Advice To A Young Scientist

Advice To A Young Scientist is a book by P. B. Medawar for folks keen on entering research. Medawar won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1960 for his research on why immune systems reject organ transplants. Medawar’s writing is meticulous and a joy to read. Though the former half of the book deals with practical information for the newbie, the latter turns into a treatise on science and the scientific method. Not bad reading at all.

Excerpts from the book:

In this book I interpret “science” pretty broadly to refer to all exploratory activities of which the purpose is to come to a better understanding of the natural world. This exploratory activity is called “research,” and research is my chief topic, although it is only a small fraction of the multitude of scientific or science-based activities, (which include scientific administration, scientific journalism which grows in importance with science itself), the teaching of science, the supervision and often the execution of many industrial procedures […]

People who believe themselves cut out for a scientific life are sometimes dismayed and depressed by, in Sir Francis Bacon’s words, “The subtilty of nature, the secret recesses of truth, the obscurity of things, the difficulty of experiment, the implication of causes and the infirmity of man’s discerning power, being men no longer excited, either out of desire or hope, to penetrate farther.”

A novice must stick it out until he discovers whether the rewards and compensations of a scientific life are for him commensurate with the disappointments and the toil; but if once a scientist experiences the exhilaration of discovery and the satisfaction of carrying through a really tricky experiment — once he has felt that deeper and more expansive feeling Freud has called the “oceanic feeling” that is the reward for any real advancement of the understanding — then he is hooked and no other kind of life will do.

[…] experimentation is a form of thinking as well as a practical expression of thought.

It can be said with complete confidence that any scientist of any age who wants to make important discoveries must study important problems.

After graduate students have taken their Ph.D.s, they must on no account continue with their Ph.D. work for the remainder of their lives, easy and tempting though it is to tie up loose ends and wander down attractive byways. Many successful scientists try their hands at a great many different things before they settle upon a main line of investigation […]

The great incentive to learning a new skill or supporting discipline is an urgent need to use it. For this reason, very many scientists (I certainly among them) do not learn new skills or master new disciplines until the pressure is upon them to do so; thereupon they can be mastered pretty quickly. It is the lack of this pressure on those who are forever “equipping themselves” and who show an ominous tendency to become “night-class habitues” […]

Too much book learning may crab and confine the imagination, and endless poring over the research of others is sometimes psychologically a research substitute, much as reading romantic fiction may be a substitute for real-life romance.

Following the lead of Bismarck and Cavour, who described the art of politics as “the art of the possible,” I have described the art of research as “the art of the soluble.” […] What I meant of course was that the art of research is that of making a problem soluble by finding out ways of getting at it — soft underbellies and the like.

Scientists will certainly encounter and must work out some suitable means for rebutting the notion that, so far from trying to better the lot of mankind, the outcome of their work is to devalue much of what ordinary folk hold dear. Through science, you may hear, art has been replaced by artifice: portraiture by photography, live music by Muzak, good food by processed substitutes, and the old-fashioned crusty loaf by a chemically bleached or otherwise “improved,” devitaminized, revitaminized, steam-baked, presliced parallelepiped in a polyethylene shroud.

I cannot give any scientist of any age better advice than this: the intensity of the conviction that a hypothesis is true has no bearing on whether it is true or not.

Problems to do with priority are especially acute in science because scientific ideas must eventually become public property, so that the only sense of ownership a scientist can ever enjoy is that of having been the first to have an idea — to have hit upon a solution or the solution before anyone else.

A scientist who is too cagey or suspicious to tell his colleagues anything will soon find that he himself learns nothing in return. G. F. Kettering, the well-known inventor (antiknock gasoline additives) and cofounder of General Motors, is said to have remarked that anyone who shuts his door keeps out more than he lets out. The agreed house rule of the little group of close colleagues I have always worked with has always been “Tell everyone everything you know”; and I don’t know anyone who came to any harm by falling in with it.

