The Quantum Pontiff

Against the Stereotype

After reading the comments on my post Leaving Academia: Cry or Celebrate?, I started thinking about the successful scientists I know, and it occurred to me that the following conjecture is at least anecdotally true:

Scientists who have passionate outside interests are more successful in science than those who do not.

Okay, hows that for a broad against the grain statement which might stimulate comments on this blog? Anyone?


  1. #1 mick
    July 8, 2008

    I reckon that’s on the way to being true. I reckon a majority of the most successful scientists I knw have pretty broad interests.

    Except you of course Dave.

    You are clearly lord of the geekazoids :-).

  2. #2 JohnQPublic
    July 8, 2008

    Well, looking at the cream of the crop (at least from the public’s perspective):

    Richard Feynman
    Max Planck
    Leonard Susskind
    Stephen Hawking
    Lord Rayleigh
    Werner Heisenberg
    Niels Bohr
    Erwin Schrodinger
    Ernest Rutherford
    Paul Dirac
    Edwin Hubble
    John von Neumann
    Edward Teller

    I don’t know. I never really thought of them as the skateboarding, surfing-in-the-summer, skiing-in-the-winter, tennis-playing, wine-making, skydiving kind of crowd.

    Actually, the theoretical physicists I worked with at Bellcore and Brookhaven National Lab (the really reputable ones) seemed to have no outside life whatsoever. I know some thought they did because they’d play tennis at lunch or something, but compared to others, absolutely not.

  3. #3 Robin Blume-Kohout
    July 8, 2008

    Hmm. I’d love to believe that… and I can think of some great examples from personal experience. The problem is, *most* of the liberal arts college professors that I know have passionate outside interests. They’ve got enough time to indulge a hobby or two. Research scientists, on the other hand… I’d say at least 50% don’t devote enough time to their outside interests to count as “passionate”. Not that they don’t care, but they don’t have the time to devote to it (e.g., I am passionate about mountains, but am not actively involved in climbing them these days).

    So, to put it crudely, I conjecture that the top 1% of scientists have a high rate of “passionate outside interests” (because they’re so darn good that they can be successful at science while still devoting 20 hours a week to soccer, photography, or extreme ironing), but then the next 49% are all working so hard to keep up with the Jones Polynomial that they don’t have time for, say, ferret legging. And then there’s the bottom 50%, most of whom aren’t trying to be “successful” in the sense that I think you mean, and who therefore have time to be (e.g.) world-ranked in chess boxing

  4. #4 Eric Lund
    July 8, 2008

    I never really thought of them as the skateboarding, surfing-in-the-summer, skiing-in-the-winter, tennis-playing, wine-making, skydiving kind of crowd.

    Taking a few examples from your list (admittedly, these are the ones where I know anything about their lives outside science without looking them up):

    Feynman was an amateur percussionist and an artist who had a one-man show. Plus he learned enough about Maya culture that he could spot a fake codex. Not to mention his reputation as a safecracker, or his late-life desire to visit Tuva (unfortunately, the visa arrived days after he died).

    Einstein was a world-class violinist.

    Schroedinger was a notorious philanderer.

    Hawking has been suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease for decades now, so I’ll give him a pass–just staying alive has taken a major effort on his part.

    As for the scientists I know, I can’t say there is a correlation (either way) between having an outside interest and success. Some of the successful scientists I know are monomaniacs. I also know successful scientists who are surfers, private pilots, musicians, computer game authors, or avid sailors, and that’s without thinking too hard about who I know.

  5. #5 Joe Fitzsimons
    July 8, 2008

    Does punting count?

  6. #6 Matt Elliott
    July 8, 2008

    Just because successful scientists have passionate outside interests does not mean there is a correlation. I know several people who were forced to leave science who had quite passionate outside interests.

  7. #7 Dave Bacon
    July 8, 2008

    Um. A=successful scientists. B=active outside interest.

    (1) I don’t know if here is a correlation between A and B, and certainly correlation does not imply causation.
    (2) You seem to be say if A implies B, then B implies A. But I only said A implies B, not B implies A. Only one “f” in my “if”

  8. #8 Cherish
    July 9, 2008

    Schroedinger was a notorious philanderer.

    But are you sure he spent enough time philandering to consider it a hobby? 🙂

    (Sorry…I was rather amused that this fell into the category of “outside interests”. It’s not something you’d normally see on a person’s bio.)

    Hawking has been suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease for decades now, so I’ll give him a pass–just staying alive has taken a major effort on his part.

    I once walked past him and was so excited that I nearly turned around and asked for an autograph. I think that makes me a certifiable idiot. 🙂

    In regard to the main question, I don’t think I’ve seen a relationship. There are those lucky few who just happen to have the incredible brilliance to be successful without that much effort (and who can seem to afford to take time for other things). There are those who spend nights, days, and weekends in the lab and manage to get through (and some who genuinely love doing it). Then there are people who both spend all their time in the lab, or not, and end up leaving anyway. Some of it is effort, but some of it is a crap shoot and being lucky enough to find the right topic or results at the right time to win at the publication game. Some people try to maximize their chances of winning the game by spending all their time in the lab while others are lucky enough to not need to.

  9. #9 JohnQPublic
    July 9, 2008

    My guess is there would be a statistical correlation between risk taking and success in career. Those willing to simply try more things (not necessarily taking life endangering risks, but willing to spend time and money to pursue any interest) probably have a higher number of those who bubble up than you would see in other groups.

  10. #10 Jonathan Vos Post
    July 9, 2008

    “Scientists who have passionate outside interests” — her name is Christine. That’s professor Christine. Don’t let that black-leather lab coat fool you.

  11. #11 Matt Elliott
    July 9, 2008

    Passionate outside interests imply success in science.

    My post was simply that there are several counterexamples to this.

    Success in science implies passionate outside interests.

    I don’t know, but probably not true.

  12. #12 Matt Elliott
    July 9, 2008

    By the way, my understanding of your statement was “passionate outside interests imply success in science,” and this was what I was giving a counterexample to.

    Seems people were discussing the converse of this.

  13. #13 Jonathan Vos Post
    July 10, 2008

    Matt Elliott: “… people were discussing the converse…”

    Okay, we have 2 base sets of people:

    (A) Those who are successful in science;
    (B) Those who have passionate outside interests

    Now, we have 4 sets of people from union and intersetion and complement:

    (1) Those who are successful in science AND have passionate outside interests;

    (2) Those who are successful in science AND do NOT have passionate outside interests;

    (3) Those who are NOT successful in science AND have passionate outside interests;

    (4) Those who are NOT successful in science AND do NOT have passionate outside interests.

    Which set were we discussing, again?

    Complicating matters, these are fuzzy sets.

    Complicating matters, people change over time, for instance developing a passionate interest late in life, or dropping out of a former passion.

    Do we have something qualitative to say in this context, or statistically useful data?

    “No model is good, but some are useful.”

    Around Pasadena
    Article Launched: 07/09/2008 10:59:40 PM PDT

    Panel discussion held on exhibit

    PASADENA – A panel discussion about the exhibit “Jirayr Zorthian/Richard Feynman: A Conversation in Art” will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Armory Center for the Arts, 145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena. Panelists will include Michelle Feynman, Seyburn Zorthian and physicist and painter Richard Davies.

    The exhibit continues from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday through Aug. 31. Admission to the discussion and the gallery is free. Call (626) 792-5101, Ext. 122 or visit

  14. #14 Jonathan Vos Post
    July 10, 2008

    From The Armory website:

    145 North Raymond Avenue, near Old Pasadena
    Gallery Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, noon- 5 p.m. Free admission. Free group tours are available with reservations.
    Jirayr Zorthian / Richard Feynman: A Conversation In Art
    June 29 – August 31, 2008
    Opening reception, Saturday, June 28, 7-9 p.m.
    {image: Zorthian Exhibit}

    This exhibition will document one of the most famous artist and scientist collaborations in the history of Southern California, that between artist and public personality Jirayar H. Zorthian and Caltech and Nobel Laureate physicist Richard P. Feynman. Zorthian was a Yale University-trained artist who created respected paintings, murals, and drawings throughout his life. As a mural painter his reputation became well established, with forty two completed murals throughout the United States. His career also included forty-seven years of constructing and designing buildings and serving as an architecture and design consultant. Even though he spent many of his years living in Altadena on the edge of Los Angeles – one of the most vital centers for contemporary art in the world – his visual art was rarely shown. Zorthian’s most important artistic influences may have been on Feynman.


    Feynman was extremely open to exploring new areas of inquiry beyond his world-famous expertise in science. Zorthian agreed to teach Feynman to draw, and Feynman agreed to teach Zorthian physics. The scientific instruction did not continue long, but Zorthian’s influences on Feynman led to the physicist’s life-long involvement in art making. Much of Zorthian’s art had an emphasis on drawing the human figure, particularly the beautiful and frequently erotic female form. Feynman embraced the discipline and pleasures of figure drawing as well as the challenges of portraiture. This exhibition is made possible by a generous grant from the Pasadena Art Alliance. Jay Belloli, curator. On view in the Caldwell Gallery.

  15. #15 Peter Love
    July 12, 2008

    I think you need to answer this question separately for two epochs.

    Prior to, and after, all scientists spare time was consumed by reading and writing blogs.

    I realize epoch may have a narrow technical definition which I am abusing, but you’ll have to forgive me: I wrote this while doing tai chi on my surfboard.

  16. #16 CCPhysicist
    July 13, 2008

    It’s not something you’d normally see on a person’s bio.

    Which is why JohnQPublic doesn’t know about the various outside activities of the people in that list. However, for some it is MHO that their reasons for mountain climbing or hiking or skiing was to clear the mind so it could attack new problems. Then there was Rutherford’s view that a nice bike trip in the country air was just the thing to avoid the hazards of working with radioactivity (reported by one of his former postdocs).

    We should not overlook the fact that they also had the time and money to do things that required a lot of both. But I also think there is a lot to be said for the view above about risk taking, although some people take risks in daily life and not in physics, while for others it is vice versa.

  17. #17 QIPIntern
    July 17, 2008

    Can’t a passion for life translate into a passion for science? I believe such a passion is a personality trait the makes one prone to investigation of science and other activities.

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