Tuesday, 20 September 2011

What makes a good scientist? by Tom McLeish

It seems that the "Celebrating Science" team want to explore the "what makes a good...." theme in the context of science, writing, art and more. Perhaps distilling quality in this way is a good route to teasing out what are the commonalities and differences between art and science. So let's have a go...

Although I am myself a theoretician, I can't resist setting down what for me has to be the cornerstone of all good science: observation. Real, deep, questing, searching looking at and into things. I'm amazed at how little it is possible actually to see of the world around us when most of what we think we see amounts to the projections of our own assumptions. But I am equally delighted by how much we can see if we do direct our gaze and look. Perhaps my teenage years peering for hours at a time at Jupiter or Mars through my home-built telescope, waiting for the moment when the turbulent atmosphere would momentarily clear to reveal a dazzling treasure of detail, began to teach me the patience of the observer. Much later, a Nobel-prizewinning scientist made a great impression on me during a lecture when he stopped, put down his notes, and turned to the students in the lecture hall. "I have to plead with you something", he began. "People are loosing the ability to see - they don't look down their microscopes any more ... you should all, please, spend hours just looking down your microscopes! Then you will learn to see things. Then you will be able to discover".

Perhaps this sort of contemplative "seeing without presumption" is as important for the theoretician as for the experimentalist after all. A good scientist needs to take the blinkers off, not to be afraid of initially crazy-sounding ideas, and certainly should not be too hasty in judging an idea until it is developed. Paul Dirac's tenacious belief that there was meaning to the negative-energy solutions of his equation for the electron, in the face of almost universal dismissal, has always impressed me. His intuition was of course the first glimpse of anti-matter.

The scientists who most impress me are often to be found where you would not expect them; in the "wrong" seminars, visiting people who work in different fields, or outside science altogether, reading papers about things they have never worked on. Reading poetry for that matter. They seem to know that new ideas often emerge at the boundaries, or even in the collision of different projects. I think that this sort of activity somehow gives our minds those little knocks that can make unorthodox connections between unsolved problems and distant solutions. It also helps broaden the imagination and scope of a scientific mind. Doing science is an exercise in vertigo: one can only make progress by diving right down into the fine details of a problem or phenomenon, but it is just as important to pull up and climb to an intellectual height where the context of your problem comes into view.

Observing, a predilection for the quirky, a dual passion for detail and big pictures, ... if this all sounds a bit playful then I think that's right. For the next thing I want to say is that a good scientist has not lost the delight of play. Or perhaps the best scientists are the three-year olds in the sandpit! Great ideas do not arise from the pressured, tight moments of the schedules typical of the days we orchestrate for ourselves. Newton famously answered an enquiry on how he arrived at his theory of gravity, "By thinking about it constantly". Those who have been playing this game for a while know the strange interplay of the conscious and unconscious mind in the creative scientific imagination. The momentum of thought built up by conscious wrestling with a problem can be gloriously released days or weeks later by a mysterious process of background thinking. This can even happen simultaneously - I recall the moment when a colleague and I just looked at each other and knew that the other had just realised the answer to the strange experimental results....

So what makes a good writer then?


  1. Thanks for this, Tom. I am absolutely staggered at the similarities between the job descriptions for Writer and Scientist! I will blog about this shortly.

  2. An author and vlogger once said that the parallel processor known as the human brain is not just wired for maths or for literature but both and more.
    Thank you for this, there's a lot of meaty things to think on.

  3. hi these information is very hard to understand