A Bouquet of Science

Paramount Pictures/Photofest
Jerry Lewis as Professor Julius Kelp in The Nutty Professor (1963)

Sometime in 1976 I was asked to be a judge for the 1975 National Book Awards for the category “The Sciences.” I was not particularly enthusiastic about accepting what seemed like a potentially tedious task but Carl Sagan was another judge and I thought it might be interesting to meet him. The third judge was the ecologist Garrett Hardin. We were summoned to meet in a New York midtown building and when I got there I was taken to a room where the books that had been submitted by their publishers were on display. There were dozens and dozens all piled up in heaps on tables. I thought that if their authors could see this, they would head for the nearest bar. I had a bit of an advantage over my fellow judges because at the time I was essentially doing all the reviewing of science books for The New Yorker. I had a shelf in the book room at the magazine and a couple of times a week I would take several home.

So, many of the books that were piled up were familiar to me. A few I had never heard of, such as Silvano Arieti’s Interpretation of Schizophrenia, which Sagan strongly recommended. Arieti was a proponent of the trauma theory of schizophrenia, which claimed that some traumatic experience is what triggers the disease. We had to select ten books as nominees and then spend a couple of weeks reading them in order to make an ordered list. Then we were to have a second meeting and decide who the winner would be.

On the day of this meeting I showed up as scheduled, as did Hardin, but there was no Sagan. This left us in a quandary. I wanted to give the award to Lewis Thomas’s Lives of a Cell—a book that poetically described different aspects of biology—while Hardin had some other choice. While we were wondering what to do next, we were visited by the poet John Hollander, who represented the committee on arts and letters. They wanted to give their award to Lewis Thomas and wanted us to give him up. I objected and only agreed once Hollander guaranteed that they would give the award to Thomas, which they did.

Then Sagan showed up. He had been getting his hair done at Sassoon’s and was longer under the dryer than he had anticipated. His first choice was Arieti, which was my second. It was Hardin’s last but we outvoted him. This seemed to take care of the matter but Sagan was not happy and insisted on discussing his unhappiness with the award officials. Sagan said that the award for poetry was given for poetry, the award for biography was given for biography, and so on but what was the award…

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