Such a class distinction is particularly offensive because it is based upon a complete misconception of the original meaning of the word pure — the meaning that was thought to confer a loftier status upon pure than upon applied science. The word was originally used to distinguish a science of which the axioms or first principles were known not through observation or experiment — vulgar activities both — but through pure intuition, revelation, or a certain quality of self-evidence.

How often has it not been contemptuously said that “modern medicine cannot even cure the common cold”? What is offensive here is not the statement’s falsity (it is true) but its implication: is it not pointless to pour billions of dollars into cancer research when modern medicine… and so on. What is wrong here is the almost universally held belief that clinically mild diseases have simple causes while grave diseases are deeply complex and are proportionately difficult to discern the causes of or to cure. There is no truth in either; a common cold, caused by one or more of a multiplicity of upper respiratory viruses and with an overlay of allergic reactivity, is an extremely complex ailment; so is eczema, most forms of which are baffling still. On the other hand, some very grave diseases such as phenylketonuria have relatively simple origins; some can be prevented, as phenylketonuria can be, or cured, as so many bacterial infections can be.

Harriet Zucker-man has shown in Scientific Elite, her study of American Nobel laureates, that in relation to the population “at risk,” as actuaries say — at risk of making a contribution to science — the modal age at which laureates did the work that won them their prizes was early middle age.

[…] people with anything to say can usually say it briefly; only a speaker with nothing to say goes on and on as if he were laying down a smoke screen.

[…] an experiment is a contrived, as opposed to a natural, experience or happening — is the consequence of “trying things out” or even of merely messing about.

A young scientist has now a meter or so of bench space, let us say, a white coat, authority to use the library, and a problem that he has thought up himself or that a senior has asked him to look into. To begin with, anyway, it is almost certain to be a small problem — one of which the solution will facilitate the solution of something more important, and so on, until the long-term objective of the enterprise is in sight. Nonscientists cannot immediately see the connection between the lesser problem and the greater.

Thus the day-to-day business of science consists not in hunting for facts but in testing hypotheses — that is, ascertaining if they or their logical implications are statements about real life or, if inventions, to see whether or not they work.

A large part of the art of the soluble is the art of devising hypotheses that can be tested by practicable experiments.


The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People

For years I had been ambiguous about Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People. It was mentioned all over the place, but it seemed like a cheesy self-help book, the kind which I abhored, but then it was mentioned by friends who I look up to. Recently, Randy Pausch mentioned it in his talk on Time Management and I finally decided to give it a shot.

While the packaging and the 7 in the title seem to give the picture of yet-another-quick-self-help book, after reading it I didn’t get that perception. You could replace the effective in Highly Effective People with happy, content or peaceful and the book would still make sense. Covey tries to share his learnings of how to gain independence in personal life and interdependence in societal life using 7 habits. The stress all through the book is that there are no shortcuts, a person has to base his life on principles and constantly practise the right learnings/actions until they become habits. (This is something that I’m finding out is very true personally.)

The 3 habits to gain personal independence:

1. Be proactive. — Humans have the capability to think about their own actions and thoughts. Hence, they can change their actions. Try to change if you’re not happy with yourself.

2. Begin with the end in mind. — Very reminiscent of Steve Jobs in his Stanford commencement speech. It’s important to base daily life and actions on some personal principles, goals and missions.

3. Put first things first. — This section introduces Covey’s quadrant. (Even if you don’t read the book, this quadrant is very useful for folks interested in time and life management.) Quadrant I tasks are important and due immediately. Quadrant II tasks are important but long-term. Most people ignore QII tasks for QI tasks. In the long term, it is beneficial to slowly turn around our living style to take on more QII tasks and reduce the QI tasks.

The 3 habits to gain interdependence:

4. Think Win/Win. — A philosophy very similar to the Middle Way in Buddhism. (I surely need to read more about this.) Instead of seeking to Win/Lose or Lose/Win with others, try to always aim for a scenario where both you and others gain.

5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

6. Synergize.

Habit 7 is Sharpen The Saw, that is to regularly apply these principles, until they become habits.

The book is a breezy read, lots of quotes, stories and analogies. This is a good read, I could agree with the author on a lot of his views and I definitely took away a lot from the book.

