Humility and success in science are closely linked, Alaina G Levine discovers at the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.
Nerd Heaven, aka the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, provides an intellectual gymnasium for nerds of the world. The youngsters who attend can partake of 29 lectures by Nobel Laureates on topics as tantalising as the Joy of Discovery given by synthetic organic chemist Bernard Feringa, to the rousing Aromatic Ring Flips in Protein Dynamics presented by chemist/biophysicist Kurt Wuthrich, all of which contributes to a flipping good time.
The emerging scholars are able to attend because of a network of partners found in countries across the globe, which offer full travel grants to participate. It is a prestigious honour, as you can imagine, to be awarded a travel fellowship to go to Lindau, and the Nobels-to-be recognise this.
One shared characteristic I have noticed is that the young scientists are truly humbled by the measure and magnitude of the “Magellans of science” – the Nobel Laureates- who set out to explore the world and in doing so changed the course of history and humankind.
I have interviewed several Nobels and young scientists this week. My first question to one Laureate was about was about the concept of humility in science. (Not surprisingly, he himself is very modest and yet his contributions are great and diverse).
I am speaking of Dan Shechtman, or Danny as his friends call him. He very graciously sat with me for a 30 minute interview, which then stretched to an hour. I had the privilege of interviewing him when he presented at the 66th Nobel Laureate Meeting in Physics last year.
Danny is such a classy guy and extremely enthusiastic about science, communicating science, inspiring others to pursue science, and getting kids interested in science at a very young age.
In fact, he helped launch the first kindergarten in his native Israel that incorporates real science into the curriculum. He proudly showed me pictures of kids in lab coats surrounding a table where they took part in experiments relating to the senses, led by a science teacher. Yes, a real science teacher in a kindergarten! The images were adorable, but more importantly, they demonstrated the need to be kinder to science and have a greater appreciation for it earlier in their lives. Shechtman’s innovation is going to ensure this happens.
I wanted to know why scientists should be humble in their quest to comprehend nature, and how they can practically do this. In my own opinion, the concept of humility in science is a rather critical aspect of being successful in science and ensuring your scientific outputs make an impact. And yet, unless you have a certain type of adviser who emphasises a holistic approach to becoming an investigator, humility is simply not taught. Perhaps you may learn it later in life, or if you are truly lucky, you recognise its importance as your career begins to blossom, and thus you start early to incorporate it into your process for finding and solving key scientific problems.
I loved Danny’s answer:
“I said many years ago, a humble scientist is a good scientist. But not only scientists, any professional should be humble enough to appreciate the wisdom of other people, to communicate to other people, to listen to other people. You don’t have to take their advice. You don’t like it? That’s fine, but don’t think you know everything. This is a sure path for failure. So listen to people, and put your ego in the back seat.”
Amen, Danny. I love how he puts it.
And today as I was attending a science breakfast sponsored by Mars, Inc, which focused on the Chemistry of Food: Flavour and Beyond, my ears perked up as another Laureate had something to say that lends itself to our appreciation for having humility in science. Iseali biologist Aaron Ciechanover, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2004, noted:
“Nature is indifferent to us. We cannot bend it. It is the ultimate truth.”
Indeed. So to the Nobel-inclined lasses and lads at Lindau and across the planet, who endeavour to give back to their communities through the gift of science, I (and others) say: Be humble. Know you are part of the universe you study. Know you don’t know everything and never will. Know that others have wisdom to impart and can serve as your guides, and going forward you can pay for by doing the same thing for those you mentor now and in the future.
And when you honour your environment as you endeavour to learn from and discover it, you serve humankind and the scientific community in the most effective and innovative ways.
Alaina G. Levine is a science writer, science careers consultant, professional speaker and corporate comedian. She is the author of Networking for Nerds (Wiley, 2015), which was named a top 5 Book of 2015 by Physics Today. Contact her via her website or follow on twitter.
The author expresses appreciation to the organizers of the Lindau Nobel Laureates Meetings for a partial travel fellowship to attend.