To Win a Nobel Prize in Science … Make Art?

For top scientists like James P. Allison, music and other artistic endeavors may be key to success.
The CheckPoints Band

James P. Allison plays the harmonica with his band, The CheckPoints. 

Media credits

Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer (SITC)

Nala Rogers, Staff Writer

(Inside Science) -- Nobel-prize-winning scientist by day, blues musician by night. It may sound like a double life, but for James P. Allison -- named last week as one of the two cancer immunologists to win this year's Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine -- science and artistic creativity are inextricably entwined, according to his band mates and colleagues. That may actually be typical for scientists at the top of their game. 

A connection between artistic hobbies and scientific brilliance was noted as long ago as 1878, in a talk by Jacobus Henricus van 't Hoff, winner of the first Nobel prize in chemistry. Van 't Hoff pointed out that a large fraction of famous scientists from history had "artistic inclinations." Newton, for example, was a painter; Galileo was a poet. This made sense, he said, because science is fundamentally creative. Anyone can make rote observations, but it takes leaps of imagination to come up with hypotheses and the experiments to test them.

That rings true for Allison's blues band The CheckPoints, which is made up entirely of cancer immunologists spread across multiple institutions and companies around the U.S. The band is named for the very work that just won Allison a Nobel prize -- parts of the immune system that researchers are manipulating to combat cancer. Allison, who works at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, is an expert harmonica player, and has even played with Willie Nelson.

"Great scientists are creative people. Music and science often go hand-in-hand," said Rachel Humphrey, lead singer of The CheckPoints and the chief medical officer of the San Francisco biotech company CytomX. Humphrey also led the clinical program at Bristol-Myers Squibb that brought the first checkpoint-targeting drug to market.

Allison's creativity is at the heart of his scientific success, said Humphrey. He was the first to recognize immune checkpoints for what they are -- "brakes" that hold the immune system back from attacking too aggressively. And it was his idea to target those checkpoints for cancer therapy, blocking them so the immune system would attack tumors. 

Creativity also takes center stage in Allison's music. Of all the band members, his style is the most improvisational, said Thomas Gajewski, an oncologist and immunologist at the University of Chicago and one of the band's guitar players.

"The guy is totally spontaneous," said Gajewski. "Nothing is the same two performances in a row."

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Becoming what you study

When Robert Root-Bernstein began to investigate how great scientists think, one pattern struck him as particularly odd. In interviews and letters and lab notebooks, he found reference after reference to scientists imagining themselves as the thing they studied.


A physicist, for example, might speak of becoming a quasar. "And that's really bizarre," said Root-Bernstein, a physiologist and science historian at Michigan State University in East Lansing. "What does it mean to become a quasar, for heaven's sake?"


But such thought processes were familiar to Root-Bernstein's wife, Michele Root-Bernstein. A poet and historian, she worked with the sort of people who would think nothing of becoming a tree in order to express the experience in verse.


The parallel suggested to Root-Bernstein that artistic and scientific creativity might share a common source, allowing them to flower in the same people. This insight appears to be borne out in The CheckPoints, a blues band made up of cancer immunologists including new Nobel laureate James Allison.


The band members are working to fight cancer by harnessing a type of white blood cell called a T cell. And they have an original song, written by John Timmerman and Patrick Hsu, from the perspective of a T cell on the attack. Here, for your enjoyment, is the first stanza of the chorus:


You're mutated, but I'm educated

You're done proliferating, 'cause I'm infiltrating

I got no inhibitions, I got no fear

You're gonna be lysed 'cause…


Sidebar image credit: Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer (SITC)

Creativity, compounded

Setting Allison aside for a moment, are scientific luminaries really more artistic than everyone else? Robert Root-Bernstein, a physiologist and science historian at Michigan State University in East Lansing, has done his best to answer that question.

(Root-Bernstein has been known for making controversial arguments about HIV/AIDS, but he said his views on the subject have changed.)

To understand the relationships between art and science, Root-Bernstein examined various sources of data including a 1982 government survey of art participation among the American public, a 1936 avocation survey of members of a large scientific society called Sigma Xi, and the biographies and obituaries of scientists who received Nobel prizes and other prestigious honors. 

One must be cautious about comparing the different types of data, since they were collected in different ways and at different times, noted Root-Bernstein. There could be other confounding factors, too -- for example, if you're working multiple jobs just to survive, you might not have time for hobbies. Still, the patterns were striking. Scientists who received prestigious honors listed significantly more artistic hobbies than the general public -- almost three times more in the case of Nobel laureates. 

That could help explain why a single corner of cancer research has enough musicians for its own 10-piece blues band. The CheckPoints is the official band of the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer, and it plays at the society's meeting each November as well as at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in June.

"We started to accumulate musicians sort of like flypaper," said Gajewski.

Playing for success

In addition to having artistic hobbies, great scientists also approached those hobbies differently than most people, said Root-Bernstein. He took over one study that tracked 38 scientists from 1958 to 1988, including some who only ever published a handful of papers and four who eventually won Nobel prizes.

"All the people in the bottom third of the success group -- you know, the worst group -- basically said there's two cultures, and scientists and artists or literature people can't talk to each other," said Root-Bernstein. "All the people, without exception, at the top said that's ridiculous."

Root-Bernstein found that less successful scientists tended to view their hobbies as an escape from work, while highly successful ones integrated all  their creative endeavors together, using each as inspiration for the others. This seemed to influence how they thought about their time.

"The least successful almost unanimously said 'if I just worked 14 hours a day, I'd be a great scientist.' The great scientists all said 'I'm a lazy son of a bitch,'" he said.

Historical documents suggest that great scientists of the past also mingled their art and science. For example, Max Planck was a concert-caliber musician as well as a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. According to Root-Bernstein, Planck developed quantum theory by applying the mathematics of vibrating strings to the energy levels of atoms. Likewise, Einstein, who played the violin, said that his theory of relativity occurred to him by intuition -- "and music is the driving force behind this intuition."

All four of the CheckPoints members interviewed for this article viewed their art and music as intimately connected. And it's more than just getting colleagues in a room together where they can talk science and form collaborations. The band members also described music as a way to let their minds wander, opening them to new scientific insights.   

"The mental links that happen when you're playing together -- it's very intuitive," said Gajewski. "When we play, it's like a phase shift happens and you get in the zone, and it's sort of magical."

Editor's note (10/08/2018): This story has been updated to correct the location of the company CytomX. We regret the error.

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Nala Rogers is a staff writer and editor at Inside Science, where she covers the Earth and Creature beats. She has a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Utah and a graduate certificate in science communication from U.C. Santa Cruz. Before joining Inside Science, she wrote for diverse outlets including Science, Nature, the San Jose Mercury News, and Scientific American. In her spare time she likes to explore wilderness.