I am hopelessly and helplessly condemned by my own lust for literature that I recklessly and depravedly buy books with remorseless abandon. My day job is the ever more practical occupation of freelance musician. I'm not rich. Which makes my licentious book purchasing all the more irresponsible.
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 chairmanturns 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
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
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..
...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.