Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Alternatives to struggling to do significant research

In a previous post The importance of being stupid! I highlighted the point that doing significant research is really hard.

Doing significant research should not be confused with publishing papers, getting grants, setting up a lab, getting tenure, getting cited, getting promoted, getting invited to speak at conferences.... All these activities are actually a lot easier. Because making real contributions over an extended period is so hard it is easier to get distracted or consumed with the "busy" activities listed above. There are also even worse options...

I was reminded of this recently when I read the novel The Masters, by C.P. Snow.
I was stimulated to read it by a lecture on C.S. Lewis and scientism, by Fritz Schaefer who recommends the novel for insights into the internal politics of Oxbridge colleges. The novel is part of a series, Strangers and Brothers, chronicling the life experience of Lewis Eliot as over course of several decades he moves from law office to university to industry to government. Some of the series parallels Snow’s own diverse life experience: he began his professional life as a molecular physicist, turned to writing novels, and eventually became a Baron and held high positions in the U.K. government. He is best known for his Rede lectures: The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, which were delivered exactly 50 years ago this month.

The novel, the Masters, describes the political struggle amongst Fellows in a Cambridge College as they position, posture, and politic in anticipation of the election of the next Master of the college, while they wait for the current Master to die, after being diagnosed with a terminal illness. Snow is perceptive about human nature and paints an intimate portrait of his characters. Here is a random selection (page numbers are from the Penguin 1983 edition):
“I had known for minutes past, that this was coming: I had not wanted to talk of it that night. Jago was longing for me to say that he ought to be the next Master, that my own mind was made up, that I should vote from him. He had longed for me to say it without prompting. It was anguish to him to make the faintest hint without repsonse. Yet he was impelled to go on, he could not stop. It harassed me to see this proud man humiliating himself.” (p. 15)
The Master says, “Do you remember the trouble we had getting him [Calvert] elected [as a Fellow of the College], Eliot? Some of our friends show a singular instinct for preferring mediocrity. Like elects like of course. Or between me and you,” he whispered, “dull men elect dull men.” (p. 20)
Nightingale “was intensely suspicious, certain that there was a web of plans from which he would lose and others gain….. He had once possessed great promise. That was his bitterness. … By twenty-three he had written two good papers on molecular structure… but the spark burnt out… Often he had new conceptions: but the power to execute them had escaped from him. ……It would have been bitter to the most generous heart. In Nightingale’s it made him fester with envy…. Each job in the college for which he was passed over, he saw with intense suspiscion as a sign of the conspiracy directed against him…… as March came round each year, he waited for the announcement of the Royal Society elections in expectation, in anguish, in bitter suspicousness…” (p.46,47)
“Chrystal wanted to be no more than Dean, but he wanted the Dean, in this little empire of the college, to be known as a man of power. Less subltle, less reflective, more immediate than his friend [Brown], he needed the moment-by-moment sensation of power. He needed to feel that he was listened to, ……, that his word was obeyed.” (p.61)

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