My parents let me make gunpowder and nearly blow up the basement. Is that why I became a scientist?

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Paul Plotz and his sister Liz with his chemistry set, probably in 1948.
Paul Plotz and his sister Liz with his chemistry set, probably in 1948.

Courtesy the author.

I am a physician and scientist, 74 years old, and have been studying and working in those professions every day since entering medical school nearly 54 years ago. I would like to convey an accurate account of how that happened.

Shortly before my eighth birthday, the A-bombing of Japan and then the end of the war became our era’s sputnik in schools, though I was too young to notice. They also ignited a huge interest in Lise Meitner, Otto Hahn, Einstein, Fermi, Oppenheimer, and the squash courts beneath the stands at Soldier’s Field in Chicago.* My parents—father, a practicing physician who clung to Osler’s prescription to read an hour a day outside of medicine; and mother, a well-read woman with an astonishing knowledge of poetry—heartily approved of comic books since they made you read. They also brought into the house Mr. Tompkins Explores the Atom; One, Two, Three, Infinity; Mathematics for the Million; You and Heredity; Microbe Hunters; and Crucibles but didn’t force-feed them to us.

My father’s office was in the house. I passed through it every time I went out to play, and in the evenings, some or all of us would gather in his consulting room to do homework while my mother would help my father keep up his medical reading notes. He would be talking on the phone to his patients and to the doctors who had sent him patients or to the doctors to whom he sent patients. Without consciously listening to him, by the time I got to medical school, my part in such conversations seemed to come naturally.

Two other features of my home life stand out as more formative than anything I’ve mentioned so far. First, my father hired Miss Eichel, who had just graduated from Brooklyn College, as his lab technician, and he converted an unused room in the basement to a lab with a centrifuge and microscope and chemicals. Miss Eichel taught me the tasks of her trade and let me help her do them. And when she wasn’t there, I could do what I liked, such as taking note of the various chemicals, including concentrated sulfuric acid.

Second, a chemistry set came into my hands—probably a birthday present from my parents. Chemistry sets were common in those days. My wife Judith, also a doctor’s child, tells me that she had one, too. The chemicals all came in stout little wooden cylinders, and there was a booklet describing all sorts of experiments, which my friends and I rapidly ran through, I’m sure. Not just turning wine into water and water into wine but also some genuine chemistry. I was particularly drawn to the blue lumps of copper sulfate. They led to the first failure of my experimental career. I tried to copperplate a small bracelet of my mother’s using a solution of copper sulfate and a battery hooked up overnight. Maybe I got cation and anion confused—I still do—and hooked things up wrong. After the tears subsided, someone, possibly the young physician working as a junior partner in my father’s office, set it up so that it worked. The emotion surrounding the failure and the succeeding relief of the success still vibrate around within me from time to time.

But that was just the beginning. When we were in our early teens, a couple of my friends, Warren and Paul—both were doctor’s sons and became doctors themselves—and I discovered somehow the ingredients of gunpowder. We had charcoal and sulfur, but not potassium nitrate. One of us found out about a place that would sell chemicals to any warm body that walked in the door. Also magnesium tape for a fuse. We took the subway to a seedy place in downtown Manhattan and bought—no questions asked—what we needed. Back in the basement lab, we did all sorts of things involving gunpowder—sometimes just on the floor, sometimes in a small crucible from the lab, sometimes noisy, sometimes smelly, sometimes smoky, often in combination. Eventually we graduated ourselves into buying potassium permanganate and using the concentrated H2SO4 and other things we found in various ways, leading to outcomes we had not anticipated. We didn’t know anything about lab coats, gloves, or goggles (nor about bicycle helmets or seat belts) in those days. The moment I have never forgotten was igniting something or other in the crucible and causing a great smell and noise, and a whoosh of smoke shooting up to the ceiling, leaving a black smear, which was still there when I cleared the house after my mother died half a century later.

The point of this story is that through all of this, my parents and my friends’ parents, perhaps sensing that we were not psychopathic or silly, left us alone. They didn’t hover (as I did over my sons when they were playing with their chemistry sets, which may explain in part why they turned to words for a living) or ask where we were going, or what we had bought, or what we were doing anyway. In addition to being curious and to being skeptical, we were free and we were trusted. On reflection, that seems to have been central, and had to have been deeply formative. I became a scientist.

