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How to Succeed in Science: Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, Day 4

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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On the last day of formal plenary talks at the 62nd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, the laureates dispensed several lessons while describing their research experiences to the attending students, from developing expertise to enduring in the face of doubt.

(You can read all our coverage of the Lindau meeting this week, including the “30 under 30” profiles series of young scientists attending, in this In-Depth Report. Also see the Lindau Nobel Community blogs.)

Dan Shechtman, who won the 2011 Nobel in Chemistry for the discovery of quasicrystals, spoke of the discovery of these materials using the transmission electron microscope, or TEM. From 1912 to 1982, all materials found were ordered and periodic “The story of my discovery is a paradigm shift in that science, he said.” When he found a quasimaterial, which is ordered but not periodic, the first paper he submitted in 1984 to a physics journal was “like a tennis match”: “It was one-two and it was back on my desk.” A second journal published it many months later. Finally, a paper in Physical Review Letters got through to the community: “When this paper appeared, all hell broke loose.”

Shechtman said he had many years of rejection. “For some time I felt quite lonely.” Linus Pauling, for instance, objected to the idea of quasiperiodicity: “There are no quasicrystals, just quasiscientists.” Ultimately, “When he died, so did the opposition,” said Shechtman. He offered two lessons:

First, he said, “Become expert in something.” Why were quasicrystals not discovered before 1982? They aren’t rare. They’re generally stable. They’re not difficult to make. The difference, said Shechtman, was the need for a better tool in the TEM—and someone with the expertise to use it.

Second, have tenacity: “just like a Rottweiler dog: bite and don’t let go.” You have to have tenacity when you discover something. Ask: “What does it mean? You don’t let go.”

Dudley Herschbach, who shared the 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for work in the dynamics of chemical processes, found beauty and wonder in what he called “three parables” of “chemical wizardry” in the discovery of palytoxin, the connection between sex and the single methyl group, and the synthesis of indigo. He compared the creation of palytoxin, one of the most toxic molecules known, “to Beethoven writing his symphony.” He noted remarkable changes wrought by the swapping of one methyl group in biology. In a mutation that changes one methyl group, an XY baby has a female anatomy but is infertile. “Doesn’t this make you think a little bit?” he asked. “What would our society be if a methyl group was not where it is now?” One methyl group also makes the difference between estrogen and testosterone. He concluded by playing a 1933 Cole Porter song that exhorted scientists to test nature: “Experiment! And you’ll see.” (Lyrics here.)

Part of experimenting, offered Sir Harry Kroto, is exploring other creative outlets. He showed images of his illustrations, graphics and photography. “I think it’s very important to open up to your creative ability,” he said. “We used our hands and made things. And that is what science epitomizes.” He noted that architecture is also important—the shape of Buckminster Fuller’s dome offered a clue to the carbon-60 molecule.

Being open means not accepting at face value. Quoting Australian scientist John Cornforth, Kroto said: “Scientists do not believe: they check.” Attitude is important: Whatever you do, “Make sure you give it your best shot. Don’t do anything second rate.” He also encouraged the young scientists in the room to share their knowledge in venues from Wikipedia to his own Geoset project.

Of course, he said, there are benefits to being a scientist. “The best reason to be a scientist: We are the only truly international family,” said Kroto, not beholden to any particular country’s interests. “It is the universe that is our master.”

“Science only tells you how to think,” he concluded. “Others tell you what to think. Think about it.”

Mariette DiChristina About the Author: Editor in Chief, Mariette DiChristina, oversees Scientific American,, Scientific American MIND and all newsstand special editions. Follow on Twitter @mdichristina.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. sunspot 7:22 pm 07/5/2012

    You must be aware of the recent flap caused by certain scientists who claim that philosophy is no longer relevant to scientists. The Lindau meeting might be a timely opportunity to poll the students and lecturers for their opinions about philosophy of science. For example, you might ask: Do younger (or older) scientists avoid discussions of philosophy and religion? Do they believe that their career will suffer if they freely and honestly discuss these topics with fellow scientists?

