10 Questions for Eric Kandel

The Nobel Prize winner talks about his passion for science and art, where he does his best thinking, and why he likes bow ties.

Erick Kandel in 2009.
Erick Kandel in 2009.

Shortly before Eric Kandel’s appearance on the show on August 30, 2013, ScienceFriday.com caught up with the Nobel Prize winner to learn more about his passion for science and art, where he does his best thinking, and why he likes bow ties.

Science Friday: When did you know you wanted to become a scientist?
Eric Kandel: I think there was no one less likely to become a scientist than myself. I was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1929. I was kicked out by the Nazis in 1939, and I came to the United States. I was interested in European intellectual history—I wanted to understand how people could listen to Hadyn, Mozart, and Beethoven one day, and beat up on the Jews the next—and I went to Harvard with the idea of specializing in that area. But as I came closer to graduation, I got to know a very famous psycholanaylst, Ernst Kris, and he told me, ‘If you want to understand the human mind, you’re not going to do it through intellectual history. You gotta do it through psychoanalysis.’ So, I took the set of required boring courses and got into medical school [at New York University]. And for three years, I was going to become a clinical psychologist and spent my summers working at psychiatric hospitals. And then in my senior year, I thought, even a Park Avenue psychoanalyst should know something about the brain. So I took an elective at Columbia and found that I loved working in the lab—it was completely different than reading these boring textbooks. Then, after graduating from med school, I was recommended to the National Institutes of Health, where I spent three years. I went in incompetent, and I came out competent to do science. And even though I continued my training in psychiatry, I knew I wanted to be a fulltime scientist, and that’s what I’ve done.

Who’s your scientific idol?
Oh, I don’t know whether I have a single scientific idol. Certainly I have enormous respect for people like Francis Crick, Sydney Brenner, and Jim Watson. In neurobiology, I guess I would have to say Bernard Katz, and [Alan] Hodgkin and [Andrew] Huxley were great idols of mine. I always wanted to do for synaptic plasticity what Bernard Katz did for synaptic transmission.

Do you have a favorite science-themed book?
I like Rita Levi-Montalcini’s scientific autobiography, In Praise of Imperfection. I like the collection of essays that Lewis Thomas has put together called The Lives of a Cell. And I very much like [James] Watson’s The Double Helix, because there was no bullshit in it—he was the first to sort of spell out the rivalry between scientists and things like this. I thought it was a remarkable book.

Do you have a favorite place where you retreat in order to think?
We have three places, and I think in all of them. I think a lot. Most of the thoughts are bad—I don’t mean evil—they’re bad ideas. But I love working where I am right now—a summer cottage directly on the bay in South Wellfleet on Cape Cod that we’ve had since the early 1970s. It’s called Sunset, because the sunsets are so magnificent over the water. [My wife] Denise and I sit there in the evening, and we have hors d’oeuvres and wine, and it’s just marvelous. Our kids come up here, and their grandchildren come up here, so it’s really a unifying force for the whole family. So I think here. We [also] have a place in Riverdale [in New York], which is very nice, also overlooking a body of water—the Hudson River. And then, because I’m crazy—I’m married to a French woman, and I like her after 58 years—we have an apartment in Paris where we spend 14 days a year.

Is there a dream scientific discovery that you wish you could make?
Less than 10 years ago, a postdoctoral fellow in my lab—Kausik Si—and I made a very nice finding. But first, some background: There is a pathogenic mechanism in the brain called a prion mechanism. That is, it’s a protein mechanism whereby a protein, for reasons that are not known, moves into another conformation that’s self-regenerating—the altered protein causes normal proteins to assume the altered conformation. These proteins form aggegrates that kill cells, and when the cells die, the aggegrates are released and taken up by more cells that then die. So this is like a viral infection, except that a protein mediates it. We found a functional example of that—meaning, it doesn’t kill the cell. We call it a functional prion.

Related Segment

Forget-Me-Not: How Prions Maintain Memory

In order to maintain your long-term memory, you need to have local protein synthesis at the synapse. The protein we found, called the cytoplasmic polyadenylation element binding protein (CPEB), regulates local protein synthesis, and it’s functionally self-perpetuating. So, this is the first time a functional prion was described and has this role of keeping memory indefinitely. I told the people in my lab, ‘One finding like this is a biological novelty. Two examples is a biological principle.’ So, we need to see whether we can come up with another example—and we’re on the verge of having reasonably good evidence for one that’s involved in post-traumatic stress disorder in female mice. Whether it’s my dream discovery, I don’t know, but it’s a nice fantasy.

You won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Where do you keep the award?
Jeez, that’s a good question. It’s in the safe in my house. So if you ever break into the safe, you’ll find it.

When you’re not researching, what are you doing?
Well, on a typical day here in Wellfleet, I play tennis from 9 to 10. We then come back and have a very nice lunch overlooking the bay. I usually work between tennis and lunch. In the afternoon, at about 4 o’clock, I usually leave for swimming. And in the evening, Denise and I take a one-hour constitutional—a two-mile hike around here. And then we have a very pleasant dinner together, usually alone, but sometimes with friends.

I also like the opera. Denise and I have a subscription to the Met. And we go to museums a lot. I would say art is our greatest passion. I’m doing an essay now on Cubist art. I wrote to my daughter saying, ‘Ay ay ay, I’m doing this essay on Cubism; I’m way over my head.’ She says, ‘New, Pops? What’s so special about that? You’re always over your head.’

So you’re saying you’re not very active at all.
I should disabuse you immediately: I’m an extremely mediocre tennis player, and I’m invariably the slowest person in the pool.

If you hadn’t become a scientist, what career might you have pursued?
I probably would have gone into psychoanalysis.

Not art collecting?
That interest came later. I became passionate in Paris. Denise and I spent ’62-’63 there, and we bought our first works of art, including a wonderful Picasso etching from the Vollard Suite. In fact, I’ll tell you a nice story. This is a beautiful etching of the artist and several of his models, and it cost $400. There was another for $475 that was simpler, of the artist looking just at one model. Denise preferred the second one, but we couldn’t afford it, because we didn’t have that much money—the 75 bucks made a difference. So we got this one, and we enjoyed it. And a couple years ago I decided that for Denise’s birthday, I was going to try and get her what we passed over in the Vollard Suite for $475. I got a friend of mine to hunt it down in Paris—now I forget what we paid for it; it was $20,000 or some ridiculous amount—and I surprised her with it. So we have both of them hanging on top of each other in our bedroom. It’s just marvelous.

Now, this question is very deep: You seem to have a thing for bow ties. Why?
I don’t know. I think Denise likes me in them. I feel comfortable in them.

And they don’t drag in your food.
It’s the opposite. You see, you can spill soup on a conventional tie, but you can’t spill soup on a bow tie—you spill it on your shirt, but the tie is always protected because it’s way up high. I like it.

Well, I like it, too.
Thank you! You see—it makes a big hit with the ladies.

And the truth comes out.

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About Julie Leibach

Julie Leibach is a freelance science journalist and the former managing editor of online content for Science Friday.

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