Marie Curie once said that “Science is about things, and not people”. While this statement is true and profound, the fruits of science are unmistakably linked to their human origins, postmodernist relativism notwithstanding. The scientists who make discoveries are human beings, and they shoulder their share of foibles and successes, petty rivalries and forthcoming generosity, despair and triumph. Their life displays cycles that any young researcher will go through in his or her future career.
Lindau was supposed to be a meeting between generations whose explicit goal was the transfer of knowledge. But the meeting achieved an objective bigger than this; it also transferred dreams and inspiration to all who attended. Even though I was attending the meeting as a blogger, I am primarily a young researcher myself and I thought that there are many invaluable take-home messages to be learnt from the life and work of the scientists who participated in this wonderful gathering. Some modest thoughts:
1. Don’t try to win a Nobel Prize! I was going to say this last but thought I would note it at the beginning. This may come as a disappointment to many who want to rush home and start doing research right away with the explicit goal of winning a Nobel. But such a thought would miss the point made by every single laureate that attended the meeting. I think I can safely say that every one of the laureates would tell us that he was never working toward a prize. Or rather that he was always working toward a prize; the prize was the deep satisfaction that comes from understanding the world, from the pleasure of finding things out, from helping humanity through the power of science. Scientists do science for the joy of discovery. A Nobel or any other prize can only be a happy but unintended side-effect of the work. Plus, sheer statistics dictates that most people who make great discoveries do not win Nobel prizes; after all the number of great scientists who never won a Nobel outnumber those who did by orders of magnitude. The Nobel is undoubtedly a great honor and rewards the most creative and important work, but an aspiration to win the prize can only sidetrack us from the great and overriding goals of science that are beyond prizes, individuals and institutions.
Don’t covet prizes, covet the excitement of probing the frontiers of knowledge. After a hundred years that might be the only thing that counts. The last word on this has already been said by a master of the game.
2. Don’t count on serendipity, but be prepared for it: Peter Agre was working on isolating the Rh factor protein that is important in blood transfusion. When he also isolated a curious unidentified protein, he was intrigued and wise enough to investigate this side product. His curiosity led to the prizewinning discovery of aquaporins or water channels. When Herbert Brown was investigating the reaction of the compound diborane with certain organic halides, his assistant reacted several halides with diborane to investigate their reactions. Only one halide did not react as expected. Rather than discard the result as an outlier, Brown investigated the contaminant in the halide that was causing the strange result. His curiosity led him to discover the prizewinning hydroboration reaction of alkenes with diborane.
Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery of penicillin and his quip about “chance favoring only the prepared mind” has become almost a cliche. Yet cliches are cliches because they are so true. Serendipity is the retrospective name given to careful investigation of unexpected observations. Serendipity in science needs the highest standards of curiosity and perseverance. Echoing another cliched saying, a Nobel Prize winner is a scientist who sees what everything sees but thinks what nobody thinks. Don’t discount the great role of serendipity in discovery, but be prepared to recognize it when it comes knocking at your door. Keep your eyes open and your mind even more so.
3. Work on big problems: This might sound obvious, but it’s not always recognized. Daniel Koshland was the editor of Science for twenty years and formulated the important “induced fit” hypothesis of how molecules like drugs bind to proteins. In an interview he had this to say
“You are probably going to spend the same amount of time working on small problems as on big problems. So you might as well work on big problems anyway”
The key point here is that most of science is hard and it’s all too easy to spend a lot of time working on small problems, time that would promise more returns (and more risk!) when spent on big problems. At the same time it is important not to underestimate the importance of working out trivial details; it’s the overarching goal that must be big. To work on big problems we have to do whatever is necessary; find the smartest and most accessible people in our field and try to work with them, constantly scour the literature and look for trends and keep on asking fundamental questions.
Sometimes working on big problems might overwhelm us because of their sheer complexity. Yet the history of the Nobel Prizes shows that such perseverance often pays off. Roger Kornberg worked on the structural basis of transcription for twenty years before he nailed the molecular mechanism. Max Perutz spent his entire career working on hemoglobin. Roderick McKinnon made a late start in crystallography in mid-career and stayed with the problem of potassium channels for fifteen years before cracking the puzzle of how these fundamental proteins conduct ions in living systems. All these prizewinners demonstrated the value of working on big problems, and they all recognized a big problem when they saw one. At the same time they were not sure they would succeed and their efforts were not contingent on a high probability of success. They worked on these problems primarily because of the intellectual challenge they posed, not only for the results they would yield.
