Advice to a Young Scientist
Offering unsolicited advice must rank among the most difficult and unpromising of literary forms. Consider poor Polonius. His words are actually quite sensible, even though the man himself is usually played as a garrulous old fool. Laertes, in any case, spends the entire conversation trying to depart gracefully.
Sir Peter Medawar, Nobel laureate and most literate of all biologists, has two advantages over Polonius. His words are not imposed on a captive audience, bound by filial piety. They must be read and weighed by choice—and I write this review primarily to advise(!) that the choice be taken. Moreover, the book is much more than a compendium of exhortations; it is primarily a subtle account of the sociology of creative work in general, written by a man who has been doing it all his life. I suspect that Medawar has chosen Polonius’s format as a device for maintaining wit and some humility in the face of a complex and contradictory world.
Medawar writes about creative lives, not about flashes of genius or careers spent administering the status quo. The primary ingredient of success is staying power—a kind of creative accommodation to the realities of human lives and institutions. Medawar searches for a via media or golden mean between two false and stereotypical views of science. One holds that it is a heartless enterprise, performed by robots in white coats who follow codified, almost automatic, procedures of experiment known as “the scientific method.” The other maintains that good scientists are kooky souls, infected with an indefinable genius leading to eccentricities that must be tolerated to permit the flowering of creativity within. Somewhere between these stereotypes of the pedestrian and the ineffable lie ingredients for the staying power of a creative career. Edison wasn’t far off in his definition of genius as 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration—though I think he was a bit heavy on the sweat. No one, in any case, could accuse him of insufficient staying power.
Most of Medawar’s advice directs us to this middle path. In discussing the apparatus of experiment, for example, he derides the romantic twaddle that “any scientist worthy of the name can carry out an experiment with no more apparatus than string, sealing wax, and a few empty bean cans.” Yet he also warns against the purchase and use of expensive equipment for its own sake. The intellectual value of an experiment, not the elegance or rigor of available instrumentation, must determine our decision. “If an experiment is not worth doing, it is not worth doing well.” Similarly, while not devaluing discovery, he emphasizes the vital role of patient persistence in working through the details of systems by practiced methods.
Indeed, the achievements of such “intent and unrelaxing study” contain enormous value in themselves and often set the stage for further discovery. In my own field, biology, I think of the amino…
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