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How do I win the Nobel prize?

 

A translation by Daniël P. Melters from the Dutch popular science website Noorderlicht.

Tips from the laureates themselves.

By Bouwe van Straten

Bring your neurosis to battle. Expect the unexpected. Exploit the people around you. Don’t look for answers, but try to understand the question. And what about your dissertation? Totally unimportant.

“I have spoken to quite some students these past few days. They often asked some very dumb questions,” says Ferid Murad midway through his speech. Most of those students are sitting in the lecture hall. About 500 of the most promising students and young investigators in medicine from all over the world came together in the German town of Lindau. The focus of this meeting was meeting 23 Nobel laureates.

Although, these students probably did not expect to hear such harsh words by laureate Murad. Or was it that harsh? “When I was young, I too asked many dumb questions”, he continues, “if I had not done that, I would probably not have won the Nobel prize.” Ah, it was a message: don’t be afraid to appear to be stupid. If you really want to investigate something, you have to ask many many questions, and it is inevitable that some of those questions are dumb questions. No problem, just keep going.

Most of the laureates had similar messages. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes: “For as long your batting average (BA) is not zero, there is nothing to worry about”, according to Roger Y. Tsien. And don’t worry about being rejected. Maybe the respective professor is not interested in the things you are interested in. Do not let yourself be discouraged: “Only do things you are interested in. Don’t be bothered by what other people find interesting, unless it is of course what you find interesting”, advises Harry Kroto.

But do not make your life too easy, he continues: “If I could do something on just 70% of my capacities, I would not do it. In those cases, I would continue searching for something that required my full 100% input to be able to succeed.” He adds, that it is important to develop yourself as much as possible in as many aspects as possible. Be as creative as you possible can be. Besides his work as an MD, he also enjoys being an actor, graphic designer and painter.

A famous hurdle for students is their dissertation. First of all, you have to find a subject, which can cause serious headaches. Totally unnecesarry, according to Oliver Smithies (article about his work in Dutch): “The start of my dissertation project was already wrong, based on a myth. No one has ever read my dissertation work. Doesn’t matter, because the process of learning how to do science is more important. You learn to investigate, experiment, question, and be critical. That is what is important.”

Great advise for starting researchers, but after a while it does become important to find the right subject to study. “Aim for important questions, big problems”, advises Roger Tsien. “But also have a connection with it. This will make it that much pleasurable to work on it. Or at least suit your neurosis.”

Ook belangrijk: probeer altijd scherp van geest te zijn. Verwacht het onverwachte. Meerdere laureaten citeren Pasteur: ‘Chance favours the prepared mind’. De Amerikaanse wetenschapsjournalist Steven Johnson kwam onlangs met een variant op dat citaat: ‘Chance favours the connected mind‘. Meerdere laureaten lijken het daar mee eens te zijn. Tsien wijst er bijvoorbeeld op dat je niet alles in je eentje kunt. ‘Vindt de juiste mensen om mee samen te werken. En exploiteer ze genadeloos.’ Pardon? ‘Maar op een goede manier, zodat jullie er allemaal van profiteren’. Tsien bedoelt dus eigenlijk: probeer elkaar te helpen het maximale uit jezelf te halen.

Also important: try to have a sharp mind. Expect the unexpected. Many laureates cite Louis Pasteur: “(in the field of observations, red.) [c]hance favors the prepared mind“. The US journalist Steve Johnson recently came with a variant of this citation: “Chance favors the connected mind” (article in Dutch). Many laureates appear to agree. Tsien point out that you can’t do everything alone. “Find the right people to work with. En exploit them mercilessly.” I beg your pardon? “But exploit them the right way, so both of you are profiting from it.” Tsien really means: try to help each other by getting the most out of yourself.

Also the approach of the problem is important. “I am not very good at finding answers, I try to understand the question”, says Harry Kroto. Ask yourself what you do you want to know, he appears to say, although it is a bit cryptic, suspect of various explanations.

And for those people who would really commit a murder to get the Nobel prize: don’t think about that prize. “Never do something because you can win a prize with it,” says Harry Kroto, “in reality, it never occurred to me to do anything for a prize.” But Kroto can talk with the comfort of having from the Nobel prize.

Link to original article (in Dutch).

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