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INSIDE STORY : Sex and Guns and Jared Diamond : A Pulitzer Prize and Scientific Renown Are Not Enough for This Best-Selling Author and Researcher. He Wants Fame. His Quest for Celebrity, However, Has Led Down Some Unusual Paths. BY CAROLYN RAMSAY

September 12, 1999|Carolyn Ramsay last wrote for the magazine on UCLA Nobel Laureate Louis Ignarro

Jared Diamond wants to be famous. The slight, frizzy-haired UCLA Medical School physiology professor wants to reach beyond his admiring audience of science buffs and feel the heady jolt that comes from recognition by mainstream America. In Southern California, in particular, this quest places him in a thundering herd of attention-seekers willing to do anything for their one big shot at stardom. Diamond's approach, however, is more old-fashioned--more naive, some might say. He's trying to earn our attention.

If Diamond, 62, hadn't suddenly decided to seek a certain celebrity, he would embody that rarest subspecies of human: contented Renaissance Man. Consider his curriculum vitae. His were the first human feet to reach the peak of the Van Rees Mountains in New Guinea's jungle. His were the first eyes of a Western scientist to witness the mating rituals of the elusive golden-fronted bowerbird. His theories on intestinal absorption are taught in college physiology classes worldwide. His three books and hundreds of magazine columns weave science, language, history and ornithology into theories on the Big Questions so persuasively that a cadre of influential fans, including Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, has sung his praises. President Clinton put one of his books on his reading list this summer. And last year Diamond added a Pulitzer to his many prizes.

"He's simply one of the several brightest people in the world," says friend and Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer winner and author of last year's most talked-about science book, "Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge." "If you think I'm exaggerating, look at his record, from Korean language to Chinese history and the history of Polynesia, to ornithology and on and on and on, all of it first-class research."

None of that, of course, offers the slightest advantage toward achieving celebrity in this culture, and with his wispy Robert Bork facial hair and penchant for shuffling about in brown suede Inuit slippers, the eccentric Diamond won't make it on image alone. He does, however, have a couple of things going for him that most other scientists who have merely helped redefine the world don't: sex and guns.

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Diamond sits on a couch in his family's Bel-Air home wearing a brown velvet safari jacket and surrounded by New Guinea wood carvings and prints of rare birds. In a sonorous, Boston-accented voice that seems too big for his diminutive frame, he recalls his reaction to learning that his 1997 book, "Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Society," had won the Pulitzer for general nonfiction, opening a gaping passage to the mainstream.

"My first words were, I believe, 'My God,' or 'goddamn,' " he says, his tone straining for colloquialism but unable to stray far from the professorial. That night Diamond celebrated with his wife, Marie Cohen, and their twin sons, now 12. Ten days later he flew off to the New Guinea jungle, and for the next six weeks, carrying an umbrella, binoculars and a notepad, he and his guide carved trails through moss a foot thick and were privy to, among other things, the song of the shovel-billed kingfisher.

"I feel more at home in the New Guinea jungle than I do anywhere," Diamond says. "I know those bird sounds and I know how to operate there. It feels more normal to me than Los Angeles."

New Guinea is Diamond's Mecca. It's there that he carries on his 50-year love

affair with birds and where his study of bird

sex broadened into human sexuality. It was on a New Guinea beach that Diamond stumbled on the core idea for the best-selling "Guns, Germs and Steel," and it was in New Guinea that Diamond had the life-threatening experience that began a series of domino-like events leading up to his decision to become a fame seeker.

How a skinny scientist came to feel so at home in the jungle goes back to his childhood home in Brookline, Mass. His father, Louis Diamond, died in June at age 97. As noted in obituaries nationwide, the elder Diamond, a Harvard pediatrics professor, pioneered the practice of transfusions for babies whose blood is incompatible with their mothers'. Jared's late mother, Flora Diamond, was a concert pianist, language whiz and teacher. The Diamonds' standards on learning and productivity were exacting, and their two children absorbed them wholly and without fuss.

Diamond's sister, Susan, recalls an important high school debate during which her brother made a mistake. "He split an infinitive and stopped dead," she says. "He looked out in the audience toward my mother, and my mother and I looked down at our laps. We were not going to show him in any way that we had heard.

"I'm not saying we had a mother who slapped us around when we split an infinitive," the Los Angeles journalist adds. "But we knew you don't split infinitives. You have respect for the language."

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