Queen of carbon
Mildred Dresselhaus died recently. I’m afraid I’d never heard of her – a comment on my scientific literacy – but she was a great chemist, known among academics as the queen of carbon. According to the Financial Times’ obituary, she helped to lay the foundations for nanotechnology, and published 1700 scientific papers as well as eight books. That’s some record for someone born into a poor Polish immigrant family, who went on to have four children herself.
Dresselhaus received the $1million Kavli prize in nanoscience in 2012, and in 2014 the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour in the US.
So, a remarkable women, who also worked hard to promote women in science. But what struck me most in the obituary was the closing quote. There was some discussion of whether she had been overlooked for a Nobel Prize, given her contributions to research that brought others Prizes for working nanotubes, graphene and buckyballs. Her response:
[The others] had ideas that I missed and they did great work. I’ve received a lot of recognition for my contributions.
I thought of using the word ‘modesty’ in the title of this post. I’m pretty sure she was a modest person, but it doesn’t quite capture the quality this quote shows. It combines a readiness to give others credit, an acknowledgement that she didn’t get everything right and a very reasonable satisfaction with what she accomplished. That’s a very attractive combination.