Friday, February 5, 2016

The Rest of the Story

Alan was born 102 years ago today in Banbury, England. He was descended from a long line of Quakers. Quakers are often pacifists, so Alan’s dad George didn’t fight in World War I. Instead, he took part in a relief effort in the Middle East. But war is dangerous even if you are not in the line of fire, and George died of dysentery in Baghdad when Alan was only four.

Alan’s mom was left to raise him and his two brothers alone. She encouraged Alan’s interest in science, and so did his eccentric Aunt Katie who took him bird watching. When he was 15, Alan was hired by a ornithologist to survey rookeries and heronries. He spent hours searching for rare birds in salt marshes. All this kindled his passion for learning.

Based on his strong academic record, Alan won a scholarship to study botony, zoology, and chemistry at Trinity College, part of the University of Cambridge. One of Cambridge’s distinguished zoologists gave Alan some good advice: study as much physics and mathematics as you can! So he did. He also did what all undergraduates should do: research. He was good at it; so good that he was awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship to go to New York for a year. He kept at his research, and traveled around to other parts of the United States, such as Massachusetts and Saint Louis, to learn more.

When he got back to Cambridge, Alan’s knowledge of physics allowed him to build his own equipment, enabling him to move his research in exciting directions. He and his collaborators began to get dramatic results. Just when he was on the verge of making decisive discoveries, Hitler marched into Poland and the world was at war again.

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Alan suspended his own research and dedicated his talents to defeating the Germans. The Battle of Britain was won, in part, by the development of radar. Alan worked on a special type of radar that was installed in airplanes and used by RAF fighter pilots to locate and intercept Luftwaffe bombers. Alan and a small group of scientists toiled frantically, working seven days a week. They risked their lives on test flights in planes fitted with the new radar. For six years, during what should have been a young scientist’s most productive period, Alan set aside his own interests to help the Allies win the war.

Once World War II ended, Alan returned to Cambridge. After all this time, had science passed him by? No! He took up his research where he had left off, and started making groundbreaking discoveries in electrophysiology. With his coworkers, Alan figured out how nerves send signals down their axons, first passing sodium ions through the cell membrane and then passing potassium ions.

In 1963, Alan Hodgkin received the 1963 Noble Prize for Physiology or Medicine for discovering the ionic mechanism of nerve excitation.

And now you know THE REST OF THE STORY. Good day!


This blog post was written in the style of Paul Harvey’s wonderful “The Rest of the Story” radio program. The content is based on Hodgkin’s autobiography Chance and Design: Reminiscences of Science in Peace and War. You can read about Hodgkin's work on electrophysiology—including Hodgkin and Huxley’s famous mathematical model of the nerve action potential—in Chapter 6 of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.

Happy birthday, Alan Hodgkin!

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