The benefits of science

Advice to Young Scientists

One of the nicest things about winning the Nobel Prize is that you can divert your interests in any direction that you are serious about, even if it is not the same thing that you have been successful with in the past. But you don't have to win a Nobel in order to change your field. It just makes it easier. Deep ruts in the road are a problem in science. It can be very competitive and scientists are sticking their neck out when they go into a new field, where they may not even know the basics.

I do not suggest that everyone become interdisciplinary - we do need superspecialists, but I am suggesting that once you are an expert at one thing, don't feel that is the only thing you are ever going to be an expert in.


... are such that they fit together in remarkable ways that are only discovered by rude creatures, who poke their noses into other peoples' business. I suggest that you keep your eyes open for things you are not supposed to know about. You may have something to contribute. At a meeting, don't gravitate to the poster that looks the most like something you are working on. Do a clean sweep around the room. Check out all the posters and find the one you know the least about and maybe think you have the least interest in. Now is the time to find out about it. Read it, and then ask the person standing there beside it what it's about and why he or she is interested in it. They will be happy to talk. Don't forget to check out the posters in your own field too - you have to make sure you don't miss out on some new development, but a poster session is a perfect opportunity to find out something brand new.


... and bureaucracy are not natural bedfellows. One definition of the latter is "an administrative system in which the need or inclination to follow rigid or complex procedures impedes effective action." The notion of "innovative ideas that get bogged down in red tape and bureaucracy" is not an uncommon one. So the notion of an exemplary instantiation of a bureaucratic organization setting out to establish a program which will foster innovation is on its face marked with a bit of insanity. But now, maybe, we're getting somewhere, because innovation is also on its face often marked with a bit of insanity. If no one mentions loudly that one thinks you're out of your mind, then, you probably are not being innovative. So the million dollar question becomes how can any bureaucracy promote innovation?


... is when you are trying to figure something out and something else keeps intruding. You finally give in to it, and it turns out to be the answer you were looking for. Perhaps something is lost and instead of looking for it, you let your hands lead you to it with your eyes closed. You might be looking something up and find the wrong subject and it turns out not only to be related, but to be exactly what you were after. It's not an accident. It was inevitable and it all makes perfect sense after the moment, but it's unexpected. That's how creativity happens. The focused beam of your consciousness is very narrow, but you have a creepy sense of what is right behind you.

Conversation With John Bardeen

John Bardeen with a little help from his friends absolutely and forever changed our world. He invented the transistor.

One day in the summer of 1987 I was reading about him and realized he was still alive and living in Carbondale, Illinois. On a long shot, I called Carbondale information for his number. It was listed. The phone number of the father of the Electronic Age was listed. The manager of our local Circuit City has an unlisted number. John Bardeen's wife answered and said "Yes, he's sitting here at the table", and put him on the phone without asking who was calling. I told him I wanted to talk to him about the invention of the transistor, was it a convenient time? Was he in a comfortable chair? He said fine, so we talked for about an hour. He never asked me who I was or why I wanted to talk.

I had been reading about the situation at Bell Labs during his tenure there. In 1945, on deceptively straightforward theoretical grounds everyone had concluded that a solid state triode device could never be made. Unlike a diode, where you can shove two dissimilar metals together so that they share a common face, three solids can't be fashioned so as to have a finite mutual junction in space. Try it yourself with three pieces of different colored clay. It's not fair to mix the different colors, and remember that finite means bigger than a point...

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Thoughts About Science

Science, like nothing else among the institutions of mankind, grows like a weed every year. Art is subject to arbitrary fashion, religion is inwardly focused and driven only to sustain itself, law shuttles between freeing us and enslaving us.

Science consistently produces a new crop of miraculous truths and dazzling devices every year, truths and devices that enrich our lives and grow up out of the graciously willing puzzles of the unknown in an orderly but unpredictable way, out of a process of observation, hypothesis, experiment, conclusion; a process that as far as we know, was first proposed and adopted, only a few hundred years ago by a number of Europeans faced with a new world to explore and some worn out scholastic tools passed down from the ancient Greeks to explore it with.

"The Galileos and the Newtons and the Hookes, and the Boyles invented new sharper tools of inquiry and the age of science was born. Now we each of us have things and thoughts and descriptions of an amazing universe in our possession that kings in the Seventeenth Century would have gone to war to possess. We are the recipients of scientific method. We not only can luxuriate in its weed-like growth, but we can each of us be a creative and active part of it if we so desire. And we will.

There is no stopping it, nor can there be any end to it."