If it is common to affirm that the brain of great scientists is different from that of ordinary mortals, it is rarer to try to understand how it works. What are the characteristics of a scientific mind and how does this vocation arise? Journalist Nicolas Martin explores these questions in a series of exclusive long-term interviews. Ten men, seven women, seventeen disciplines: physicist, biologist, linguist, mathematician, anthropologist, computer scientist, the list is as exhaustive as the exchanges that make it up are salubrious for our brains.
In drips or in one go, this kaleidoscope-like reading plunges us into the spiritual, family and intellectual intricacies of these men and women who dedicate their lives to discovery. From their very first curiosity to the professor who knew how to give birth to their appetite for science, until what they consider to be their greatest discovery, they all talk about the key moments in their careers.
If, from an early age, some, like the biologist Gilles Bœuf, raise “vipers, lizards, and insects to the great displeasure of his mother”, for others, entry into the world of science is anchored in the litterature. Thus, as a child, reading the novel The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne shaped the critical mind of Alain Aspect, Nobel Prize in Physics in 2022 (read L’Hebdo of December 10-11, 2022 and on la-croix.com ), and “reinforced him in his great confidence in the value of science and technology for society”. Similarly, the linguist Hélène Lœvenbruck reveals that it was from the precision of the words of Gustave Flaubert in Sentimental Education, then those of Tolstoy in his description of the intimate tugs of Anna Karenina, that her interest in the inner language, which she is still studying at the CNRS today. In this sense, the 55-year-old scientist is convinced, “artists are also researchers”.
Over the course of the interviews, one constant nevertheless emerges: the importance of methodical doubt. A “necessity” according to Alain Aspect, faced with “the immensity and infinity of the problems which will present themselves before us, and which will have to be resolved”. Marc Lachièze-Rey, astrophysicist and cosmologist at the CNRS, also invites the new generations of scientists not to lose sight of it. “The main quality of the researcher is doubt. If I can reproach science as it functions today, it is the lack of this capacity to doubt. »
Rich in anecdotes, these interviews illustrate how the “unlimited chain” of knowledge is also nourished by serendipity and collaboration between colleagues. Evidenced by the example of neuroscientist Eric Kandel, who at an international conference, learns from a hallway conversation that the sea slug has “no brain” but only “a plexus of neurons”. Seemingly banal, this information sounds like a revelation for the psychiatrist. Years later, in 2000, his work on the molecular basis of short- and long-term memory earned him the Nobel Prize for Medicine. Inspirational stories that, like Albert Einstein in his youth, give us the vivid feeling that there is “something deeply hidden behind things” (1).