There is no ideal… scientist :)


My brother lent me “The Trouble With Physics” by Lee Smolin, which is a really interesting account of the last century in theoretical physics. I think the real reason he lent it to me is because of the additional commentary it makes on different approaches to scientific problems, which he knew I’d find encouraging. Here are some excerpts.

“As I reflect on the scientific careers of the people I have known these last thirty years, it seems to me more and more that these career decisions hinge on character. Some people will happily jump on the next big thing, give it all they’ve got, and in this way make important contributions to fast-moving fields. Others just don’t have the temperament to do this. Some people need to think through everything very carefully, and this takes time, as they get easily confused. It’s not hard to feel superior to such people, until you remember that Einstein was one of them. In my experience, the truly shocking new ideas and innovations tend to come from such people. … Luckily for science, the contributions of the whole range of types are needed. Those who do good science, I’ve come to think, do so because they choose problems that are suited to them.”

“Master craftspeople and seers come to science for different reasons. Master craftspeople go into science because, for the most part, they have discovered in school that they’re good at it. … Seers are very different. They are dreamers. They go into science because they have questions about the nature of existence that their schoolbooks don’t answer. If they weren’t scientists, they might be artists or writers…”

“People like this are driven by nothing except a conviction, gained early, that everyone else is missing something crucial. Their approach is more scholarly, in that to think clearly they have to read through the whole history of the question that obsesses them. Their work is intensely focused, yet it takes them a long time to get somewhere.”

“History demonstrates that the kind of person who becomes a seer is sometimes mediocre when compared with the mathematically clever scientists who excel at problem solving. The prime example is Einstein, who apparently couldn’t get a decent job as a scientist when he was young. He was slow in argument, easily confused; others were much better at mathematics. Einstein himself is said to have remarked, ‘It’s not that I’m so smart. It’s just that I stay with problems longer.’ Niels Bohr was an even more extreme case. … there was not a single calculation in his research notebooks, which were all verbal argument and pictures.”

“During the stage when one is normally an assistant or associate professor, working hard to be published and renowned enough to win the invitations and research grants necessary to win tenure, they [Julian Barbour and Antony Valentini] were publishing nothing. But they were accomplishing a great deal. They were thinking, and in a deeper, more focused way than an assistant professor can, about a single recalcitrant foundational issue. When they emerged, after roughly a decade, each had a considered, original, and mature viewpoint that led to their quickly becoming influential. The authority gained from having gone through these years of concentrated study and thought and come out of it with something new and important made them essential to people who cared about these issues.”


9 responses »

  1. I love that excerpt and yes, it does sound a LOT like you! It truly does take ALL types! God made variety…why would we think only ONE type of person can succeed in life? šŸ™‚ Thanks for sharing!

    Oh,I wrote about a scientist today on my blog so neat timing reading this. šŸ™‚

    • Thanks! It’s interesting that you can see me in some of this description. I suppose my blogs have contained a fair amount of ruminating over deep foundational issues of one sort or another… ;o)

      As for why I would think only one type of person can succeed… I dunno… seems crazy now!

  2. I’m glad you liked the book, you seem to have picked out exactly what I thought would be of interest.

    I suspect it is quite natural to think a good scientist is someone who understands ideas very quickly, but this must mean they also lose the opportunity to raise ignorant concerns very quickly. When you’re dealing with theories suggesting 11 dimensions of space, there can surely be no such thing as a stupid question….

    • Thanks for commenting Sam! Yeah, these theories are completely mind-bending. The cult-like aspects of string theory were also really interesting, as well as how that tied into the confidence issue.

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  5. This excerpt has a lesson for all people with respect to their career choices. “Know thyself” and “To Thine Own Self be True” should be guiding principles for all young adults who are contemplating a career not only in science but in any discipline.

    One who chooses a path in harmony with one’s nature will always be happier and probably more successful than one who chooses a path using criteria outside of self.

    The only problem is that young adults often do not or cannot know themselves well enough to make the best choice.

    • I’m coming to the same conclusion, Marahm. I used to think one’s nature is more or less fixed, and now I believe we can change. But change is not easy and it’s probably easier to choose work that suits one’s nature as it already is.

      “The only problem is that young adults often do not or cannot know themselves well enough to make the best choice.”

      This is so true. I am still trying to figure out what’s right for me at age 30.

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