November 6, 2014

To Be a Nobel Laureate, or Not to Be

by Heather Falconer

The Nobel Prize Committee recently announced their 2014 Awards, including  Eric BetzigStefan W. Hell and William E. Moerner in Chemistry,  Isamu AkasakiHiroshi Amano andShuji Nakamura in Physics, and John O’Keefe and the other half jointly to May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser  in Medicine. As the Laureates prepare to take the stage in the Award ceremony next month, we thought we’d take a moment to think about what it takes to earn a Nobel and whether there are habits of mind that Nobel Laureates consistently present that other capable researchers maybe don’t.

In March 1986, Dr. Richard W. Hamming gave an enlightening talk to a full house at the Bell Communications Research Colloquium addressing a question he had been grappling with for many years: “Why do so few scientists make significant contributions and so many are forgotten in the long run?”

Hamming, who had had the pleasure of working alongside multiple Nobel-winning researchers during his career (Fermi, Oppenheimer, and Bethe to name but a few), notes that there are specific habits of mind that Nobel Laureates possess that sets them up for groundbreaking work. While you can read the entire speech here, there are some salient points that are worth summarizing:

  1. Great work isn’t the result of “luck.” Sure, great ideas are sometimes stumbled upon, but as Pasteur noted, “Luck favors the prepared mind.” Hamming clarifies: “The prepared mind sooner or later finds something important and does it. So yes, it is luck. The particular thing you do is luck, but that you do something is not.”
  2. Independent thinking and “having brains” are not the same thing. Successful researchers are well-educated in the content of their field, to be certain, but more than that independent thinking and the courage to pursue ideas is more of a marker of success than “intelligence.” “Once you get your courage up and believe that you can do important problems, then you can. If you think you can’t, almost surely you are not going to.”
  3. Having drive will take you far: “Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity – it is very much like compound interest…. [S]olid work, steadily applied, gets you surprisingly far.”
  4. Become friends with ambiguity: “Most people like to believe something is or is not true. Great scientists tolerate ambiguity very well. They believe the theory enough to go ahead; they doubt it enough to notice the errors and faults so they can step forward and create the new replacement theory. If you believe too much you’ll never notice the flaws; if you doubt too much you won’t get started.” At the same time, commitment to resolving the problem is paramount. If you stay committed while being okay with the ambiguity, you’ll eventually find your answer.
  5. Spend time working with the important problems of your field: “Most great scientists know many important problems. They have something between 10 and 20 important problems for which they are looking for an attack. And when they see a new idea come up, one hears them say `Well that bears on this problem.’ They drop all the other things and get after it.” Never let opportunity pass you by.
  6. Learn the discourses of your field – even the ones you hate – and learn them well. This means learning not just how to write a research paper clearly, but a grant proposal, a speech… Practice your “elevator pitch” so that when someone asks you about your research you can tell them clearly and succinctly. In short, learn how to sell yourself.


Tell us in the comments: What do you think makes a researcher great?


Heather Falconer

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Heather Falconer holds undergraduate degrees in Graphic Arts and Environmental Science, as well as an MFA in Writing and an MLitt in Literature. She is currently completing her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, with an emphasis on rhetoric in/and/of science. Heather has worked internationally in academic publishing as both an author and editor, and has taught a wide range of topics – from research writing to marine biology – in the public and private educational sectors.