Friday, May 20, 2011

What should motivate us?

I just received by snail mail the December 2010 issue of Physics Today.  The whole issue is devoted to Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, marking the centenary of his birth. There is a fascinating and challenging article Some memories of Chandra by Robert Wald and four other scientists, including Roger Penrose. Wald states:
Of all the scientists I have met, Chandra had the highest standards for both intellectual rigor and personal integrity. He applied those standards most uncompromisingly to himself, but he also did not tolerate failings by others in such matters. He was particularly intolerant of scientists motivated primarily by the hope of receiving recognition from others rather than by a deep, inner conviction that their work was of importance and interest, whatever anyone else might think. He was equally intolerant of scientists who rested on their laurels or were otherwise lazy or sloppy, rather than applying their full intellectual efforts toward their work.


  1. yeah, that's lovely, but what if
    1) we dont think the work required of us by our advisors/funding agency is that important.
    2) we dont have ideas we truly believe are important anyway.

    it's sort of a myth that you are a free intellectual able to pursue whatever interest your heart desires. starting from undergrad we're steered by a combination of random exposure and which REU/ugrad-research opportunities are around. then you do quals/grad courses and it's a matter of who is/isnt taking on students. how many wanna-be string theorists never become them because they're locked out either by politics or skill?

    so i'd love to do whatever my inner conviction bids me to do, but my funding agency wants me working on XYZ, and wants results steadily.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts.
    These are good points and I have empathy with your frustration. Perhaps the title of my post should have been "What should motivate "well established" scientists such as myself?". This is clearly what Chandra modelled so well.

    I fully agree that for junior people options can be very limited and I do find it disturbing to see some working on projects which (at least to me) are of a dubious nature driven by fashion, politics, personality, or the tyranny of the urgent.
    Hence, this is why it is important to carefully choose advisors and mentors.

    But, another myth is that full professors at research universities have no choice but to follow fashion and no choice but to shamelessly promote themselves in order to survive. There is a choice. But, it may lead to less funding and less prominence.

  3. let me ask a follow up question

    so how does one go about getting a mentor instead of a boss?

    without complaining too much about it, as a grad student i was left alone by my advisor, asked to work on stuff, and i'd bring it back (often wrong). i graduated and now find myself in another weakly-interacting setting where i am not learning from them, only doing for them.

    there was never any discussion not involving a formula or figure. no teaching, no apprenticeship etc. i learned to be independent, but i have no sense of how to seek out my own research questions because i was an employee asked to grind out results instead of someone to also sit and have discussions with.

    ive seen people who sit and do things with their advisors, it just didnt happen to me.