Monday, June 8, 2009

Stress and Good Science

In the Q&A following Richard Hamming's 1986 speech at Bell Labs, he reveals that, in his opinion, stress is a pre-requisite for good science:
Question: What about personal stress? Does that seem to make a difference?

Answer: Yes, it does. If you don't get emotionally involved, it doesn't. I had incipient ulcers most of the years that I was at Bell Labs. I have since gone off to the Naval Postgraduate School and laid back somewhat, and now my health is much better. But if you want to be a great scientist you're going to have to put up with stress. You can lead a nice life; you can be a nice guy or you can be a great scientist. But nice guys end last, is what Leo Durocher said. If you want to lead a nice happy life with a lot of recreation and everything else, you'll lead a nice life.
Since he's drawing off of personal experiences, it's hard to tell how generalizable this is, but it's a scary possibility. At the very least it is plausible, because much of the process of experimentation and peer review is out of one's control, especially if you want to do ground-breaking research. For example, I've read (from here) that the consensus among referees is so bad that their recommendations of whether or not to accept a paper only agree 20% of the time. Ouch.