– – –

Some titbits from the book:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” — Aristotle

Until a person can say deeply and honestly, “I am what I am today because of the choices I made yesterday,” that person cannot say, “I choose otherwise.”

Malcom Muggeridge writes in “A Twentieth-Century Testimony”:

When I look back on my life nowadays, which I sometimes do, what strikes me most forcibly about it is that what seemed at the time most significant and seductive, seems now most futile and absurd. For instance, success in all of its various guises; being known and being praised; ostensible pleasures, like acquiring money or seducing women, or traveling, going to and fro in the world and up and down in it like Satan, explaining and experiencing whatever Vanity Fair has to offer.

In retrospect, all these exercises in self-gratification seem pure fantasy, what Pascal called, “licking the earth.”

[…] enemy centering is very common, particularly when there is frequent interaction between people who are in real conflict. When someone feels he has been unjustly dealt with by an emotionally or socially significant person, it is very easy for him to become preoccupied with the injustice and make the other person the center of his life. Rather than proactively leading his own life, the enemy-centered person is counterdependently reacting to the behavior and attitudes of a perceived enemy.

In Frankl’s words, “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”

Dr. Charles Garfield has done extensive research on peak performers, both in athletics and in business. […] One of the main things his research showed was that almost all of the world-class athletes and other peak performers are visualizers. They see it; they feel it; they experience it before they actually do it. They Begin with the End in Mind.

(On why writing down goals and thoughts in journals is important …)

Writing distills, crystallizes, and clarifies thought and helps break the whole into parts.

“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” — Goethe

One of my favorite essays is “The Common Denominator of Success,” written by E. M. Gray. He spent his life searching for the one denominator that all successful people share. He found it wasn’t hard work, good luck, or astute human relations, though those were all important. […] “The successful person has the habit of doing the things failures don’t like to do,” he observed. “They don’t like doing them either necessarily. But their disliking is subordinated to the strength of their purpose.”

[…] people see the world, not as it is, but as they are.

Arthur Gordon shares a wonderful, intimate story of his own spiritual renewal in a little story called “The Turn of the Tide.”

“The person who doesn’t read is no better off than the person who can’t read.”

In the words of Phillips Brooks: “Some day, in the years to come, you will be wrestling with the great temptation, or trembling under the great sorrow of your life. But the real struggle is here, now. Now it is being decided whether, in the day of your supreme sorrow or temptation, you shall miserably fail or gloriously conquer. Character cannot be made except by a steady, long continued process.”

Goethe taught, “Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he can and should be and he will become as he can and should be.”

Emerson: “That which we persist in doing becomes easier — not that the nature of the task has changed, but our ability to do has increased.”

T. S. Eliot expresses so beautifully my own personal discovery and conviction: “We must not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time.”


It took some effort, but the joy was worth it in reading the tome Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. I’m kind of peeved with myself for postponing reading Stephenson for so long. The man seems to be a legend and his name and works keep popping up in anything that’s related to the cyberpunk and sci-fi genres. A little more than a month ago, his name came up (yet again) when my friends were discussing his essay In The Beginning … Was The Command Line. I was a silent bystander in the debate and promised myself to read the first Stephenson book I could lay my hands on in the library.

Cryptonomicon is not a science-fiction novel. It has 2 parallel storylines divided in time — one happens in World War II and the other is present day. Due to the detail it dives into while describing WWII, it’s a historical/techno-thriller. The book is too huge and the plot is too long and complicated to faithfully describe here. The WWII storyline revolves around 3 mathematicians, Turing (yes, the real Alan Turing!), Waterhouse (an American) and Rudy (a German). When Pearl Harbour happens, Waterhouse is pulled into London’s Bletchley Park to help the Allied powers break the cryptographic Enigma (and other) codes of the Axis powers. While doing this, Waterhouse and Turing help build some of the earliest computing devices in human history. A large part of the story takes place in Asia, where Shaftoe (an American soldier) is fighting the Japanese. This takes him from China to Philippines. In the parallel current-day storyline (which is told in alternating chapters), the descendants of the above WWII characters are part of a Silicon Valley startup named Epiphyte that specializes in cryptography. They’re setting up secure data havens in Philippines and Kinakuta (a fictional name, but it’s nothing but Brunei) to act as new Internet backbones and also for Internet banking. These hackers soon run into some WWII artefacts which as they slowly decrypt leads them them to a treasure of unimaginable proportions hoarded by the Japanese towards the end of WWII. They also discover some startling revelations about their grandparents and their roles in WWII.

