Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Advice to a Young Scientist by P.B. Medawar

   My vast book collection is swollen largely due to the fact that when I read or hear a reference to a certain author or book on the radio or in the newspaper (I’m a devoted Wall Street Journal reader.  Their book reviews have cost me a lot of money.) I race to my trusty computer and set the search engine hounds on the scent of a particular author and, as often as not, end up buying the book.  (Of course it’s always a major score when the book is in the public domain and I can get it for free on Kindle.)

That is how I came to discover a delightful author by the name of P.B. Medawar.  Peter Brian Medawar was a scientist (he died in 1987) who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960 for his work on graft rejection and acquired immune tolerance which fundamentally contributed to organ and tissue transplants. 

 He is also a really funny writer. (Richard Dawkins calls him “the wittiest of all science writers”- which proves that you can agree on some things with anybody.)   

This is why a non science person like myself came to buy and very much enjoy a book geared towards scientists.

Even though his target audience is young, green behind the ears, science students at the colleges where he taught, his points are written in a format that even the most ignorant lay men (that would be me) can understand and laugh at.

He gives all sorts of advice from “How can I tell if I am cut out to be a scientific research worker” to what to research on; how to equip oneself to be a better scientist; sexism and racism in science; the difference between younger and older scientists, and how to make a presentation without boring the audience into a coma.

(He advises practicing on children, whose attention spans he compares to mice. If they’re fidgeting and crawling all over each other, you’ve lost them.  If they’re still and attentive, your presentation will pass muster with an adult audience as well.)

And he gives advice to the scientists who make up the audience of those lectures.

Scientists should behave in lectures as they would like others to behave in theirs.  It is an inductive law of nature that lecturers always see yawns and a fortiori those hugely cavernous yawns that presage the almost complete extinction of the psyche.

A member of the audience thought to be an expert on the topic of the speaker's discourse is well advised to think of a question to ask in case the chairman turns to him and says, “Dr._, we have just a few moments for discussion, so why don’t you set the ball rolling?”

The person to whom this invitation is addressed cannot very well say, “I’m afraid I can’t-I was fast asleep,” but if he merely says, “What do you envisage as the next step in your research?” the audience will take it for granted that he was. (pg. 62)

Medawar gently guides these young men and women away from the temptation to cultivate an arrogant attitude-especially against older scientists.

He admonishes them to be careful not to assume that because they are experts in their field that they are experts on anything else.  He warns them that non scientists believe one of two things about scientists.  

  “his judgment on any topic whatsoever is either (a) specially valuable or (b) virtually worthless...An attempt should nevertheless be made not to acerbate either condition of mind. 
 ‘Just because I am a scientist doesn’t mean I’m anything of an expert on...’ is a formula for all seasons; the sentence may be completed in almost as many different ways as there are different topics of conversation.  Proportional representation, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the fitness of women for holy orders, or the administrative problems of the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire...but when the subject is carbon dating or the likelihood of there being constructed a machine of perpetual motion, a scientist may allow himself the benefit of a few extra decibels to give his voice something of a cutting edge.”(pg 28)

I found his views on religion and God especially interesting. Not religious himself, he nevertheless contends that science is not qualified to make any assertive statement towards either.

There is no quicker way for a scientist to bring discredit upon himself and on his profession than roundly to declare...that science knows or soon will know the answers to all questions worth asking, and that the questions that do not admit a scientific answer are in some way "non questions" or “pseudo questions” that only simpletons ask and only the gullible profess to be able to answer...

....Philosophically sophisticated people know that a ‘scientific’ attack upon religious belief is usually no less faulty than a defense of it. Scientists do not speak on religion from a privileged position.. (pg. 31)

...Young scientists must however never be tempted into mistaking the necessity of reason for the sufficiency of reason.  Rationalism falls short of answering the many simple and childlike questions people like to ask:  questions about origins and purposes such as are often contemptuously dismissed as "non questions" or "pseudo questions", although people understand them clearly enough and long to have the answers.  These are intellectual pains that rationalist-like bad physicians confronted by ailments they cannot diagnose or cure- are apt to dismiss as “imagination.”  It is not to rationalism that we look for answers to these simple questions because rationalism chides the endeavor to look at all. (pg. 101)

An astute observation that I wish Richard Dawkins would wrap his mind around.  It angers me that his books take up whole shelves of the science section in my local bookstore when his writings are philosophical NOT scientific.  Science can only give us the sum of the parts, not the gestalt.  It strives to explain “how”, not “why”.

And yet it’s those “simple questions” that imbue our life with meaning.  Non sentient beings don’t ask those questions.  Or turn to drugs, alcohol, or stay busy all the time in order to avoid them.

This book is short, a mere 100 small pages, but I’d recommend it to anybody science-minded or otherwise.

I bought this book.

Other sources:


  1. Great commentary Sharon.

    I too like the fact that Medawar seems so very willing to listen to other viewpoints with respect.

    Having read several of Dawkins's books and hearing his interviews, though I mostly agree with his views on how the universe is made up, I cannot condone his dismissive and nasty attitude toward those who disagree with him. When folks who have views contrary to mine act as Dawkins does it infuriates me, thus I feel I must point out that his speech is too often snide and childish. This is a shame because I believe he would otherwise have very valuable things to say.

  2. Hi Brian. Sorry to take so long getting back to you.

    I think Dawkins' inflammatory language stems more from marketing tactics. It's how he keeps himself in the public eye.

    My beef with Dawkins is acting as though he can empirically prove his position when it is not a scientific one.

    What can be empirically proven is the existence of evil. For Dawkins to dismiss war, rape, murder, slavery et al.. as humans merely dancing to their DNA cannot be mathematically demonstrated or repeated in any laboratory.

    It's a faith based on his particular philosophy.

    Thanks for commenting on my post. I hope you get a chance to read Medawar. You'd enjoy him. He has another book called "The Strange Case of the Spotted Mice" that I'm looking forward to reading.

  3. This sounds great! Pinning it for a possible future purchase.

    1. Hi Carol. You'll enjoy this book. You should find a cheap out of print copy on Amazon or ebay.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.