Saturday, March 20, 2010

Book Notes Investigative Pathways

In my effort to understand what motivates and differentiates successful scientists, I've been trying to read up on of the history of science. Investigative Pathways by Frederic L Holmes tries to draw general conclusions from looking at the day-to-day activities of six scientists, focusing especially on Antoine Lavoisier's work on oxygen and Hans Adolf Krebs's work on the citric acid cycle. Much of it is written in academic and somewhat stilted prose, and he does not shy from describing minute detail of the scientist's work, but he does end up drawing some strong generalizable insights. Below are what I consider the best quotes from his book:

"Krebs learned from Warburg [his mentor] the precept that one should not be afraid to "attack the great unsolved problems of his time," and to find the solution by doing many experiments without hesitating over whether one experiment was worth doing."

It has not been shown statistically that the "most effective way to win a Nobel prize is to be trained by a Nobel prize winner."

"Above all, what [teachers of special distinction] teach is a high standard of research. We measure everything, including ourselves, by comparison: and in the absence of somebody with outstanding ability, there is a risk that we easily come to believe that we are excellent and much better than the next man. Mediocre people may appear big to themselves (and to others) if they are surrounded by small circumstances. By the same token, big people feel dwarfed in the company of giants, and this is a most useful feeling."

"The very high degree of specialization within science that can, on the one hand, demand prolonged periods of training to master its deeper conceptual structures and complex investigative methods, may also open niches in which the young investigator can more rapidly reach the forefront." (as opposed to artists)

"Are the forms of insider access, some of which each of our subjects enjoyed, so essential to a successful investigative career in science that it is next to impossible to achieve distinction without at least some of them? The few well known examples of outsiders who have done so counter that conclusion, but their rarity suggests that the hurdles which one must cross to do so are very high."

"After retirement, Krebs himself maintained the same disciplined schedule, appearing promptly in his lab at 8:30 AM, five and a half days per week, that he had carried on throughout his scientific career. He was still actively involved in the activities of his lab until a few weeks before his death, at the age of eighty-one, in October 1981."

Motivations for Krebs: 1) Curiosity, 2) "His ambition to justify his choice to become a scientist in the face of the doubts of his father, his mentor, and himself about his ability to "make a success in this field," and 3) justification vis-a-vis those who support me by putting financial resources and facilities at my disposal."

"Enterprises rarely come singly. The creative person often differentiates a number of main lines of activity. This has the advantage that when one enterprise grinds to a halt, productive work does not cease. The person has an agenda, some measure of control over the rhythm and sequence with which different enterprises are activated."

"Because the various enterprises may entail different levels of difficulty or risk, the person may choose at different times to work on a particular one that fits his mood and needs at that point. Finally, the network of enterprise helps the creative person to define his or her own uniqueness." (some of these ideas are from Howard Gruber, I should note)

"In the investigation that led immediately to the discovery of the citric acid cycle, the most significant unforeseen event was the appearance of the paper by Carl Martius and Franz Knoop that gave Krebs the critical clue concerning the likely pathway of decomposition of that metabolite... It is most probable that he came across Martius and Knoop's paper, at the earliest possible moment of its appearance in the Sheffield library, because he was in the habit of using his spare time to scan through the latest issues of biochemical journals."

"To remain productive an experimental system must be sufficiently open to generate unprecedented events by incorporating new techniques and devices, but sufficiently closed to maintain its reproductive coherence. 'It has to be kept at the borderline of its breakdown'." (says Rheinberger)

"Investigators operate within highly ordered frameworks shaped by all the past work in their domains, and events can be recognized as unpredicted only by their deviation from that which the preexisting order does predict. The unpredicted events which the pursuit of investigative pathways so regularly leads researchers create temporary pockets of disorder, and successful responses to these events most often involve adjusting the previous order at its edges sufficiently to fit the seemingly disorderly result into its texture."

"[Thomas] Kuhn's dichotomy represents, I believe, two ends of a broad spectrum, between which the research of leading investigators often has an intermediate character. Not only the means by which a puzzle is solved, but the nature of the solution is often more surprising and more original than his characterization of such work as "mopping up exercises" would imply."

"Daily thought ordinarily cycles repetitively back on itself, with slight variations on previous thoughts, and only widely spaced modifications representing some degree of novelty. Stable changes in ideas, according to Gruber, evolve at a moderate rate. 'The movement of ideas is far slower than the swift but transitory currents of the continuous stream of thought which serves as the 'carrier wave' of creative work.'"

"In the case of experimental scientists, the rate-limiting factor in their mental progress may be set not by the speed with which such thoughts can course through their brains, but by the pace with which they can translate useful thoughts into laboratory operations."

Krebs "was a disciplined improviser, responding quickly to ideas that he came across often by chance, as well as to unexpected observations, flexible enough to change directions opportunely, consistent enough not to become lost in the welter of possibilities that he encountered."

"The great "moments of discovery" in science have appeared to be intimately associated with powerful, instantaneous experience of illumination that occur when the reorganization of ideas carried out by the unconscious suddenly wells up into the conscious awareness of exceptionally creative thinkers."

HOWEVER, "Grober, who has closely reexamined the nature of Eureka experiences--or, as he sometimes calls them, "Aha experiences"--has argued that such events are more frequent than is often imagined, that they are not instantaneous, but have a structure that develops over a measurable interval of time, that they are less likely to represent complete ruptures with the past than is usually imagined, and that they are linked to events that precede and follow them like the crests of an ongoing wave. From his experience in experimental psychology, he infers that it requires at least several seconds to conjure a familiar image or to recognize a fragmented one, and that to become aware of a train of related ideas of any complexity at all would probably take longer still. The time required is sufficient so that an individual beginning to have an insight is likely to be aware of where it may be headed before it fully emerges, and able to consciously to "steer" it in a preferred direction, or avoid a direction that feels unsafe."

"Memory ordinarily simplifies the past by conflating within the single, most powerful of a sequence of similar experiences, events that in fact had occurred repeatedly," making "aha" moments appear more forceful than they really are. "Ever simplifying, memory regularly suppresses those aspects of a complex progression of events that did not prove, in retrospect, essential to an outcome. Points along such progressions that are accompanied by strong emotions, such as the excitement one may feel when recognizing a new possibility, are apt to overshadow what came before and after under calmer circumstances."

"In every realm of our lives we confront complexity beyond our capacity fully to comprehend, and we are forced to find ways to simplify what we encounter."