[ Neal Stephenson on the cover of Wired (October 1994) ]

With one book, I’m a convert. At 918 pages and 108 chapters, it’s long, but ah so delicious! Cryptonomicon is satisfying at all levels, what’s not to like! The WWII storyline starts from Pearl Harbour and goes on upto the defeat of the Japanese, thus ending the war. My WWII knowledge jumped by several magnitudes due to the detailed descriptions of the German and Japanese cryptosystems, their war strategies and how they failed. Especially enlightening was the tons of information about the Japanese-American conflict that happened in Asia. The other current-day storyline can’t compare to this, but is still engaging enough to be a page turner. This is a real techno-thriller since Stephenson doesn’t hold back from smattering his pages with formulas, graphs and details of cryptosystems when they’re needed. Linux, UNIX, Windows NT, actual Perl scripts, Turing machines and the wickedly cool Van Eck phreaking all play a part! Also, Bruce Schneier contributed a new encryption algorithm named Solitaire for this book, which can be used to encrypt messages using a deck of playing cards. This is used as a major plot device in the book and Schneier describes the system in the Appendix at the end of the book. Cryptonomicon is badass, I look forward to reading more Stephenson and cyberpunk now!

– – –

A few excerpts from the book:

Describing the human body …

The room contains a few dozen living human bodies, each one a big sack of guts and fluids so highly compressed that it will squirt for a few yards when pierced. Each one is built around an armature of 206 bones connected to each other by notoriously fault-prone joints that are given to obnoxious creaking, grinding, and popping noises when they are in other than pristine condition. This structure is draped with throbbing steak, inflated with clenching air sacks, and pierced by a Gordian sewer filled with burbling acid and compressed gas and asquirt with vile enzymes and solvents produced by the many dark, gamy nuggets of genetically programmed meat strung along its length. Slugs of dissolving food are forced down this sloppy labyrinth by serialized convulsions, decaying into gas, liquid, and solid matter which must all be regularly vented to the outside world lest the owner go toxic and drop dead. Spherical, gel-packed cameras swivel in mucus-greased ball joints. Infinite phalanxes of cilia beat back invading particles, encapsulate them in goo for later disposal. In each body a centrally located muscle flails away at an eternal, circulating torrent of pressurized gravy. And yet, despite all of this, not one of these bodies makes a single sound at any time during the sultan’s speech. It is a marvel that can only be explained by the power of brain over body, and, in turn, by the power of cultural conditioning over the brain.

Ocean is a Turing machine …

The sand at the surf line has been washed flat. A small child’s footprints wander across it, splaying like gardenia blossoms on thin shafts. The sand looks like a geometric plane until a sheet of ocean grazes it. Then small imperfections are betrayed by swirls in the water. Those swirls in turn carve the sand. The ocean is a Turing machine, the sand is its tape; the water reads the marks in the sand and sometimes erases them and some times carves new ones with tiny currents that are themselves a response to the marks. Plodding through the surf, Waterhouse strikes deep craters in the wet sand that are read by the ocean. Eventually the ocean erases them, but in the process its state has been changed, the pattern of its swirls has been altered. Waterhouse imagines that the disturbance might somehow propagate across the Pacific and into some super-secret Nipponese surveillance device made of bamboo tubes and chrysanthemum leaves; Nip listeners would know that Waterhouse had walked that way. In turn, the water swirling around Waterhouse’s feet carries information about Nip propeller design and the deployment of their fleets–if only he had the wit to read it. The chaos of the waves, gravid with encrypted data, mocks him.

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