Tuesday, July 18, 2006

How NOT to win the Nobel Prize (Thoughts on an airliner while reading an eye opener book)

I never liked long haul flights. Flights that last 9 hours or more are a bore. There was a time in the distant past when the in-flight magazine really contained interesting articles. That was the time when flying had that adventure panache and people dressed up for the flight. Now flying is as common as getting on the subway or bus (with the added post 9/11 stringent security checks as an appetizer). And like subway stations and buses, the in-flight magazine is filled with ads and more ads and articles on resorts and getaways that are nothing but, ads! The average bloke in economy class of course can just dream of these hotel suites and resorts.

The in-flight movie is something that the cable networks have wisely ignored. The in-flight radio is a mishmash of less known and strange 1970s hits. I once thought that the classical program on channel 13 was OK.  Then I suddenly realised that the avant-garde classical program sounds like… gasp, a jet about to crash! Switch channels.

Since only a few airlines have in-flight internet access or video games, the only thing left for the economy passenger is to 1) watch the route map on the screen and learn some geography or 2) read a book. Some people have predicted that the book’s demise as a medium. I do believe they are wrong. A book is the passenger’s salvation on a long haul flight.

I picked up a copy of Nobel Prize winner in Medicine Peter Doherty’s “The Beginner’s Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize” from the airport bookshop. This book became my salvation on this boring flight. Doherty got his Nobel for elucidating the mechanisms of cellular immunity. His paper was published in 1976, twenty years before he won the 1996 Nobel.

So what’s the big deal with winning the Nobel? The Nobel is given for outstanding work in 1) promoting peace, 2) Medicine and Physiology, 3) Chemistry, 4) Physics , 5) Literature and 6) Economics. The Nobel Prize according to Doherty “focuses the broad attention of society on values that relate to rational, evidence-based enquiry, truth and peace”. These are values that are the “building blocks” of prosperity and democracy. Obviously if a person wins a Nobel and he/she is from a university; that university will reap part of the glory and so does the laureate’s country.

The Nobel thus really celebrates culture and; in the case of the Science Nobels, more than science but essentially a scientific culture. And this is the whole theme of Doherty’s book. What really is a scientific culture? Why should we value science? Doherty’s answer is simple. Science makes the world a better place to live in. And that is even with global warming looming on the horizon. Yes other people may say that science caused all this trouble. I say otherwise but rather the use of technology and human nature.

The big honchos at the university endlessly pontificate on how science makes good economic sense, generate jobs and solve much of society’s ills. It is quite easy to pontificate but is it easy to make things happen? This is the other major point in Doherty’s book. Investments in scientific infrastructure and grants are fine if this would create a scientific culture. And as Doherty takes great strides to point out, a scientific culture stems from a scientific worldview and that almost always starts in a primary school classroom.

Almost all Nobel laureates in science recall a good science teacher that started them on their way. And for these eminent scientists this was their first or second grade science teacher. And the school matters not. Some of the laureates attended under-resourced state schools, a few attended the well funded English type “public schools” and some attended Catholic school. None of the Nobel laureates ever attended a “science high school”. And for university, while attending an Ivy League one may help, it is not necessary.

But aside from having a good science teacher, what else did the Nobel winners have? All of them have that intense curiosity that fosters excitement. And this is exactly what the primary school science teacher sparked in the child’s mind.

And so begins a lifelong adventure. But a good education is definitely required. But Doherty lists the following that could put you on the path of winning the Nobel.

  1. Try to solve major problems and make really great discoveries

  2. Be realistic and play to your strengths

  3. Acquire basic skills and work with the right people

  4. Work in an appropriate field

  5. Learn to write clearly and concisely

  6. Find and cultivate your true passion

  7. Focus and don’t be a dilettante

  8. Be selective about where you work

  9. Value evidence and try to see what’s at the end of your nose

  10. Think outside the box

  11. Talk about the problem

  12. Tell the truth

  13. Be generous and culturally aware

  14. Be persistent and tenacious but be prepared to fail

  15. Time is precious

  16. Avoid prestigious administrative roles

  17. Take care of yourself and live a long time

  18. Have fun and be a winner

While these are not guaranteed to give you the Nobel, at least all can be number 18 regardless but only if make sure that we understand what this list sums up. The list can be summed up in two words: hard work. A scientific culture values hard work above all as there are no shortcuts in science. And hard work develops an attitude of objectivity that allows one to focus, think outside the box, tell the truth, be persistent, value time, be realistic and of course, have fun.

The Philippines prides itself to have a huge number of colleges and universities and a culture that values a college diploma. How come if we are so academically inclined, we haven’t produced any Nobel laureate in any of the categories earlier mentioned? I think the answer is simple. Many of us don’t really value hard work. If we can get away with it quite easily we will. Hard work is rarely compensated for and those who don’t work hard, get compensated more. Certainly such cannot foster a scientific culture that the Nobel celebrates.

Even our universities that are relatively well funded foster a culture that does not reward curiosity but rather, high grades. Academic performance may be a plus but learning from failures is better way to gather new scientific insights. After all there are many failed experiments but a clear eyed scientist will be able to discover a better way a solving a problem. Truth is a cardinal virtue in science. A society that is willing to fudge election results, accounting books, transcripts of records etc is hardly the one that values hard work and honesty. And many times in order to find out about what is likely true, one has to think out of the box. Science is essentially a communication activity. The scientist has to write well, and to publish his/her results in order for the scientific community and the public to know.

The honchos at the university may be forgiven for consistently saying that science can make the difference between our country’s progress or regress. After all how could the politicians take notice? And in some way this has worked. There is increased funding for the sciences but that still is not enough. However that is only the icing on the cake. What we have to teach students is the basic truth: No hard work, no success, no Nobel Prize. And of course we should not forget the primary and high school science teacher who has essentially put the most of hard work.

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