A course in driver’s ed
Chauffeur to Boston-area Nobel laureates relishes learning on the job
Dan Mosher took college classes here and there - at Bunker Hill Community College and the University of Massachusetts Boston - but his real academic career began three years ago.
That is when he became the chauffeur for a large slice of the Boston area’s unusually large population of Nobel laureates, peppering them with questions as he drives them to appearances across the state. He has driven nine Nobel Prize recipients and is scheduled to chauffeur his 10th, MIT professor Robert Merton, Tuesday.
“Sometimes, it feels like I’m getting a Harvard education one sedan ride at a time,’’ said Mosher, 44. “I still, every day, say how lucky I am. I can’t believe it.’’
Nobel laureates for physics, chemistry, economics, medicine - Mosher, has driven them all. Some, such as MIT professor Jerome Friedman, he has gotten to know on a first-name basis. When he has to drive a new one, Mosher checks Google beforehand and then peppers his passenger with questions.
“Dan is a very nice fellow,’’ said Friedman, 81, who won the prize in 1990 in physics for his work on the inner structure of protons and neutrons in the atomic nucleus. “He’s a very intelligent man.’’
It is an only-in-Greater-Boston phenomenon. Through his company, Lexington Luxury Sedans, Mosher is driver for a local nonprofit program called Nobel Laureate School Visits. The program taps into the many Nobelists at Harvard, MIT, and other institutions in the area and sets up visits with top students at area high schools.
Dr. Edward Shapiro, founder of the program, said that of about 200 Nobel laureates living in the United States, 31 live in Massachusetts, and 28 are affiliated in some way with MIT or Harvard University.
The School Visits program was started in 2009 by Shapiro, a Quincy scientist, with the help of Dan Fenn, adjunct professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
“The idea was that the best and the brightest in these schools need to benefit from recognition, from encouragement, from nurturing,’’ said Fenn.
But to ensure the Nobel Prize recipients enjoy their experience visiting local schools, Fenn and Shapiro brought in Mosher to pick up and drop off each Nobel laureate at the right time and location.
“When you drive a Nobel laureate, you are not just carrying a normal person; you are carrying a national treasure,’’ Shapiro said.
Mosher, a former real estate agent, went to Somerville High School, and lives in the same Porter Square neighborhood where he grew up. Mosher said he agreed to do the driving on the condition that he could attend the Nobel laureates’ lectures.
Three years after starting, Mosher, who also drives for Cambridge Checker Cab on weekends, is still ferrying Nobel Prize recipients around the region. At about 7:45 a.m. Wednesday, he took his black Cadillac to the Back Bay to pick up Nobel laureate Jack Szostak and drove him to Chicopee High School for a talk with about 40 students.
On the way, Mosher asked Szostak about his experience going to Stockholm, in 2009 to receive the Nobel Prize in the category of physiology or medicine.
“It’s interesting how it’s such a bigger deal in Europe in general and obviously in Sweden,’’ said Szostak. “People actually have parties and get dressed up and drink champagne in their homes and watch the ceremony on television. It’s nice to see a place where science gets that kind of attention.’’
At Chicopee High, Szostak spoke to students about winning the Nobel Prize for research he did on a cellular mechanism that protects the genome from degrading, and he discussed his current research into the origin of life.
Mosher listened in while snapping photographs of Szostak from different angles.
No matter how many he has met, Mosher said he still gets nervous meeting Nobel Prize laureates, whom he compared to rock stars.
“These are the real heroes that kind of get brushed to the back a little bit compared to a Kevin Garnett or a Paul Pierce [of the Boston Celtics] or some of the guys from the Patriots,’’ said Mosher. “Don’t get me wrong, they do a lot of good stuff for young sick kids, but these guys here are trying to cure cancer or ALS disease and explain the universe to us and proving to us that electrons and protons and neutrons are made up of these quark things. Just stuff that I never studied in science.’’
Mosher said he believes that perhaps the smartest Nobel Prize recipient he has driven is MIT professor Frank Wilczek, who received the prize for physics in 2004. and whom he has driven several times.
“Even when you talk to him you can see that he’s a million miles away and he’s thinking probably about a hundred different things,’’ Mosher said. “Almost like his brain is a computer.’’
Mosher said another one of his favorite Nobel laureates is Friedman of MIT. .
“He just will not let me call him Dr. Friedman, professor, or sir,’’ Mosher said. “He insists, until he’s blue in the face, that I call him Jerry. I try to have a little respect that these guys have obviously earned, but he’s just so, so, so humble. I drive away shaking my head thinking I can’t believe this. He’s thanking me 9, 10 times for picking him up.’’
Friedman, who lives in Brookline, said that while some people get star-struck when they meet a Nobel Prize recipient, he tries to remind them that he is just a human being. He said itis always a pleasure talking to Mosher.
Among the other Nobel Prize laureates he has driven, Mosher said, Szostak struck him as very personable and that Sheldon Glashow, a professor at Boston University, has a “pretty good sense of humor.’’
Robert Solow, an MIT professor, was one of the first Nobel laureates Mosher chauffeured, and he recalls being very nervous picking him up.
Harvard professor David Hubel, a Harvard professor, is the nicest Nobel laureate Mosher said he has met.
Mosher found Craig Mello, 51, from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, who is the youngest he has chauffeured to be fascinating.
Mosher said he was surprised to learn Nobel Prize recipient Richard Roberts, the chief scientific officer at New England Biolabs in Ipswich, played hooky from school as a child to go play billiards.
In a phone interview with the Globe, Roberts said itis that type of experience that he thinks really resonates with students when he visits local schools, that he sometimes found classes boring and would pursue his interest in subjects such as chemistry on his own as he was growing up.
“I didn’t take authority very well,’’ Roberts said.
After driving so many Nobel Prize laureates, Mosher said he has been struck by how many of them, like Friedman, say they are just regular people.
“Well they are not; they are not regular guys,’’ Mosher said. “But for the most part until they start to talk about their respective fields, they like coffee; they do the same things with their wives or girlfriends that we do with ours.
“But when it comes down to their field of expertise, then it’s a whole new ball game.’’
Brock Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.