Advice to a Young Investigator predates the Nobel Prize, quantum physics, and the post-war grant culture,so what can we learn from this old scholar?
Not everyone is destined to venture into the forest and by sheer determination carve out a serviceable road. However, even the most humble among us may take advantage of the path opened by genius and by travelling it extract one or another secret fromt the unknown.
The Age of the Gentleman Scientist
Even as a historical document, the book is well worth a read. We may grumble about the lot of the scientist today, but just be be glad that science no longer has four working languages: German, English, French and Italian; or that there is no longer any expectation that a scientist should fund his research out of his own pocket.
Make sure you’ve got your thesaurus and latin dictionary to hand when reading this though. The book was written at a time when science was still pulling away from classical philosophy, so there is plenty of poetic language, and the occaisional sprinkling of latin phrases.
For the most part, however, the book’s age and language adds a layer of charm to otherwise sound, timeless advice. One or two chapters do though really show the age of the book and don’t translate well at all the 21st century. The chapter advising the gentleman scientist how best to choose his wife springs to mind.
Flowerly language and latin phrases aside, we can still extract some useful and straight forward advice from the book’s pages. Indeed, many of the suggestions are not too far from what is advocated in the excellent and much more up to date A Phd is Not Enough.
1. Hard work trumps genius
Harm is caused unconsciously by the biographies of illustrious scholars when they attribute great scientific conquests to genius rather than to hard work and patience.
2. Avoid the ‘Diseases of The Will’
The dilettantes or contemplators; the erudite or bibliophiles; the instrument addicts; the megalomaniacs; the misfits; and theory builders
See below for more on the ‘diseases of the will’
3. Specialise, but keep abreast o f more general developments
It is too easy to run aground on the shoal of encyclopaedic learning..rotating inclinations…may create great writers, delightful conversationalists, and illustrious orators, but rarely scientific discoverers.
4. Begin work on small, manageable problems
We must not hesitate when beginning our work to follow up someone else’s discovery
5. Work in supportive, successful surroundings
In favourable surroundings, even the backwards type has a feeling of accomplishment
‘Diseases of the Will’
Whilst it is dressed up in rather victorian language, the chapter on ‘Diseases of the Will’ offers some of the best adviceof the book. The idea is that there are various failings in the scientist that the young investigator would be wise to avoid.
They love the study of nature, but only for its aesthetic qualities
They are as likeable for their juvenile enthusiasm and piquant and winning speech as they are ineffective in making any scientific progress.
Bibliophiles and polyglots
All of a bibliophile’s fondest hopes are concentrated on projecting an image of genius infused with culture
The bibliophile takes pleasure in reading the newest book or monograph [but forgets that] he who knows and acts is the one who counts
They want to start their careers with an extraordinary achievement [and] aspire to jump from foot soldier to general in their first battle
[They forgot to] tackle small problems first, so that if success smiles and strength increases one may then undertake the great feats of investiagation.
Dreamers do not work hard enough; they lack perseverance
They think of themselves as inspiring and zealous officials, when they are in fact simply good housekeepers
[They have] a selfish and disagreeable obsession with preventing others from working because they personally do not know how, or don’t want to work
Sustained, modest progress
I think for me the main message is on the importance of sustained, modest progress. To work hard and not be too pround to realise our limitations and work within our intellectual and material means.
Yes, 100 years ago is a very long time, but I think that is advice we can still learn from today.