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10 Questions - Peter Doherty, scientist and Nobel Laureate

Summer Reading

Brisbane-born scientist Professor Peter Doherty, a former Nobel laureate and Australian of the Year, confronts InQueensland Summer Reading’s 10 questions.

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Did anything good come out of 2020?

Apart from the Dan Murphy’s tweet that vastly increased my Twitter following? It was unintentional (in April, Doherty inadvertently typed “Dan Murphy opening hours” into Twitter instead of Google).

I stopped jumping in and out of airplanes and found that I could talk to people perfectly well around the planet via Zoom without having to fly and take a week out of my life. I’m the patron of our institute, and the key group that has been driving the science communication has been meeting two or three times a week on Zoom and it’s been wonderful. Firstly, their names are attached to their faces, which is a plus at my age, and secondly, you meet them in the lounge room or the living room or wherever and you get to know them a whole lot better. I’ve realised how professional and smart my colleagues really are.

What’s your favourite Christmas memory?

Being kids in Brisbane. I was born in 1940, just after the war began, and our extended family all across Brisbane would get together at Christmas. I’d see my cousins – we had five cousins in Brisbane and another in Victoria – and we’d get together at my grandmother’s house which was next to our house at Oxley. I’ve got memories of Santa Claus coming around in a surplus army jeep, that sort of thing.

Are you a winter or summer person?

Winter, definitely. I miss snow. I’ve got fair skin. I grew up in Brisbane, that’s the last place in the word someone with Celtic heritage should live.

How do you stay resilient during periods of change, like the year just gone?

I’m a basic scientist and I spend a lot of my time thinking, and talking and writing. In many ways this year has given me a lot more protected time where people don’t annoy me. I know a lot of people rely on friendships and groups for support but my wife and I have other resources at our disposal, and perhaps fortunately neither of us are very reliant on social contacts for resilience.

Who were your heroes of 2020?

My good friend Tony Fauci (director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the US) has done a fantastic job. I’ve known him since the 1980s. He’s been in an awful position, but he’s stuck in there because he knows it would be worse in the US if he wasn’t there. Brendan Murphy, our former chief medical officer (and now top health bureaucrat) has done a good job. And, generally, the politicians who have been willing to take advice.

Your secret ambition?

Write the great novel. I’ve got no skill with creative writing – I’ve written six books so far on science – but I have written a (semi-autobiographical) manuscript Empire, War and Tennis about a Queensland childhood and growing up with a couple of tennis-playing uncles who went to war. One didn’t come back.

Favourite end-of-year holiday spot?

Normally, on alternate years we spend Christmas with our youngest son and his family in Seattle. But this Christmas it might be the beach-house down at Point Lonsdale in Victoria, it’s right on Bass Strait and 300 metres away from the beach.

What are you hoping for next year?

I’m hoping the vaccine will work well, that it will live up to expectations and it will give us long-term immunity. I’ve got some concerns – there’s still a lot we don’t understand about this – but I’d like to see a lot of progress and a lot less people dying.

Hot Christmas dinner, or cold?

It will probably be in my son’s back yard in North Fitzroy. He can’t totally resist the need to barbecue but otherwise it will be largely cold I expect.

People/businesses to watch in 2021?

Everyone working on the vaccines obviously. But I don’t know about everything else. The smashed avocado and coffee shops are back, and I think people have moved a lot more online for all sorts of things. I don’t really see the need for large numbers of people to be commuting into the city every day to fill empty buildings. I think this is going to change our society.

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