At Lindau every Nobel Prize winner demonstrated that he worked on a big problem, whether it was visualization of gene expression (Tsien, Chalifie, Shimomura), investigating important organic reactions (Schrock, Grubbs), investigating the effects of reactive molecules on an important atmospheric component (Molina, Crutzen, Rowland) finding out the fate of proteins (Ciechanover, Hershko, Rose) or exploring fundamental methods for determining biological structure (Ernst, Wuthrich, Michel, Huber). The message from all these laureates was that one should work on fundamental problems with abandon, and let the rest take care of itself.
3. Collaborate: Science is now an international endeavor. Many of the most pressing scientific problems that currently concern us are interdisciplinary in nature and it can be beyond the capability of a scientist from a single field to solve them. Biology is an especially salient example of the era of multidisciplinary research.
Roger Tsien started out by designing molecules that would exhibit fluorescence but he had to collaborate with molecular biologists to find out how they and the green fluorescent protein could be expressed and visualized in cells. Kurt Wuthrich and Richard Ernst developed pioneering NMR methods but they had to collaborate with protein chemists and molecular biologists who had to purify and obtain the proteins they needed to study. Collaboration not only involves amiable interaction with colleagues from a different field but it involves the ability to explain your problems clearly and patiently to them, and it certainly involves knowing the basics of your colleagues’ fields. Collaboration is exciting since it enables us to learn about a variety of fields and approaches while at the same time diversifying our own field.
Curiously collaboration needs some human skills that are not always well-developed in scientists; tact, a friendly demeanor and powers of persuasion. It seems that interdisciplinary scientific research teaches you not only about science but also about engaging with people. Most of the Lindau laureates demonstrated the value of such interaction.
4. Persevere: This sounds even more obvious, and yet this is perhaps the single most important quality that has distinguished Nobel Prize winners from other smart people, or highly successful scientists from others. Intellectual brilliance is by no means a sufficient trait for winning prizes. The American physicist Robert Oppenheimer for instance was widely considered to be one of the most brilliant scientists of his time and did work of fundamental importance, yet some believe that he did not win a Nobel Prize because of a lack of a perseverance; he was interested in everything and flitted from field to field without sticking to one for a long time. Thomas Edison is probably the model example of perseverance paying off. Both Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton claimed that the reason they were successful was not because they were unusually intelligent but because they stuck to problems for months and sometimes years. Once we are imbibed with the quest to solve a particular problem then perseverance should naturally follow. But it isn’t always so. Many problems including funding, problems with publication, difficulties in personal life and animosity from others in the field might put us off. The lesson to be learnt from all the prize winners is to try to take as much of all of this in our stride and stick to what interests us as much as possible. It may be difficult, but it also may be the only way to discover something important.
4. Don’t stop dreaming: All the above qualities and traits are simply preludes to the most important one; don’t give up on your dreams. Science has always been made possible by people who pushed the frontiers of available knowledge, who constantly asked themselves “What if”, who playfully sidestepped objections and opposition to pursue their favorite idea.
Sadly I have found out as a young researcher that too frequently as we progress in our scientific careers, science becomes much more about publishing, getting tenured positions, competing with other scientists for recognition, attending conferences, pursuing “fashionable” research and of course, winning prizes. At such times I close my eyes and try to imagine the little boy who was mixing chemicals in the spare bathroom in his home just for the colors and smells, who was catching beetles from the garden and putting them in pickle jars just to see what they do. All the little boy was concerned with was to find out more about nature and not about what others were doing or whether it was important enough or not. And I am sure all of us were like that at some time. That’s really all the Lindau laureates were concerned with when they did their pioneering work. Let’s just explore the wonderful ideas of scientific discovery; the rest should follow and we should rest assured.
In the end all we need to remember is something that someone said hundreds of years ago when he also alluded to the childhood fascination for science and nature. Let us be that little boy he was referring to, and then maybe we can aspire to be the grown man he became when he uttered these words
I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay undiscovered before me…Isaac Newton