    In her book, Dr. Ecklund asked: “What do scientists really think?” It might be illuminating to get some candid opinions on these topics. If you want to be really brave, inquire about the professional impact on a young scientist of “coming out” with spiritual beliefs? Hopefully, you will get some thoughtful responses; or you may just get the dreadful sound of minds closing.

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  2. 2. And Then What? 6:20 am 07/6/2012

    First there was thought and from that original thought there came questions and from those questions there arose methodology and from that methodology answers were derived and from those answers came more questions and from those questions came additional thought and from that additional thought etc. etc., and so on and so forth. The key to discovery lies not in blind obedience to structured methodology, but in retaining onto our selves the right to question even our most sacred beliefs. Yes scientific and mathematical methodology are powerful in their ability to provide demonstrable supportable evidence for the conclusions they indicate, but always remember that without a solid grasp of the true “sample size” being studied it may be that we are testing a unique portion of the whole and hence our conclusions, while correct for the sample being tested, may be but a small subset of the totality of the results obtainable when we increase the sample size. Of course it may be equally true that we are, in fact, testing a significant portion of the ultimate “whole”, but my guess would be we are not. The concepts of Space and Time exist as both separate and combined entities depending on the level of investigation we subject them to.
    What if that which we call Space-time has no substance in Reality? Now that sounds just plain stupid, but wait now maybe that is a good place to start. If time truly exists at all levels of existence then it must be detectable at every level. We know that Time and Matter are linked because we can see the effects on Matter left by the passage of Time all around us. So does Time exist for Energy as well? One train of thought would lead you to believe that it must because Matter and Energy are linked in Einstein’s mathematical equality statement. If this is so then Energy must, at some level, display Time related effects?
    On the other hand if Time only arises when Energy is transformed into Matter and disappears when the conversion is reversed then perhaps the simple answer is that time and Matter are linked but to speak of Time as it relates to Energy is Nonsense. Maybe Time is just the tape measure of the Law of Entropy and will cease to exist when Entropy has run its course.
    The question then arises about the Nature of Space itself and whether Time is “felt” by Space. Since we currently believe that Space is expanding at an accelerating rate then it stands to reason that either there is More Space after I finish writing this then when I started and so it may be possible to quantify this increase over a given period of Time. But be careful here because you have to be very specific about what you mean by “more”. Are we talking about “volume occupied” on density? If it is the Former then we can say that yes there is more Space over Time, but if we are talking about density then we could just as equally say that the Spatial Density for a given region of Space has been reduced barring there is no creation of additional Space during the Transition. Which would lead one to believe that yes Space is Time sensitive and hence at some point down the road Space will have been diluted to an Infinitely minute density and the passage of time will have slowed to such an infinitely slow pace that any measurement of its passage will become, for all practical purposes, impossible. Which would imply that Time was created at the instant of the BB and will end at the instant of the Infinite Stillness. Of course this assumes that there was a BB.
    I see no inherent difficulty in the coincident existence of Science and Philosophy they are simply two compatible components of a mature intellect. Humans didn’t just wake up one day and say, “Today I will invent the Scientific Method”. What is most probable is that while laying around, with a full belly after making love under a star-filled sky, moonlit sky, they looked up and wondered, and from that wonderment thoughts arose, and from those thoughts questions arose and from those questions Methodology arose and from that Methodology more thoughts arose etc. etc.

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  3. 3. sunspot 7:27 pm 07/13/2012

    MD: Just checking for your feedback on the “philosophy of scientists” question, but I only see the unrelated comment from “And Then What?”. Lately, the intolerance of philosophy and religion on the part of scientists is so repressive that I thought it might at least get a mention at Lindau, one way or the other.

    Is there anyone at SciAm who can write in an impartial way on this topic? Most, if not all SciAm writers, columnists and even bloggers show an extreme bias toward physicalism, or they simply avoid the topic of philosophy. Is that the case at Lindau too?

    I know many budding young scientists and doctors who wonder if, in order to attain success in research, they too must avoid these forbidden topics. Are they required to talk in hushed voices for fear of being ostracized for discussing a particular philosophy or set of beliefs which doesn’t conform to the “standard model” of successful scientists?

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