I majored in physics, but despite my love for it, it seemed natural for me to yield to years of my father’s gentle nudging, spend a summer being stuffed with organic chemistry, and become a physician. My school and college exposure to science was also helpful in reinforcing an already developed interest. In the small private elementary school and then in the huge public New York City high school I attended, great math and science teachers were in abundance, such as the justly famous biology teacher, Mr. Thomas Lawrence, a wonderful and inspiring spats-wearing Southern gentleman whose students were two of the 40 national Westinghouse finalists my senior year (not me) as well as fistfuls of honorable mentions. In college, great science teachers were also in abundance: for example, Leonard Nash, E.M. Purcell, and William Moffitt. But in high school and college, and even in medical school, the didactic laboratory experiments of the classroom always seemed artificial and boring.

When I got to medical school, a physician uncle suggested that I call his friend Bernie if I wanted to work in a lab. Bernie had just joined the microbiology department. I did, was thrown into Bernie’s lab the next day, and began (badly, I might add) to experiment. These were the first real experiments I had done since coming up from the basement at home in my early teens. All through medical school and during a year off supported by a Post-Sophomore Fellowship of the United States Public Health Service, I worked in Bernie’s lab at the school or at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Except for a pause of a couple of years during internship and residency, I continued doing research at the National Institutes of Health for the next 45 years, until I retired in 2011. That marvelous institution has its home base and its great research hospital, the Clinical Center, in Bethesda, Md., with outposts in other parts of the country, but almost 90 percent of its budget takes the form of grants and contracts to support biomedical and clinical research at universities and research institutes in the United States and abroad. Its mission is “to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce the burdens of illness and disability.” The research supported by NIH, by the National Science Foundation, by the Veterans Administration, by the Department of Defense, and by a number of other parts of government is responsible for a great deal of the basic knowledge that underpins the development of new therapies. Furthermore, it supports the education of vast numbers of scientists from other parts of the world who come here to train and then return to their home countries or remain here in our scientific and medical communities.

The idea that our still unstudiable genetically determined temperaments shape life choices underlies my own reflections on “me and science” and “me and medicine.” But what I really know or at least remember about my family, upbringing, household, schooling, and the world of the 1940s and ’50s still makes a pretty good case for environment. What it doesn’t explain is why my older sister (librarian), younger sister (artist), and brother (lawyer) were not similarly drawn to science or medicine, but my siblings have taught me well enough about their lives for me to know deeply that no two children in a family have the same parents even though they share genes drawn from the same set and live in the same household.

Dr. Paul Plotz
Dr. Paul Plotz

Photograph by Rhoda Baer.

Finally, I do not know how to translate my own life experiences—fortunate and happy—into a prescription except to draw on the observation that I was set on the path to becoming a scientist and a physician early in life by direct opportunities to experiment and to observe afforded to me by the good fortune of my tolerant and nurturing family and later the welcoming support of schools and institutions—in my case almost all government institutions—designed to foster a career.

I will close by telling of a recent encounter with fourth-graders at a science fair in a local public school. A couple of projects struck me as outstanding—one on the unlikely subject of whether a soccer player’s preferred kicking foot is on the same side as the preferred writing hand. It was based on a sensibly designed plan with a group of soccer players on the teams in the experimenters’ league. The project took less than half a day to execute and not much longer to analyze. The design was excellent, and the two kids who had done it pointed out to me (the judge) every obvious way it could have been improved. I told the teacher privately that these kids did a terrific job and that they should think about becoming scientists. She leapt up, fetched the kids back to the gym from out of their classes so that I could tell them what I had said to her—which I did, with the suggestion that they think about a life in science. When they had left, the teacher told me that the lower grades had lost their science teacher for next year and that most of her fellow classroom teachers did not like to teach even the little science they knew and said why not drop science entirely since money is short. My own experience strongly suggests the benefits of having interesting real science experiences for children when they are young, supported by useful math skills and scientific thinking all though their education, taught by enthusiastic and good teachers.

Also in Slate’s special issue on science education: Make magazine’s Dale Dougherty on learning science by building rockets and robots and Fred Kaplan on why another “Sputnik moment” would be impossible. Also, share your ideas for fixing science education in the Hive. This article arises from Future Tense, a joint partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.

Correction, June 11, 2012: This article misspelled Lise Meitner’s first name.