Friday, December 16, 2011

The Soul of Science, the Heart of Discovery

As a farm kid who grew up without indoor plumbing, Richard Ward could have looked forward to inheriting the spread, like a lot of other rural Montana boys. He certainly didn’t set very high expectations among his teachers. But that was just the first time he surprised himself, and everyone around him. Dead Ends to Somewhere reveals how a kid who almost flunked grade school invented a vaccine that saves half a million kids worldwide every year.

Ward was born the youngest son of a large Irish Catholic family, taught to be intensely competitive, to respect hard work, and to revere God. But all that never translated into his schoolwork. The nuns despaired of ever teaching him to read or write. That is, until the day when one sister read his work in front of the class as an example of what to do wrong, and used his name. Ward swore he would never get humiliated like that again.

But that resolution didn’t translate into a clear vision for his life. He started to blow the lid off school, but he drifted through actual career hopes. Vague attempts to find work in San Francisco, play college pigskins, and pursue seminary all took him in directions that never quite paid off. But what seemed like rabbit trails in the moment ultimately proved to offer little glimpses at the bigger secrets in his life. All of them helped advance his life in science.

His story reads like a buttoned down retelling of a Kerouac epic. He pitches his rural upbringing to discover San Fran, where he... um... gets a job in a department store. In graduate school at Berkeley, he probably became the squarest member of the Love & Freedom party, more interested in church and school than protesting. Later he accepted a prestigious job at Sandia National Labs, making earth-shattering discoveries about... sewage sludge.

Ward laces his story with a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor. He talks about the scientific research in pursued, from Berkeley to Germany to Jersey to Cincinnati, in terms even a novice like me can understand. Though he’s a prolifically published researcher, Ward doesn’t rely on the dry voice and dense jargon that makes much scientific writing so imposing. He does a remarkable job communicating with a non-specialist audience.

Along his path, Ward struggles with life and purpose. Like many young people, he had to work hard to accept that he wouldn’t win his Nobel Prize before he turned thirty. Long, painstaking work seemed tedious deep in a Munich basement, but would prove valuable in a Los Angeles lab. He grew to hate a coveted government job, especially when standing in raw sewage, yet it paved the way for his greatest discoveries.

He also never seems to stop running aground on the local cultures. His small town honesty causes him more problems than solutions in Mob-infested New Jersey. His scientific rigor sets him outside the more laid-back, even chaotic UCLA ethos. Only when he finds his real career and mission as a researcher at a children’s hospital—a last ditch job he almost rejected—does his life finally come together with his work.

Ward never set out to investigate infectious diseases. He wanted to study retroviruses, which researchers formerly believed caused cancer. But when rotavirus loomed large in his discoveries, and he discovered that this virus killed 500,000 children yearly, he suddenly had something to work toward. We feel his sense of triumph when his vaccine proves to be the life-saving golden cure suffering children and their parents longed for.

Scientific memoirs often run to either banality or grandiose hot air. Einstein and Planck struggled to make their life stories interesting, while Newton, in his religious fervor, often seemed to be leading his own campaign for sainthood. Ward, by contrast, seems both down-to-earth and candid. I’d put this book alongside classics like Feynman’s What Do You Care What Other People Think?

Not that it’s perfect. It comes from a small independent publisher, and has a few formatting problems. And Ward could use a firmer editorial hand. While the details of his life reveal a great deal about his path toward discovery, not every rambling anecdote about long cross-country drives and frustrating job interviews moves the story forward.

But for all its foibles, this memoir admirably humanizes science. Richard Ward is both a sharp researcher and a savvy storyteller. And if he can make science more accessible and exciting for our society, his contribution will not go unappreciated.

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