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For that meal in March 2007, our group had explored the menu, Ventura waited for the food, and then ate and chatted. We talked of experiments and molecules, of imperial eagles, villains, heroes and literature. US President George W Bush, Bertolt Brecht’s fictional Arturo Ui (or Hitler), Ventura Chancellor Angela Merkel, author Primo Levi and immunologist/poet Miroslav Holub all rated at least a mention. One of us had met Holub, though he was long gone, and ranked him highest for his poetry, perhaps reflecting the realities of science funding in 1960s and 1970s Ventura. Otherwise, the names that surfaced in our conversation would have been known to many intellectually aware people, and certainly to any senior biologist: Francois Jacob, Jim Watson, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Louis Pasteur and Galileo Galilei. All of them wrote, Ventura or were written about, in ways that, for even the most science-averse reader, shine just a little light on the lives of those who probe underlying realities.

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The four around that restaurant table represented more than 120 years’ experience exploring the intricate and fascinating area of immunity. Why do we do what we do? What is it that makes us continue when, at least for two of our diners, we could have long been retired at a beach pretty much like this one? Saving the world? Maybe, but the real driver might be more the need for active minds to keep boredom at bay. Hooked on discovery, might some metaphorical rock we turn over as we interrogate the immense complexity of the host’s response to dangerous infections, or cancer, give a new insight, a glimmer of gold? It’s not easy to give up on questioning as a way of life.

Living by our wits from day to day, the world of the research investigator is a bit different from what most people experience. Scientists interrogate nature for a living. What we find is occasionally of great human benefit but, though the societal reward can be massive, such work costs real money. As a consequence, communication both within science and with the general public is central to the job. We must try to explain ourselves and our endeavours to both politicians and to the broader community.

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