Twenty years ago, I had the good fortune to spend a sabbatical year in Dublin. After delivering a guest lecture at Trinity College I was given a book, a biography of Ernest Walton, Ireland’s only Nobel Laureate in the sciences who, together with John Cockroft in 1931, split the atom. I was so inspired by this book that I decided to write a biography about Allan MacLeod Cormack who had shared the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1979. It took four years to write, and Imagining the Elephant was finally published by Imperial College Press in June 2008 (below left).
I was recently asked by two organisations – Global Clinical Engineering Alliance and Friends of the Cape Town Museum – to give an online lecture about Cormack which I chose to entitle “The computer tomographic scanner: how solving a mathematical algorithm won a Nobel Prize in medicine.” The first of these lectures was delivered earlier this week, while the second will be broadcast on Monday 20 February 2023. If you have 25 minutes to spare, you can watch my lecture by clicking on this YouTube link.
The first half of the lecture describes the work of Cormack and his fellow Nobel Laureate Godfrey Hounsfield, illustrating how far the CT scanner has progressed since Cormack’s pioneering experiments at the University of Cape Town in the 1950s. The second half is entitled “The anatomy of writing a book: a personal odyssey” and explores 12 questions an audience might want to ask me. The first of these asked about the original idea for the biography which I explained above.
Other questions included: How did you organise all your reference material? Was it difficult to find a publisher? Did you have to travel extensively to conduct background research? Did you write in long-hand or enter directly via the keyboard? How important was having a good editor? Did the illustrations have a role to play? How did you come up with an enigmatic title that captured the essence of the book?
Should you judge a book by its cover? What was most enjoyable about the book launches? Were there any book reviews that surprised you? Do you have a favourite passage? In my answer to this final question, I quoted a hair-raising story told to me by Aaron Klug (seen right) – also a future Nobel Laureate – who described an incident when he and Cormack were climbing the front face of Table Mountain in 1947. In 2023, these two physicists inspire us with the idea it’s possible to perform world-class research on the southern tip of Africa.