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

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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.”

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

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