a 'sideline' that might have been missed in an account focused solely on developments in molecular biology, the field of his major scientific achievement. The life story of a scientist connects different episodes in his or her life and traces connections between disciplines that often led to important developments. Perutz and others settled a scientific controversy about how glaciers flow dating back to the nineteenth century that was primarily of theoretical significance. Today, understanding ice flow helps scientists monitor the large ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland and for this reason, matters to us all!