Sir Alexander Fleming (1881-1955)
Discoverer, Nobel Laureate
Dr.Fleming discovered penicillin while working in an old laboratory. A mold spore which was blown in through the open window, landed on a culture plate he was about to examine. This led to his remarkable discovery.
Some years later he was led through a research lab which was built using the latest state of the art in technology: air-conditioned, dust free and with super-sterile setting. ‘What a pity, you didn’t have a place like this to work in,’ remarked the guide, ‘what you could have discovered in such surroundings?’
‘Not penicillin,’ replied Fleming dryly.
Alexander Fleming was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1945. When he arrived in Stockholm to receive the award he had a bad cold. Throughout the ceremony he used his handkerchief repeatedly. Later as was leaving teary eyed and sniffing one official shook his head sympathetically and said to him, ‘No good for colds?’
En route from London airport to give a lecture in Belfast, Sir Alexander Fleming was told that all the seats on his plane were taken by the VIPs. It turned out these high priority personages were all officials from the Ministry of Health who had been sent to attend his lecture.
Henry Norris Russell
Once the Princeton astronomer was giving a lecture on the Milky Way and at the end a woman from the audience asked: ‘If our world is so little and the universe is so great, can we really believe that God pays any attention to us?’
‘That madam,’ replied Dr. Russell, depends entirely on how big a God you believe in.’
Eugene Paul Wenger, one of the outstanding nuclear scientists was noted for his politeness. Once encountering a rude attendant Dr. Wenger listened patiently for a while his abusive language and he said, ‘Go to hell please.’
Professor Weiner fitted the popular image of an absent-minded professor, brilliant but eccentric to extreme. One day he wrote out a complex problem on the blackboard. Shortly after he wrote the answer down having worked out complex steps in his head.
A young graduate, seeking a clue to the master’s approach, asked: ‘Professor Weiner, isn’t there another way of doing that problem?’
‘Why yes.’ replied the Professor.
Turning to the blackboard again, he picked up the chalk and reflected for a moment – and wrote down the answer a second time.’
Professor Weiner was crossing the quadrangle of the campus one afternoon when a student stopped him to discuss a problem.
The professor stopped and answered the problem and at the end he asked, ‘Which way was I going when you stopped me?’
‘You were walking that way, sir,’ the student pointed the direction and the professor with a relief murmured,’Oh then I’ve had lunch,’ and continued on his way.
John Von Neumann (1903-1956)
Like Einstein he was also one of the full professors of the Institute for the Advanced Studies at Princeton. Unlike Einstein whose mind was slow and contemplative and could chew on a problem for long Neumann’s mind was swift. Either he solved a problem right away or not at all. His wizardry prompted Hans Bethe, who was the Director of the Theoretical Physics division to comment, ‘I have sometimes wondered whether a brain like von Neumann’s does not indicate a species superior to that of man?’
One day at a research organization there was a meeting to discuss the possibilities of building a new kind of computer. Von Neumann who was present after hearing their requirements said, ‘Well gentlemen, suppose you give me an example of the kind of problem that had taken two years to solve.’ While the presentation was completed, John von Neumann sat with his head buried in his hands and then scribbled on a pad. He said that he had the answer.
While the scientists satin stunned silence von Neumann outlined various steps, which provided the solution to the problem.
One of the scientists then laughed and said, ‘Johnny, we need this machine because we don’t have a von Neumann’.
Von Neumann’s lectures were brilliant but he had a habit of erasing formula from the blackboard as soon as he had reached the bottom to continue the steps all over again from the top. Many of his students had difficulties to keep track. On one such occasion one waited till he had finished the problem to say, ‘I see proof, by erasure.’