Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Reflected Glory - Life with a Nobelist Parent

Reposted from Science Magazine's News Focus, 19 March 2004.

B ERN, SWITZERLAND--On a snowy morning in mid-January, 35-year-old Silvia Arber was at City Hall here in the Swiss capital to pick up the $75,000 Latsis Prize, the latest in a string of honors the young neurobiologist has racked up for her work showing how brain cells connect to one another. Arber, the daughter of Nobel Prize winner Werner Arber, laughingly recalls how amazed the Swiss National Science Foundation was at the press response to the prize. Rather than the usual few stray phone calls, "it was totally crazy," says Arber, who is on the faculty of both the Biozentrum and the Friedrich Miescher Institute in Basel. The news even ran on 10 to 10, a popular Swiss TV news magazine. When the interviewers showed up, however, it was clear that it wasn't just the Latsis that interested them: They wanted to know what it is like to be the daughter of a Nobel laureate.

Having a Nobel in the family attracts some of the attention that any celebrity status brings. But for reasons that have to do with what we expect of people who are famous for their brains rather than beauty or brawn, Nobel celebrity has its own mystique. For the children of Nobel laureates who pursue careers in science, the trappings of the award create a rich environment and opportunities, but they often lead to burdensome expectations.

Nobel glamour can be bestowed at any age. "I was born with it," says Stephen Bragg, a mechanical engineer whose father (at 25 the youngest person ever to receive the prize) and grandfather shared an award for x-ray crystallography in 1915. Guri Giaever was 10 when her father Ivar woke her up to tell her he'd just won a Nobel Prize for the discovery of quantum tunneling in superconductors. Not understanding what it meant, Giaever got dressed for school and went outside to wait for the bus, only to see a black limousine (sent by General Electric, where her father worked) pull up and a red carpet roll out. "I started to have an inkling what this might be about," she says. For other sons and daughters, Nobel ancestry came after their own careers were well established. When Rena Lederman's father, Leon, captured a Nobel in 1988 for his part in developing the neutrino beam method used by particle physicists, his daughter was already on her way to tenure in the department of anthropology at Princeton University.

For many families, life reverts to normal once the initial hoopla is over. A student at Britain's Rugby School, Stephen Bragg says that his illustrious pedigree probably meant more to his headmaster than to his classmates, who were more concerned with rugby honors than scientific trophies.

Children of accomplished scientists typically get to meet and talk to the cream of the scientific world; the sprinkling of that kind of magic dust over fertile minds is only accentuated by the arrival of a Nobel. Bragg remembers being brought down from her room at age 7 or so to "say hello" to Ernest Rutherford, the father of atomic physics. Tobi Delbrück, son of molecular biologist Max Delbrück, winner of a Nobel in 1969 for work on the genetics of viruses, found himself at age 10 on a camping trip in the company of physicist Richard Feynman, a Nobelist in 1965 for the theory of quantum electrodynamics. Tobi yearned to ask Feynman, who had many unorthodox interests, about his legendary skill at picking locks but was too shy. "No, no," said Max, "go over there and ask him." Tobi did, and Feynman regaled him, his sister Ludina, and Feynman's son, Carl, with stories about lock picking. The Delbrücks lived in Pasadena, California, but spent long summers at Cold Spring Harbor, where Tobi got to know virtually the entire molecular biology community "as a kind of extended family." Similarly, Vilhelm Bohr, the son of Aage Bohr and grandson of Niels Bohr, both physics Nobelists, recalls what a "privilege" it was that leading scientists --especially physicists--used to assemble at the house in Copenhagen where he grew up and take time to talk to him and his brother and sister.

Just like any parents, Nobel laureates can have strong views about their children's career choices or can leave it up to them. "My father didn't push us into science," says Giaever, who specializes in yeast genomics at Stanford University. Rather, he was simply "concerned that we have jobs after we got out of college." Other Nobel parents, however, are more assertive. "I remember my father [George Porter] being intensely keen to kind of 'help,' " says Andrew Porter, who felt somewhat pressured to choose chemistry and physics at age 15 before coming around on his own to biochemistry and molecular genetics--a better fit--later in his career. "The choice of career is very problematic in general," says one young French researcher for whom "everything" changed after the Nobel and who went to some lengths "to find my own adventure."

Even for those who cut their own path, the shadow of a parent's Nobel can create a frustrating standard of achievement. "It's a bit difficult to live up to the reputation," says Bragg. Moreover, people do assume that intelligence is inherited. That can play out cruelly in school and annoyingly later in life. When giving a talk, says Bohr, "there's always a few people at least who have the expectation that I will say something especially novel and original."

In Japan, Nobel laureates often are accorded pop-star status. That may well suit pop stars, but for scientists the sudden and uncalled-for fame can bring unwanted intrusion into their private life. Raymond Davis, for example, at 88 the oldest person ever to receive a Nobel Prize, could not deliver his own Nobel lecture in 2002 because he suffers from Alzheimer's disease, and his son, Andrew Davis, a cosmochemist at the University of Chicago, gave the lecture for him, as he has others since. A few of the newspaper stories around the time of the Nobel announcement concentrated on his father's condition as opposed to his achievement, and, says the younger Davis, "we didn't want him to become a 'poster boy' for Alzheimer's."

For some Nobel progeny, what they remember about their parents' scientific life is not the award but their passion and their desire to explain their work. William Lawrence Bragg, says son Stephen, had an extraordinary ability "to see what a mind not attuned to what [he was] doing might find difficult." Giaever remembers that her father always approached her science homework with a blank sheet of paper and started essentially "from 2 + 2," a process she recalls as extremely painful but instructive. When her parents went away on long vacations, her grades would plummet.

What was most notable about the children of Nobelists approached by Science was the diversity of their responses. To some the prize genuinely seems to make no difference. A few scientists declined to discuss it. Others expressed surprise at what thinking about it stirred up. "It's a mixed thing," says Bohr. "You really have to learn to live with it." Sometimes, the most indelible impressions are simple ones. Max Delbrück died in 1981 of multiple myeloma. The last year or so of his life he spent at home, in Pasadena, finishing papers. "Lots of visitors from all over the world would come to visit him and just chat with him in the backyard," says Tobi Delbrück. "He had his couch and would lie down in the sun. ... That was a wonderful time."

Giselle Weiss is a writer in Allschwil, Switzerland.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers